Calling for more research and development in agricultural biotechnologies for smallholders

Andrea Sonnino presents the key findings of a new report on biotechnologies

Interview with Andrea Sonnino, Chief of FAO's Research and Extension Unit, about the new publication on "Biotechnologies at Work for Smallholders: Case Studies from Developing Countries in Crops, Livestock and Fish".

Who is this publication for?

The primary targets of this publication are policy-makers, those people working for Governments, donors or other institutions, including managers of research institutions, who have a role in deciding how much investment should be dedicated to research and smallholder agriculture and how these investments should be used.

What do you want to see happen as a result of this publication?

Ideally, we would like to see more research and development in agricultural biotechnologies that is focused on the needs of smallholders.

The case studies presented in this publication demonstrate that, despite the complexities of smallholder farmer production systems, agricultural biotechnologies can indeed represent powerful tools to benefit smallholder farmers given the appropriate conditions and enabling environment. We therefore hope that the case studies and the lessons learned from these studies will provide guidance and inspiration for policy-makers in the future.

The publication featured a wide range of case studies. Which ones did you think were particularly successful?

The 19 case studies indeed reflect the large diversity found in smallholder production systems in developing countries. It is very hard to single out individual case studies because all of them describe tangible outputs from research and demonstrate great scientific and technical endeavour, knowledge generation, structural and human capacity-building.

 I was, however, very impressed by the case study from India involving pearl millet, a crop that is grown largely for its ability to produce grain under hot, dry conditions on infertile soils of low water-holding capacity, where other crops generally fail. It is grown as a subsistence crop for local consumption and has generally received little attention from commercial breeders.

In the case study, an approach called ‘marker-assisted selection' was used, where desirable genes are "marked" or tagged by molecular markers so they can be selected, to develop a new hybrid called HHB 67 Improved with resistance to downy mildew disease, the most devastating disease affecting this crop. In 2011, the new hybrid was grown on about 900 000 hectares and it brought greater food security to an estimated two million people.

Another case study which struck me was about the use of DNA-based pathogen detection methods in shrimp farming, which is the largest export-oriented aquaculture production sector in India.

The majority of shrimp farming in India is carried out by low-income small farmers. Intensification of shrimp farming has caused many shrimp diseases of epidemic proportions over the last two decades, particularly viral diseases. Such viral infections spread rapidly and cause massive losses, directly impacting the income of small farmers. The case study described how the use of DNA-based pathogen detection methods had become an important health management tool in preventing viral disease outbreaks.

Many of the case studies involved small-scale applications of biotechnologies for smallholders. Although adopted on a small-scale, their benefits were nevertheless important for the farming communities concerned.

For example, one of the case studies described a community-based foundation in Bangladesh which provides production-related veterinary services, including artificial insemination, to around 3 000 smallholder dairy cattle farmers. The initiative increased milk production and farmer incomes and generated rural employment in a country where rural unemployment is a major problem.

Which biotechnologies were covered in the case studies?

FAO traditionally uses a broad definition for biotechnology, based on Article 2 of the Convention on Biological Diversity, which states that it is "any technological application that uses biological systems, living organisms, or derivatives thereof, to make or modify products or processes for specific use". As such, it covers a broad range of technologies that are applied for a number of different purposes in food and agriculture. The publication tried to reflect the breadth of this definition by choosing case studies relating to several different biotechnologies and diverse applications.

Thus, several case studies described the use of DNA-based technologies, involving the use of molecular markers and the polymerase chain reaction (PCR). Molecular markers were used for genetic improvement, using ‘marker-assisted selection', of pearl millet, rice and sheep in India and cassava in Nigeria and to characterize genetic diversity of sheep in South Africa. PCR was used to diagnose diseases in small ruminants in Cameroon and shrimp in India.

Case studies also described use of tissue culture and micropropagation to generate disease-free planting materials of bananas (in Ghana and Sri Lanka), cassava (Colombia and Nigeria), plantain (Cuba and Ghana) and sweetpotato (Ghana) for rapid dissemination to farmers.

Reproductive biotechnologies, notably artificial insemination, for genetic improvement of cattle, goats and catfish were the focus of case studies from Bangladesh, Argentina and Thailand respectively. A case study from China also described use of gynogenesis, a reproductive technology resulting in all-female offspring which have genes only from their mother, to develop a popular strain of common carp.

They also described the use of mutagenesis, involving use of mutagenic agents such as ionizing radiation, to sterilize male tsetse flies that were released in Unguja Island, Zanzibar to eradicate the trypanosomosis livestock disease caused by the tsetse fly as well as to create improved banana varieties in Sri Lanka.

Other case studies focused on the use of microbial systems, for fermentation of pig effluent in Brazil to produce biogas and biofertilizer, of fish in West Africa to prolong the shelf-life of fishery products and in the production of probiotics for managing aquatic diseases in shrimp farming in China.

Do these cases involve genetic modification?

No. Genetic modification is a biotechnology used to produce genetically modified organisms (GMOs), which are organisms in which one or more genes have been introduced into their genetic material from another organism using recombinant DNA technology. GM crops have been grown commercially since the mid 1990s while no GM livestock or fish have been commercially released for food or agricultural purposes.

While there has been no controversy about any of the biotechnologies covered in the case studies, there has been a major and polarized debate about genetic modification and GMOs since the 1990s. This debate revolves around the implications of GMOs for food security, the environment, biodiversity, human and animal health, control of the global food system and other issues.

The long-running debate about GMOs has led to the other non-GMO biotechnologies being overshadowed, with the result that too little focus has been given to their potential merits and the role that they can play for food security and sustainable development in developing countries. For this reason, we decided to focus this publication on applications of non-GMO biotechnologies.

Nevertheless, FAO's biotechnology work has dedicated considerable attention to GMOs, a recent example being the hosting of a moderated e-mail conference on GMOs in the pipeline in developing countries, which took place at the end of 2012.

What is needed for small, family farms in poor communities to benefit from laboratory-supported research?

Many of the essential ingredients were included among the ten lessons learned from these 19 case studies, such as the importance of strong commitment from governments to smallholders; strong partnerships (national and/or international); long-term investments in science and technology human capital and infrastructure; complementation of advanced research with solid knowledge of more traditional agricultural skills (such as plant and animal breeding); and the full participation of the smallholders themselves.

To summarize, we might say that the key is having well-functioning and sustainably-funded agricultural innovation systems, where the different components of the system (such as research, extension and the farmers themselves) work well and there are good linkages between them. The research that is carried out needs to be really relevant to the small, family farms in poor communities.

For this, research and extension need to shift to become more demand-driven and relevant for family farmers and their roles and functioning need to change so that research organizations, extension systems and farmers are more closely interlinked and that there is better communication and coordination between them. Improving the linkages and cooperation between the research and extension systems and farmers makes it easier both for farmers to access, and benefit from, the work of researchers and for researchers to learn from, and build upon, farmers' knowledge and innovations.
(29 October 2013)