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February 21, 2011

Africa flirts with GM technology in rush for climate-ready crops

by Megan Rowling

The race is on to develop new crop varieties that will help farmers in poorer countries keep up yields under pressure from the impacts of climate change.

A study by researchers at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) warned in December that global warming will cause yields of rice and wheat to fall in all regions of the world by 2050, compared to a future without climate change.

Scientists who specialise in plant breeding say efforts must be stepped up dramatically on all fronts, from searching in far-flung corners of the world for wild varieties that are resilient to climatic extremes, to identifying useful genetic traits and manipulating them to produce hardier and higher-yielding seeds.

"With the onset of accelerated climate change, it is going to be important that farmers can adapt, so researchers need to accelerate progress in making crops more resilient to droughts and floods," says Lawrence Kent, an agricultural development officer at the U.S.-based Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. "Plant breeders need to do more and faster, and they need more resources to do it."

Developing “climate-ready crops,” as they are often called, will be essential to avoid production declines in the face of more extreme weather conditions, and to feed a growing global population in the coming decades.

According to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), 50 percent of the increase in crop yields in recent years has come from new seed varieties, while irrigation and fertiliser account for the rest.

But a major FAO report released in October notes that public investment in crop improvement has declined in many countries since the late 1990s. Efforts to build public seed production systems in the 1980s and 1990s proved costly, leading donors to cut their funding. That made way for the private sector to take over in commercial crops like maize and wheat, the FAO says.

For other crops with fewer profit opportunities, "seed production systems have essentially collapsed in many countries", though public involvement may be picking up again in some places, including Afghanistan, Ethiopia and Yemen, the report says. Donor agencies and philanthropic organisations have also increased their funding in recent years, although it can be unpredictable.

The food price crisis of 2008 highlighted the urgent need to reduce food insecurity in some of the poorest and most politically volatile parts of the world. At a 2009 summit in Italy, rich governments promised to channel around $3 billion a year to strengthen agriculture. But less than two years on, with international food prices heading back toward record levels, not even a tenth of that money has materialized, Jeffrey Sachs, a leading development economist, told Reuters.

Carlos Sere, director general of the Nairobi-based International Livestock Research Institute, says the world is suffering the consequences of failing to fund crop science during the preceding era of low food prices.

"Over the last 20 years or so (up to 2008), we did not have a major food crisis, and if we look at what has been invested in agricultural research - except in China, India and Brazil - it is now coming to haunt us," he said.

An international report on how to make food and farming globally sustainable, published by the British government in January, calls for agricultural research to be given a higher priority, with a focus on adapting farming to climate change and cutting the greenhouse gases it produces.

But the report recognises there is no easy way to achieve high levels of productivity and recommends “a careful blend of approaches”, including biotechnology.

It endorses collaboration between the public and private sectors to enable low-income countries to access technologies like genetic modification that could enhance crop resistance to drought, excessively high and low temperatures, increased salinity and pests - traits that could help farmers maintain and even improve yields in the face of global warming.

This "product development partnership” (PDP) model - bringing in companies, academic researchers, governments and international agencies - has been used in the health sector to develop treatments for neglected diseases. It is now being promoted as a way to address the lop-sided nature of plant breeding, where the bulk of effort is focused on producing new crop varieties for sale in rich nations.


One example in the agriculture sector is the Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) initiative, which aims to develop and make drought-tolerant maize available royalty free to small-scale farmers in sub-Saharan Africa. It is managed by the Kenya-based African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF), and part-funded by the Gates Foundation.

As part of the effort, the non-profit International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) is providing conventional breeding expertise and high-yielding maize varieties that are adapted to African conditions, while the multinational agricultural firm Monsanto is contributing advanced breeding tools and drought-tolerance gene sequences it has developed with BASF.

National agricultural research systems in Kenya, Mozambique, South Africa, Tanzania and Uganda, together with farmers' groups and seed companies, will test, multiply and distribute the seeds.

Field trials of the genetically modified (GM) maize varieties were carried out in Kenya and Uganda late last year, after the crops received regulatory approval. But farmers will likely have to wait until 2015-2017 before they can start planting the new GM, or transgenic, seeds. Other conventional hybrid varieties also being developed by WEMA are expected to be available in 2013.

WEMA project manager Sylvester Oikeh, an agronomist with AATF, hopes the new maize plants will yield 25 percent more on average than existing varieties during moderate droughts.

“If we can get this dream materialised, (in those conditions), we would be able to feed 14 million to 21 million more people in the countries where we’re working,” he explained.

Kent from the Gates Foundation believes joint projects like this are a “great idea”, because they will allow the world's poorest farmers to benefit from the cutting-edge biotechnology companies have so far deployed mainly for commercial markets in industrialised economies.

"We want to help people out of poverty and make them more productive on their farms. As long as the technologies are effective and safe, we should try them," he says.

Many farmers WEMA is working with can’t wait to get their hands on the new seeds, according to Oikeh.

But not everyone agrees. In a paper released last month, the African Centre for Biosafety (ACB), a non-profit organisation based in Johannesburg, claims the WEMA project’s main winner will be Monsanto, "enabling it to bring a new trait to the market and gain a foothold in Africa for its products."

"WEMA is a Trojan horse to pressurise participating governments to pass weak biosafety regulations and open the door to the proliferation of GMOs (genetically modified organisms) that will undermine food sovereignty," warns the briefing.

The paper also casts doubt on whether the WEMA maize varieties will be effective in varying environments and weather conditions because engineering drought-resistance in crops is "highly complex."

In response to critics of GM crops, AATF’s Oikeh says using only traditional maize varieties has left Africa’s yields stagnant at around one tonne per hectare while they have risen in other parts of the world over the past three decades.

“Why don’t we get skills and (plant genetic) materials from other people and make a difference to our lives?” he argues.

For Monsanto, public-private partnerships offer "an innovative approach in helping developing world farmers to produce more grain and break the complex cycle of poverty in which they live".

Over the "very long term", as food supplies become more secure, farmers will look for new products and services that raise productivity - a search that may include improved hybrid seeds with higher yields than other traditional varieties, it said in emailed responses to questions.

"And over the same long-term period, as one of the leading seed companies in the world, Monsanto sees potential for new business in areas that are today under-served," wrote David Fischhoff, who leads the firm's technology strategy and development.

Activists who oppose GM crops have also raised the alarm over corporate patenting of plant genes that may be used to develop crops adapted to climate change.

ETC Group, a research and advocacy organisation that keeps a watch on new technologies that could impact the world's poorest, said last October it had identified over 262 patent families covering 1,663 patent documents published worldwide - including issued patents and applications - that make specific claims on environmental stress tolerance in plants, such as resilience to drought, heat, flooding, cold and salt.

Chemical and agricultural firms DuPont, Monsanto, BASF, Bayer, Syngenta and their biotech partners account for 77 percent of those patent families, according to ETC Group. Just three companies - DuPont, BASF and Monsanto - hold over two-thirds of the total, while public sector researchers own only 10 percent.

"No one should be allowed to claim a chunk of DNA they think could be helpful around climate change. It is too broad a patent," says ETC’s executive director Pat Mooney.

Monsanto’s Fischhoff says corporations need to protect their intellectual property with patents, because doing so ensures they can recoup the millions of dollars in upfront investment required to fund biotech research during the decade or more it takes to get new products to market.

But ETC’s Mooney says patenting genetic sequences that could be used in climate-ready crops violates the spirit of the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture. He has been lobbying governments and industry bodies to tackle the issue at a meeting of its parties in Indonesia in March.

The 2004 treaty, now ratified by 126 nations, has established a global system to provide farmers, plant breeders and scientists with access to plant genetic materials, and calls for the fair and equitable sharing of benefits arising from their utilisation for food and agriculture.

It has set up a fund to finance agricultural projects that promote biodiversity and help farmers adapt to climate change. In Peru, for example, six indigenous communities are being supported to re-introduce old native varieties of potatoes and adapt them to higher-altitude mountain terrain.

The fund aims to raise $116 million by the end of 2014, with governments and U.N. agencies having pledged around $11 million so far. Companies that use relevant plant genetic material for commercial purposes are also supposed to pay into it.

Cary Fowler, executive director of the Rome-based Global Crop Diversity Trust, says the test of the treaty will be whether it provides a successful framework for exchanging dwindling crop diversity.

"If the climate is completely different, a country will need diversity in crop varieties that it doesn't have today," he explains.

Besides developing new crop varieties, efforts must be stepped up to conserve those that exist, including a staggering 200,000 types of wheat and 200,000 to 300,000 types of rice, and make information about them available to plant breeders, Fowler says.

In December, the trust launched the largest-ever global search to find, gather, catalogue, use and save the wild relatives of essential food crops - including wheat, rice, beans, potatoes, barley, lentils, and chickpea - in an attempt to help protect global food supplies against the threat of climate change.

Fowler says that 20 years from now, four out of 10 growing seasons in Africa will no longer be suitable for traditional crops. As the development of new varieties can take a decade, the world has reached an "all hands on deck moment", he says.

The plant scientist, who has worked extensively with the United Nations, cautions that breeding climate-ready crops is difficult because so many traits are involved. Making maize more tolerant to higher average temperatures, for example, may not be sufficient unless the varieties can also withstand higher extremes and higher temperatures at the wrong time in their development.

"A lot of people probably see the problem as being simpler than it actually is,” he says. “There's no such thing as a climate change gene you can put into crop varieties."

He foresees a scramble among international research centres to produce more resilient crops, but warns these might not be widely adopted in impoverished, rural areas. The new varieties will not suit all conditions, and getting them to farmers will be a challenge because many national and local systems for disseminating seeds are patchy.

"A lot of the poorest farmers will be left if we are concerned about poverty, we see something unfolding that will make the situation much worse," he says.

Small farmers will save their own seed and naturally select those more suited to the shifting climate, but they will have a limited pool of genetic material to work with.

"There will be some progress, but there will be a lot of disruption, migration and food insecurity," warns Fowler.

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