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The UN FAO AgriBiotech Symposium: Partnerships for Climate Resilience
Part 2 in a series of blogs covering the recent FAO Symposium on Agricultural Biotechnologies. Read Part 1 here.
By Margaret M. Zeigler, Ph.D.
Executive Director, Global Harvest Initiative
The UN FAO Symposium for Agricultural Biotechnologies included several panels focused on how agricultural biotechnologies are building resilience to climate change across the crop, forestry and livestock sectors.
Given that 2016 is the International Year of Pulses, it was particularly fitting that discussion of molecular breeding of chickpeas, which are the second most important grain legume and are critical for food security across much of the developing world, had a place at the table. A multi-stakeholder partnership (UC Davis, International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics, or ICRISAT, and the Beijing Genomics Institute of China) has sequenced the genome of the chickpea, grown widely across South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa by smallholder farmers. Chickpea yields in many parts of the developing world are low and stagnant, and sequencing of the chickpea genome provides genetic information that will help plant breeders develop highly productive chickpea varieties to better tolerate drought and resist disease — traits that are particularly important in the light of global climate change.
Other panelists shared how rice breeding can be improved through marker assisted selection and breeding, one form of biotechnology. As rice is still the main staple food for more than half the world’s population, ensuring that rice can be resilient in the face of drought, flooding and other climate stress will be paramount for global food security. New varieties of “Green Super Rice” have been developed that produce higher yield and require less water, fertilizer and are resistant to insects and disease.
In Africa, biotechnology is helping increase maize yields even in the face of drought conditions through the Water Efficient Maize for Africa Project (WEMA), a partnership between the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT), Monsanto, African Agricultural Technology Foundation (AATF), Agricultural Research Council (ARC) of South Africa, Kenya Agriculture and Livestock Research Organization (KALRO) and other foundation participants and national agricultural research centers across Africa. This project combines conventional breeding of maize as well as molecular breeding and transgenic (GE) breeding approaches to result in high-yielding maize that is also resistant to a devastating pest, the stem borer, which is prevalent across many countries in Africa. The results are powerful: in 2014, farmers, on average, more than doubled their maize harvests in comparison to previous harvests from open pollinated seed varieties saved year after year.
All forms of biotechnology, including genetic engineering (GE), have great potential to help smallholder farmers adapt to climate change and build the resilience of their crops. Tested technologies are available that can be customized for local agro-ecological conditions and when biosafety systems are in place along with stewardship training for farmers, the potential can be realized, as demonstrated in the growing number of successful partnerships highlighted at the Symposium.
Stay tuned for Blog 3, The UN FAO AgriBiotech Symposium: Protecting Farmer Knowledge and Establishing Biosafety Systems