13_G15_InBox

Global Issue 15

Inbox well even in the cool, wet British summer of 2012. NIAB is also working to improve food security in other areas. For example, it is now looking to repeat this success with rice, again by breeding modern cultivars with wild rice relatives, and by creating resistance to fungal diseases such as wheat rust and pea root rot. Others are working to similar ends. For example, Biosciences for Farming in Africa has a major programme to improve yields of cassava, the primary staple for 200 million people in Africa alone. Astonishingly, average cassava yields in Africa are only 20 per cent of those achievable under optimum conditions, due to problems like mosaic virus, brown streak virus, fungal diseases, bacterial blight and insect pests. Here, improved crop hygiene has a huge part to play, hence the Great Lakes Cassava Initiative project to distribute virus-free planting material to millions of farmers in East and Central Africa, and research into the biocontrol of the whitefly that is primarily responsible for transmitting viruses from plant to plant. But transgenic crops will also have their place. Institutes in Dar-es-Salaam, Witwatersrand and Nairobi have worked with a Swiss partner to develop Africa’s first genetically modified cassava, designed to resist the two viruses, and a similar project is taking place in Tanzania. Genetic modification is essential here, as DNA sequences can be engineered to create resistance to specific virus pathogens, even where no such resistance exists in nature. Genetic work is also underway to improve the nutritional quality of cassava – an excellent source of starch, but poor in protein, iron, zinc, vitamin A and vitamin E – under the BioCassava Plus project. It is yet another joint venture which includes the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute, Nigeria’s National Root Crop Research Institute and the Danforth Center, a US non-profit organisation. Food waste is another key target. The UN Environment Programme has calculated that roughly a third of the four billion tonnes of the world’s annual food production is lost or wasted. Food in rich countries is mainly discarded by consumers or retailers at the end of the ‘value chain’. In poor countries it’s the reverse – food is largely wasted on farms, often due to inadequate storage that is insecure against rats and other pests, as well as the lack of refrigeration and poor transport infrastructure. To tackle this, UNEP recommends strengthening the entire food supply chain with a focus on storage, transport infrastructure and packaging. Researchers are looking into ways of improving yields, as well as increasing the nutritional value of crops So the threat of famine can be overcome. But victory is not guaranteed. The current generation of GM crops is better geared to maximising the profit of patent-holding multinational corporations, than to meeting the needs of farmers and consumers. Thus an important outcome of crops engineered Average cassava yields in Africa are only 20 per cent of those achievable under optimum conditions, due to problems like mosaic virus, brown streak virus, fungal diseases, bacterial blight and insect pests for resistance to the weedkiller glyphosate is glyphosate resistance among agricultural weeds, so necessitating the use of more expensive, toxic and environmentally harmful substitutes. The powerful, but controversial, GM technologies are most valuable in the hands of non-profit organisations close to the communities they serve. We must also conserve the biodiversity of wild plants and ecosystems, and of traditional crop varieties, which hold the genes that provide the raw material for future crop improvements. The FAO estimates that 75 per cent of food crop biodiversity was lost over the 20th century. Many traditional seed varieties are not high yielding in their own right, but nonetheless contain genes important for nutrition, disease resistance, salt tolerance, or the ability to withstand flood or drought. If we fail to preserve them, ideally within living agricultural systems, we will lose them. And this must be done in the face of the growing worldwide dominance of seed supply by a handful of global companies. Farmers – who over thousands of years developed the seeds that grow the world’s food crops – desperately need to be re-empowered. So, while global famine and environmental destruction can be averted, it will not happen by default. A decisive break will be needed from current ‘business as usual’ approaches, if the world is to enjoy the future we surely want – one of security, prosperity and abundance. Oliver Tickell is an author, journalist, economist and campaigner on social, environmental and health issues. He is the author of Kyoto2 (Zed Books 2008). global thi rd quar ter 2013 www.global -br ief ing.org l 13


Global Issue 15
To see the actual publication please follow the link above