Agricultural biotechnologies in Asia-Pacific
For economists like myself, understanding the complex world of agricultural sciences involves a learning curve. When we talk about employing biotechnologies in agricultural production and sustainable food systems for better nutrition, it’s easy to get lost in the jargon. You’ve probably heard some of it—use of molecular markers, microbial food fermentation, reproductive technologies in livestock, DNA-based kits to diagnose diseases in farmed fish, and, of course, genetic modification.
For our part, we at the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization are encouraging governments, researchers and the private sector to take bold steps to ensure that safe, evidence-based agricultural biotechnology is placed in the hands of smallholder farmers, fishers and pastoralists.
And we need to get on with that now, as our Asia-Pacific region is increasingly facing some predictable and unpredictable results of climate change and the future effects these will have on agricultural production, particularly for smallholders who are the least equipped to deal with climate-related shocks.
The challenges we already face are enormous—and that’s why we need to make use of all available technologies that we know are safe, both old and new. This region has nearly half a billion hungry and malnourished people—more than 60 percent of the world’s total. Consider the 2030 deadline to deliver all 17 of the world’s Sustainable Development Goals, and the 2050 mid-century point where our children will be living among some nine to ten billion people competing for limited natural
resources, and you get the picture.
In several countries in this region, floodwater incursions into rice paddies have long been a major problem. But scientists at the International Rice Research Institute, working with partners, have developed a version of rice that can still thrive even when submerged in floodwaters. This flood-tolerant rice, known better by its nickname “Scuba Rice,” is a good example of how scientists and farmers can come together in tackling some of the more complex problems that
the environment can throw at those who
often struggle to produce the food we eat each day. Rice varieties tolerant to submergence are now being grown in India, Bangladesh and Vietnam.
In Thailand, a global seafood hub, breeding a hybrid catfish using artificial insemination from two species has resulted in a hybrid which performs better than the average of either parental species. Researchers noted that the local Thai broad-headed catfish, a favorite food due to its favorable color and texture, was slow to grow and susceptible to diseases, making it difficult to culture on a commercial scale. By contrast, the African sharp-tooth catfish was known for its high growth rate and low susceptibility to diseases. Breeding the two catfish species together has resulted in a “hybrid vigor” (both palatable and fast growing), making it ideal for aquaculture in Thailand. Production of hybrid catfish has skyrocketed from less than 18,000 metric tons in 1990 to more than 150,000 metric tons.
Use of this biotechnology has created a huge expansion of aquaculture and related industries in Thailand and has provided greater access to high-quality protein food for poorer people in rural areas.
With the clock ticking toward 2030 and 2050, the FAO is convening high-level regional meetings on agricultural uses of biotechnologies to achieve sustainable food systems and better nutrition. The first such meeting is taking place in Kuala Lumpur on Sept. 11-13, coorganized by the FAO and the Malaysian government. The purpose is to offer an open and neutral forum for the exchange of ideas and practices between representatives of member-countries, intergovernmental organizations, research institutions, farmer organizations, cooperatives, academe, civil society, and the private sector. With more than half a billion hungry and malnourished people in this region, we need to work together while looking at all forms of food production—and without delay.
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Kundhavi Kadiresan is assistant director-general and regional representative (Asia-Pacific) of the FAO.
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