Climate Change

Agricultural biotechnolgies a boon for family farmers, say experts

A range of biotechnologies can help bring about high yields, improve nutrition quality and add value to the productivity of crops, livestock, fish and trees

By Deepanwita Gita Niyogi
Published: Wednesday 17 February 2016
Family farmers contribute immensely to food security and global poverty eradication (Credit: FAO)

'Biotechnologies can improve yields, nutrition quality'

Family farmers in developing countries must have access to agricultural biotechnologies, keeping in mind the need to improve yields and maintain sustainability in the face of climate change and a growing population, experts feel. (view infographics)

During an international symposium hosted by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) Director-General José Graziano da Silva said, “We cannot lose sight that biotechnologies, knowledge and innovation must be available, accessible and applicable to family farmers, including small holders.”

Around 500 scientists, government representatives, civil society organisations, academia, farmers’ associations and cooperatives participated in the symposium.

"The symposium sought to explore the proven and available agricultural biotechnological tools and products that are useful for attaining sustainable food systems and nutrition for smallholder and family farmers," Chikelu Mba, officer in FAO's plant production and protection division, told Down To Earth.

Credit: FAO

Family farmers contribute immensely to food security and global poverty eradication. In an interview with Down To Earth, Policy Specialist with FAO India, Bhaskar Goswami, said, “Globally, more than 90 per cent of farms are (either) operated by an individual or a family, (producing) about 80 per cent of the world’s food (and) occupying around 70-80 per cent of farm land.”

Currently, smallholders do not have access to many products because they are expensive, and therefore, not affordable, Chikelu added.

Stress on low-tech applications

The FAO symposium emphasises on a range of biotechnologies that can help bring about high yields, improve nutrition quality and add value to the productivity of crops, livestock, fish and trees.

Several “low tech” applications such as fermentation processes, use of bio-fertilizers, artificial insemination, production of vaccines, disease diagnostics, development of bio-pesticides and the use of molecular markers in developing new varieties and breeds can benefit family farmers to a great extent.

Though there is stress on the use of biotechnologies to improve yields, the symposium is not about genetically modified organisms (GMOs), according to the FAO chief.

"An appreciable number of people have concerns about the potential risks that GMOs pose to the environment (through geneflow) and human health (through allergies). However, no such harmful effects have been recorded over the 20 years of commercialisation of GMO crops. It is in recognition of such concerns that the global community devised the Cartagena Protocolon Biosafety of the Convention on Biological Diversity which aims to ensure the safe handling, transport and use of GMOs," Chikelu said. He added that there was no recorded evidence that GM crops affect pollination by bees.

The symposium highlights three main themes: climate change impacts; sustainable food systems and nutrition; and, people, policies, institutions and communities.

When it comes to developing countries, focus on optimal agricultural output while conserving natural resources at the same time is a must. It is necessary to integrate adaptation, vulnerability and resilience with agricultural strategies to fight climate change risks. Biotechnologies play a major role in achieving the aim.

Though crop biotechnologies have developed over the past century, progress has mainly taken place over the past 20 years. There have been mixed experiences with crop biotechnologies in developing countries.

Interspecific hybridisation is a technique that allows the combination of favourable traits from different species. It has been used successfully in the development of inter-specific disease-resistant Asian rice and New Rice for Africa (NERICA) varieties.

Biotechnology also offers important tools to diagnose plant diseases of both viral and bacterial origin. While biofertilizers are used to augment the nutritional quality of crops biotechnology offers important tools to diagnose plant diseases.



Climate change risk

There is a growing concern that climate change will affect food production hard. In an interview with Down To Earth, Aziz Elbehri, senior economist, trade and markets division, FAO, and editor of the book Climate Change and Food Systems, had said how food availability would be climate driven in the future.

Climate change “affects all of us, but especially the poorest and hungry people,” Graziano da Silva had said at the time of CoP 21, underscoring how smallholders and family farmers are always “in the front line”.

According to the FAO, droughts, floods, storms and other disasters triggered by climate change have risen in frequency and severity over the last three decades, increasing the damage caused to the agricultural sectors of many developing countries and putting them at risk of growing food insecurity.

Extreme weather events such as floods and droughts can cause extreme food shortage all over the world. The prevailing El Niño phenomenon has caused crop failure, pushing around 10.2 million people in Ethiopia into food insecurity.

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