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May 04, 2008

Stress-resistant, nitrogen efficient GM rice offers promise to African farmers

One of the criticisms levelled at agricultural biotechnology is that it is under the control of a few large multinational companies which are trying to dominate the food supply, and that their objective is to maximise profits above all else. Farmers in developing countries, the argument goes, will either forgo the benefits of new technology or (and this now seems to be the fashionable view) have high-priced seeds thrust upon them with no benefit to themselves.

Now, this is not an appropriate place to defend the capitalist system and free markets (although we are sorely tempted), but it's still appropriate to highlight a development which shows how things may in practice work rather better than the critics suggest.

To date, the main example of a GM crop being developed for the benefit of developing world farmers has been golden rice, developed initially by Ingo Potrykus and Peter Beyer in Zurich. This made use of approximately 30 patents, but royalty-free deals were negotiated to allow low-income farmers to grow the rice, which is high in beta-carotene (Vitamin A precursor).

Locally-adapted varieties are being bred at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines. The project has been criticised by environmentalist NGOs as an inappropriate use of technology which will add too little Vitamin A to the diet to make any difference (which is not actually true, because intakes much lower than the RDA can still be beneficial). Nevertheless, the fact remains that severe Vitamin A deficiency remains a problem in Asia, leading to avoidable childhood blindness and deaths and that no other solution has yet been implemented. When the rice becomes freely available, it will be easier to see whether or not it can make a real difference.

Golden rice addresses a particular dietary deficiency, but more recently food availability itself has become a high priority issue once more. For Africa, the continent where needs are perhaps most pressing, a new partnership has now been formed to leverage private company research for the public good. The California-based company Arcadia has licensed two key technologies to the not-for-profit African Agricultural Technology Foundation to make improved rice varieties available royalty-free to poor farmers in the region.

Although some parts of Africa are dependent on maize, cassava, sweet potatoes and even bananas for their staple food, rice consumption in West Africa is growing at a rate of 10% annually. Across the whole continent, the rate of increase is 6%, which has led to a current need to import 6.5 million tonnes each year. Since rice is such an important staple crop in Asia and a relatively small proportion of the total crop is traded internationally, the sudden surge in prices has led to some countries blocking exports and made sourcing supplies more difficult.

Against this backdrop, Arcadia is making available two important technologies which can raise yields and help to make local rice farmers more self-sufficient. African soils are notoriously low in nutrients and the low yields would benefit from use of fertilizers, but many farmers simply cannot afford sufficient of these. The availability of Nitrogen Use Efficiency (NUE) rice means that only half the level of fertilizer is needed to achieve high yields.

Another problem in many parts of Africa is insufficient or unreliable rainfall during the growing season. This is compounded by the scarcity of affordable fresh water supplies. In some areas, the ability to use salty water for irrigation would enable farmers to water their crops while taking pressure off water for domestic use. A combination of the two technologies will be used by AAFT to breed improved rice varieties which should be available from 2016.

This in itself will be no panacea to the severe problems faced by African farmers. But it's a start and seems to be part of a trend for the best available technology to be used for the benefit of the world's poorest people. The Gates Foundation is also funding projects designed to improve the nutritional properties of cassava and other staple crops. Doubtless some NGOs will find ways to criticise NUE rice and other improved crops, but it really is difficult to see how such humanitarian projects can be a bad thing.

Cambridge Network

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