Improved Seeds
Posht-e-Bagh Research Farm is one of the most important research farms in northern Afghanistan. Nestled in the Dehdadi district of the Balkhl province, the farm produces breeder seeds. These genetically improved seeds flourish under local growing conditions, enabling farm productivity to increase.

Currently, the 16 employees of Posht-e-Bagh monitor 972 different types of wheat in order to assess their suitability for local growing conditions.

Every seed produced at Posht-e-Bagh passes through five initial stages: introduction (where seeds and the resulting crops are assessed for their suitability), selection, hybridization, mutation and genetic engineering. From there, a breeder seed is selected and then sent out for further processing before reaching farmers in the form of ‘improved’ seeds.

According to Abdul Wahid Wahidi, a researcher with the Ministry of Agriculture, Irrigation and Livestock (MAIL), the main goal of Posht-e-Bagh is to increase the productivity of farmers in northern Afghanistan. The eventual production and wide-scale distribution of improved seeds will help generate a long-term solution to the eradication of poverty among farmers.

Breeder seeds produced by farms like Posht-e-Bagh Research Farm are sent to one of six Improved Seed Enterprises (ISE) scattered across the country with the goal of multiplying the breeder seeds into foundation seeds. On such a farm is Khasa-Paz farm, where there are six varieties of wheat being grown on the 1.9 million square meter farm this year.

ISE farms eventually sell the seeds to one of 102 Private Seed Enterprises (PSEs) across the country. They then use these seeds to produce the certified seeds, or ‘improved’ seeds, which are distributed to local farmers.

Improved Seeds
“Improved seed is a vital input for proper crop production,” said Hesamuddin Rahimi, Afghanistan Agriculture Inputs Project (AAIP) Agronomy Manager in Balkh Province. The AAIP, launched in July 2013, is backed with $74.8 million in support from the Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund (ARTF). It is their aim to strengthen institutional capacity for the safety and reliability of agricultural inputs and sustainable production of certified seeds.

“Khasa-Paz farm has managed to help farmers to some extent,” Rahimi said. “As it is one of the farms where tons of registered seeds are being produced and sent to PSEs to produce improved seeds for distribution to the market.”

In fact, last year Khasa-Paz farm produced 87.5 tons of foundation seeds.

“The improved seeds result in good harvest. There is an almost 60 percent increase in yield of improved varieties compared to the local seeds,” Rahimi said. “The good thing about the improved seeds is they are suitable for this climate, a factor that increases both the quality and quantity of the crops.” The crops are also resistant against pests and diseases, adds Abdul Fatah, a farmer at Posht-e-Bagh farm.

Many farmers across Afghanistan still use low-quality seeds that result in poor harvests, a critical factor in perpetuating poverty among farmers. Those who have used the improved seeds now see the difference in output.

“Luckily now, farmers’ conditions are better because of the improved seeds,” Mohammad Ghani, a farmer who has been working on Khasa-Paz for eight years, said.

Farmer Lal Mohammad, a colleague of Ghani’s, echoes that sentiment: “Now that I see and understand the difference between good and poor quality seeds, I try to share the knowledge that I have gained with other farmers I know.”

Kara Buckley

Sources: ARTF, CIMMYT, World Bank 1, World Bank 2, World Bank 3
Photo: The World Bank, Agchallenge2050

With the world population expected to double by 2050, food security will continue to be an increasingly complicated and important issue. More food will be needed to feed more people and, to preserve vital biodiversity sites, we’ll need to produce this additional food using land already devoted to agriculture. While there are many factors that could improve agricultural efficiency, genetically modified crops hold the most potential. Many scientists now believe that transgenic plants could help prevent or minimize future food shortages.

Transgenic plants are those that possess an inserted portion of DNA either from a different member of their own species or from an entirely different species. The inserted DNA serves some special purpose, such as allowing the plant to produce natural insecticides. Once the genes are transferred, they can be passed on to offspring through simple fertilization, allowing farmers to breed advantageous traits in their plants. Transgenic plants have proven extremely profitable in the developed world, accounting for a 5% to 10% increase in productivity, and reducing the cost of herbicides and insecticides.

Such methods could effectively increase productivity in the developing world, where a surge in food production is sorely needed. Developing countries, especially those in the tropics and subtropics, suffer severe crop losses due to pests, diseases, and poor soil conditions. In addition, a lack of financial capital often prevents farmers from investing in high quality seeds, insecticides, and fertilizers. Poor post-harvest conditions such as inadequate storage facilities and thriving fungi and insect populations also fuel crop loss. Currently, pests destroy over half the world’s crop production. Transgenic plants could provide an innovative solution.

Fortunately, bioengineering solutions can be easily adapted from one species to another, allowing one advancement in plant biotechnology to quickly produce many more. For example, insect-resistant strains of several important plant species have been produced using one specific endotoxin. Commercial production of insect-resistant maize, potato, and cotton has already begun. Plant bioengineers hope to use similar technology to create fruits that ripen more slowly, allowing for longer shelf lives and less post-harvest crop loss.

It is important to note that this technology has mostly been established with the developed world in mind. Therefore, adapting it for use in the developing world must be done carefully. For instance, many crops grown in the developing world are local varieties and have not been extensively tested thus far by plant bioengineers. Blindly replacing local crops with bioengineered varieties from the developed world could disturb deep social or religious traditions that are represented in the widely varied cultures in the developing world. Additionally, societies are more likely to embrace a familiar crop than a foreign one. Research and development in bioengineering must, therefore, adapt to include the crops of the developing world.

Although the globe produces enough food for everyone, people everywhere continue to die of starvation. With this unequal distribution in mind, it is imperative that, moving forward, small farmers in the developing world receive the same access to plant biotechnology given to large agribusinesses in the developed world. First-world corporations cannot be granted even more unfair advantages over small landholders in poorer nations, especially as global populations grow and food security becomes ever more scarce and important. As this technology is developed, it is up to us to share it with the developing world in order to minimize severe food shortages in the years to come.

– Katie Fullerton

Sources: Plant Physiology, Colorado State University
Photo: Tree Hugger

The question of whether the food we eat should be engineered by scientists, and sold to farmers by tremendously wealthy corporations is a controversial topic. Owen Paterson, an MP and Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs from the United Kingdom has recently pleaded his case for supporting GM crops: “The farmer benefits. The consumer benefits. The environment benefits.”

The top chemical industries and their vocal supporters are proposing that the use of GM crops could produce more food for the world, thus ending world hunger. Can genetically modified crops revolutionize farming worldwide and end global hunger?

In the short term, revamping farms to produce high yielding GM crops could result in more food. However, GM crops require long term reliance on pesticides and machinery, which might be too expensive for an african farmer living on less than a dollar a day. Not only that, but the seed itself can be very expensive, since GM companies have made it illegal to save seeds to plant next season. That means that farmers in Africa, 80% of whom currently save their seeds, would need to start paying for them. Esther Bett, a Kenyan farmer, also points out that “farmers in America can only make a living from GM crops if they have big farms, covering hundreds of hectares.” She also informs us that in Kenya “we can feed hundreds of families off the same area of land using our own seed and techniques, and many different crops.”

When addressing the needs of the world’s poor, it is important to listen to what they have to say. Africans already have traditional methods of farming that have been developed over generations. Over the course of thousands of years, a variety of seeds has been bred to thrive in diverse environments, and to resist the regional blights that are unique to Africa. The genetically modified crops that have been developed so far are actually quite limited in the kinds of pests that they are resistant to. There are different farming practices to suit different environments, and crops that thrive in certain regions may not fare so well in others. According to a long term study, farmers in Ethiopia who conserved their soil and water by farming on compost-treated land were more food secure than their neighbors who relied on imported seeds, fertilizers, and pesticides. It was not genetic engineering, but ingenious breeding techniques that have resulted in new strains of hardy plants like drought tolerant corn, which is used by thousands of African farmers who enjoy 30% higher yields.

What if entire continents were to replace their heirloom seed stock with a single strain of GM crop? Such heavy reliance on one type of crop could be a disaster waiting to happen, if that crop were to fail due to blight or climate change. A new study from Food and Water Watch, an NGO focused on food and water safety and sustainability, has recently discovered that over time the widespread use of herbicides on GM crops has caused weeds to develop tolerance. The last thing that impoverished farmers need are superweeds! As of now, the only thing that can be done about herbicide resistant weeds is to use more herbicide.

– Jennifer Bills

Sources: Express, The Borgen Project, The Guardian, Co Exist, Third World Network, The Guardian

The Role of Rice in the Fight Against PovertyAs an energy source packed with vitamins and nutrients, rice serves as the main source of food and nutrition for a majority of the world’s population. Brown unmilled rice contains the most nutritional and mineral value, whereas white rice loses much of its nutritional value after being refined.

The USDA plans to address this by researching different strands and genes of rice in order to breed a new strand of white rice that would “hold high concentrations of 14 essential minerals (including zinc, iron and calcium) in the grains instead of in the husk”. Their research is focused on the use of “molecular marker data for use in quickly identifying the high-mineral plants without having to grow them to maturity.”

Up to 1,643 types of rice from around the world have been tested, and “127 gene locations in 40 chromosome regions that indicate high concentrations of minerals” have been identified. The first method for creating this new strain of rice that comes to mind would be genetic engineering. However, it is simpler and more accessible to farmers around the world if the rice is created through reproducing plants with the genes they find desirable.

Helping breeders grow this rice could decrease malnutrition around the world, and refraining from genetic modification would allow the rice to be distributed (exported or imported) without fear of rejection from those who are against GMO foods. This new strain of rice could solve all kinds of food-related issues surrounding poverty and hunger globally, as well as introduce a healthier option for those in Western countries.

– Sarah Rybak

Photo: Prevention

Despite the obvious concerns that genetically modified crops (GMOs) generate in regards to water usage and biodiversity, GMOs are – at present – the only viable option for feeding a worldwide population of 9 billion people by 2050. Why embark upon a policy of greater investment in GMOs as opposed to organic farming? Considering both the land and climate constraints of many developing nations, the strengths of GMOs lie primarily in their ability to adapt to challenges that would otherwise be prohibitive to organically grown crops. The following are 3 ways that GMOs encourage global food security.

1. GMO’s production yields are higher – As the global population increases, greater pressure will be placed on the agricultural industry to produce yields large enough to meet both local and international demands. GMOs encourage global food security by maximizing the potential of long established independent farmers and agribusinesses, a tool considered invaluable for maintaining adequate food supplies in developing countries still lacking the requisite knowledge and infrastructure for conventional farming.

2. GMOs use less land – As land starved countries of the global south continue to experience the high birth rates and greater population density of economic development, the low land usage of GMOs encourage global food security by increasing the productivity of their farmers without stifling growth. GMOs offer emerging economies the distinct advantage of developing previously underutilized areas without the accompanying sacrifices of farmland.

3. GMOs are more affordable – The inevitable cost increases that occur when demand outpaces supply will be an significant issue as the worldwide population increases; however, GMOs encourage global food security by keeping the price of food low enough to feed those with even the most meager of financial resources. GMOs are able to better withstand the climatic, pest, and blight challenges that would otherwise devastate organically grown crops, leading to the supply shortfalls and price increases that cripple poverty stricken communities.

– Brian Turner

Source Science Daily
Photo Chuck Haney Photography

EU GMOs_opt
Despite understandable concerns in regards to genetically modified (GMOs) foods and the possible long term effects they have on consumers, the ability of GMOs to withstand the catastrophic consequences of pest infestation is unmatched by conventionally farmed crops. Furthermore, as the world population rises and global food demands continue to swell, scientists are becoming more concerned that current EU agriculture production will be inadequate for meeting the demands of the developing world. In an effort to both bolster current crop production and change the narrative concerning GMOs, researchers are claiming that the EU needs genetically modified crops in order to stay competitive in the technologically driven international agricultural industry.

Brought to the forefront of discourse surrounding current EU agricultural policy, scientists from Trends in Plant Science Magazine cited the considerable amount of data showing that although the cultivation of GMOs is banned – or severely limited – in the EU, the region still imports genetically modified crops from countries that have embraced the technology. EU farmers stymied by current laws regarding GMOs are unable to compete with overseas producers, thus requiring the region to import an ever-increasing percentage of their crops. In light of this, researchers are claiming that the EU needs genetically modified crops in order to maintain their own agricultural sustainability and that of their considerable humanitarian obligations abroad.

In regards to the claim that the EU needs genetically modified crops, University of Lleida Agrotecnio Center researcher Paul Christou comments that the EU is being surpassed by other nations because it hasn’t adopted technology which is deemed unpopular. “Ultimately the EU will become almost entirely dependent on the outside world for food and feed and scientific progress,” said Christou.

The issue of identifying realistic solutions to future food security problems is garnering greater and greater attention from academics, agricultural officials, and farmers looking to mitigate the problem while simultaneously bolstering their own market competitiveness and sustainability. Although stating that the EU needs genetically modified crops might upset those uncomfortable with anything but conventionally sourced food, policy changes must be enacted today in order to combat the food security problems of tomorrow. “Realizing this is the only way to achieve sustainable agriculture,” said Christou.

Brian Turner
Source: Science Daily
Photo: Novinite

An Australian researcher may have fortuitously discovered a way to reduce world hunger. Professor and Geneticist John Bowman was studying the reproductive cycles of moss in pursuit of a common ancestor of all land plants. In doing so, he discovered a way for “high-yield, drought-resistant plants” to “clone themselves via their seeds” in a process called apomixis. The implications of such a discovery means cheaper and more accessible hybrid seeds for farmers in developing countries.

Since farmers would no longer have to continuously buy seeds (the seeds multiply themselves), the costs and risks (droughts, increased prices of seeds) associated with farming could diminish. This could mean more crops and less hunger and malnutrition in developing countries.

Professor John Bowman and his partner, Dr. Keiko Sakakibara, were able to achieve apomixis by removing the gene KNOX2 from moss. The doctors explain how plants take different forms in “alternating generations.” In one generation, the plant would be in diploid state, meaning that each cell has two sets of DNA (in humans, the sperm and egg), and in the next generation, it would be haploid, which is the “tiny single-cell sperm and eggs that we produce contain only the male or female DNA.” When the scientists removed KNOX2, it caused the diploid generation to become a haploid generation, thus allowing the moss to create identical seeds of the mother.

Although the process has not been mainstreamed yet, Professor Bowman is already excited about its potential to reduce world hunger. He may not have begun the experiment with the intention of ending hunger, but Bowman is eager to help as many people living in poverty and hunger as possible.

– Mary Penn

Source: The Sydney Morning Herald

Genetically Modified Crops Proposed For Food Security in India
In the wake of harsh criticisms for his recent comments, Agricultural Minister Sharad Pawar again reiterated his support for field trials of genetically modified (GM) crops as a possible solution for food security in India. In his address to the ICAR general meeting, Pawar remarked that due to constraints on limited access to natural resources, “[India does] not have any option but to achieve major [breakthroughs] in productivity to ensure food security of 1.2 billion-plus population.”

Genetically Modified crops – with the exception of Bt cotton – have been a controversial subject in India for some time. However, recent actions taken by the Indian Parliament proposing the banning of all GM field tests prompted Pawar to take a stronger position in the matter, arguing that the prospects of future food security in India are dim without them. Pawar wrote to all chief ministers, outlining the possible deployment of an investigative team of scientists in order to determine the efficacy of GM crops in India.

India has been dealing with hunger problems for generations and without any sort of intervention, will be dealing with even worse problems in the future. However, GM crops – despite their understandable concerns – provide a reason to be optimistic based upon their ability to withstand harsh climates and unfavorable soil conditions. Furthermore, by exploring all options on the table, scientists hope to find an answer to the imperative question of food security in India.

Brian Turner

Source: Zee News
Photo: The Times of India