Agricultural biotech against poverty and hunger

Too many people are hungry. Many of the hungry people are African. Biotechnology might help.

The International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA) tells us how biotech can help to feed people. ‘A successful strategy should have MULTIPLE APPROACHES that address principal factors in the food, feed, fibre and fuel availability MATRIX. These include: good governance, improved infrastructure, farmer education, improved seed quality and delivery systems, inputs, market access, fair trade and appropriate technologies that integrate proven indigenous knowledge practices with emerging technologies such as modern biotechnology.’

ISAAA goes on to say, ‘Overwhelming evidence demonstrates that biotechnological tools – tissue culture, genetic engineering and molecular breeding (marker-assisted selection) continue to provide promising opportunities for achieving greater food security while improving the quality of life. Biotechnology however is not a magical bullet. A high quality seed requires good agronomic practices, appropriate inputs and support services for the farmer to reap benefits. The comparative advantage of currently available biotech crops is the inbuilt defense against insects and tolerance to weed killers making them suitable for the average farmer. The technology is scale neutral and with proper stewardship, even the very small farmers benefit.’

You might scroll down that ISAAA page for a list of biotech crops in the pipeline for Africa. Those crops include maize or corn (Zea mays), potatoes (Solanum tuberosum), tomatoes (Solanum lycopersicum), sugar cane (Saccharum officinarum), soya (Glycine max), wheat (Triticum spp.), cotton (Gossypium herbaceum), cassava (Manihot esculenta), melons (Cucumis melo and, I think, also Citrullus lanatus), pearl millet (Pennisetum glaucum), sorghum (Sorghum bicolor) and sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas). For most of those crops, you can follow links on my blog here. For several of them I find the scientific (Latin) names confusing! Do tell me if I’ve got any of them wrong.

Anyway, many African farmers are already growing biotech crops. Some people think that biotech is part of the right way forward to feed people (see my ‘biotechnology’ tag). Just part of the right way forward, though. And biotech isn’t only the gene-splicing methods of genetic modification (GM, also called genetic engineering or GE). Biotech also includes marker-assisted selective breeding (MAB) which doesn’t involve splicing genes. And it includes tissue culture. In the article I’ve just linked to, Kuri Ajnabi gives detail about how tissue culture contributes to several crop improvement methods, both GM and selective.

As you know, I discuss GM quite often on this blog (‘genetic modification’ tag) and I keep an open mind. But there are other kinds of biotech too. We don’t have to argue a pro-GM, anti-GM stalemate. The most important opinions, I think, are from African people and from people who work in Africa.


About argylesock

I wrote a PhD about veterinary parasitology so that's the starting point for this blog. But I'm now branching out into other areas of biology and into popular science writing. I'll write here about science that happens in landscapes, particularly farmland, and about science involving interspecific interactions. Datasets and statistics get my attention. Exactly where this blog will lead? That's a journey that I'm on and I hope you'll come with me.
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3 Responses to Agricultural biotech against poverty and hunger

  1. Wildlife TV says:

    There often seems to be a knee-jerk reaction against any biotech (especially anything relating to genetic modification) involvement in agriculture but it does seem like the best way forward. As you say, there are a lot of hungry people out there, and we need to find a way to feed them and if biotech solutions can be safe and productive, then why not use them.

  2. Pingback: Scuba rice: biotech crop on a fast track towards release | Science on the Land

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