Science and international development

Written evidence submitted by the
Agricultural Biotechnology Council (abc) (Int Dev 27)

In response to the Science and Technology Committee’s call for evidence, abc has prepared the following submission that outlines abc’s views in terms of supporting research capacity in developing countries.

The views expressed in this submission are those of abc - the umbrella organisation for the agricultural biotechnology industry in the UK. abc, comprising of six member companies, works with the food chain and research community to invest in a broad range of crop technologies – including conventional and advanced breeding techniques, such as GM.  These are designed to improve agricultural productivity by tackling challenges such as pests, diseases and changing climatic conditions whilst reducing water usage, greenhouse gas emissions and other inputs.

abc is unable to provide comprehensive responses to all of the questions as part of the Committee's Call for Evidence, however this response does provide relevant examples of where the application of scientific research is helping to address the food security challenge across the developing world.

1. Introduction

1.1. 1.4 billion people worldwide live in poverty, and an estimated one billion of these people live in rural areas [1] . This problem is particularly acute in rural Sub-Saharan Africa, where over 60 per cent of the rural population live in poverty. A recent report by the ODI showed that issues of poverty can be best tackled by investment in the agricultural sector, with GDP growth in agriculture contributing twice as much to poverty reduction than any other sector [2] .

1.2. With the world’s population set to rise to 9bn by 2050, more food is needed from a similar amount of agricultural land – otherwise food price instability will continue to increase and the pressure on precious areas of natural land will intensify.

1.3. abc believes that research into GM is a particularly relevant area of science for the developing world. The use of technology in agriculture together with better agronomic training will be critical to the feeding of this increased population. abc believes that biotechnology is one such technology that, appropriately introduce, can make a difference.

1.4. Commercialised GM crops include maize, cotton, canola, soybean, squash, papaya, sugar beet, tomato, cassava, sweet pepper and alfalfa. Trials are currently in progress on crops including sorghum, bananas and wheat.

2. Current application of GM in the developing world

2.1. GM technology is currently being used by over 15 million farmers on 148 million hectares of land (the equivalent land mass of France, Germany, the UK and Ireland put together) [3] . Over 90 per cent of those using the technology are resource-poor farmers in developing countries growing food, feed and materials on an area often considerably less than 10 hectares per farmer.

2.2. Without significant increases in yield and utilising solutions to crop destroying diseases, policy makers will struggle to address hunger and under-nutrition – something that affects almost 1bn people today. GM technology is one of a range of tools available to help deliver these yield increases.

2.3. GM crops offer the potential for increased yields, greater pest and disease resistance, lower machinery and fuel costs, better nutritional value and greater drought tolerance. All of this makes GM technology (also known as agricultural biotechnology) an option for farmers across the developing world; from small-scale sorghum farmers in sub-Saharan Africa, to rice farmers in Asia.

2.4. Drought tolerance technology, which allows crops to withstand periods of low soil moisture, is anticipated to be commercialised within 5 years. The technology will have particular relevance for areas like sub-Saharan Africa, where drought is a common occurrence and access to irrigation is limited.

2.5. A number of internationally-respected reports have recognised the role of GM in dealing with the challenges faced by the developing world. In January, the Government Office for Science published the Foresight Report on Global Food and Farming Futures. It called for the inclusion of GM as a key part of the approach of policy makers to meeting soaring demand and pressure on resources and for a sensible and science based assessment of the role that the technology can play.

3. Effective models and mechanisms for developing research capacity in developing world

3.1. abc member companies are partners in a number of (non-DfID related) initiatives for resource poor farmers, for example in collaboration with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and other NGO’s. Most commentators agree that such public-private partnerships are the best way forward in many cases.

3.2. Positive and robust regulatory regimes in other parts of the world have allowed public private partnerships to flourish, with local scientists taking the lead on producing tailored crops for specific climatic conditions. An example of an abc partnered initiative in relation to the development of disease-resistant GM bananas in Uganda is provided below.

3.3. In central Uganda, one of the main banana-growing regions, Banana Xanthomonas Wilt (BXW) hits up to 80 per cent of farms, sometimes wiping out entire fields. To get rid of BXW, it is necessary to dig up and burn the affected plants, disinfect all machinery and tools and allow the ground to lie fallow for six months before replanting. For small-scale farmers, leaving their gardens lying empty for this long is not an option, and they switch to other crops.

3.4. Bananas are the staple food of Uganda and are the country's second largest cash-crop after coffee. The disease is endangering the livelihoods of the nations' farmers, 75 per cent of who grow bananas, and threatening an important food source in one of the poorest nations in the world. Damage caused by BXW is now estimated to cost farmers in the East Africa region half a million US dollars per year.

3.5. The International Institute for Tropical Agriculture and the African Agricultural Technology Foundation have been developing a GM solution to the problem of BXW, in conjunction with a Taiwanese biotechnology institute, Academia Sinica (AS). AS has issued IITA and the AATA with a royalty-free licence to use its Hypersensitive Response Assisting Protein (HRAP) gene technology. As successfully transplanted the sweet pepper HRAP gene into the other vegetables where it produces a protein that kills cells infected by disease-spreading bacteria. This is the first time it has been tried with a banana, although initial trials are promising, with six out of eight strains showing 100 per cent resistance to BXW. Development of wilt-resistant GM bananas has now progressed to the confined field-crop testing stage and is showing promise. [4]

3.6. At the same time, Ugandan banana farmer Mr. Erostus Wilberforce Njuki set up Agro Genetic Technologies – (AGT) the only private enterprise firm in Uganda that uses biotechnology to produce tissue cultures for crops such as bananas that have historically suffered from disease. AGT has a capacity to produce 5 million banana planting materials which are distributed through a chai n of 26 nurseries, five of which are owned and operated by AGT and 21 others are operated by farmer organizations with the support of the National Agricultural Advisory Services. AGT also operates one nursery in Kigali , Rwanda . Currently, through the National Agricultural Research Organisation (NARO), AGT is currently conducting research into GM Bananas enhanced with vitamin A, as well as research on bacterial wilt and Black Sigatoka resistance .

3.7. abc therefore suggests that a more effective regulatory regime in Europe would lead to a flourishing of public private partnerships, leading to significant injections of funding into research centres such as the National Institute for Agricultural Botany (NIAB) whose agricultural R&D could then be applied across the developing world in order to tackle food security.

4. The role of DfID in supporting agricultural technology research in the developing world

4.1. The UK Government, through the Department for International Development, is heavily involved in supporting agricultural projects in the developing world, through organisations such as the African Agricultural Technology Foundation.

4.2. DfID works in partnership with research funders and institutes in the developed world to ensure that their advanced expertise in agricultural technology is directed towards solving global problems.

4.3. DFID has already demonstrated its willingness to invest in research into the expanded role that GM technology could play in adapting crops to the conditions brought about by climate change in the developing world. However, this funding is being directed overseas because the current EU process for regulating agricultural biotechnology is heavily politicised and dysfunctional.

4.4. A good example of these partnerships is the recent grants from DfID and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to the Durable Rust Resistance in Wheat (DRRW) project at Cornell University in the US.

4.5. Through this new collaboration, Cornell University will continue its work to develop GM wheat varieties that are resistant to emerging strains of stem rust disease, such as Ug99, which are spreading out of East Africa and threatening the world’s wheat supply. Kenya is among countries set to benefit from the research, which will support efforts to identify new stem rust resistant genes in wheat, improve surveillance, and multiply as well as distribute GM rust-resistant seeds to farmers.

4.6. DfID has made a five year grant of $15 million to the project, while the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation will provide $25 million.

4.7. However, this $15 million of UK tax payer funding could have been invested in UK research. This is mostly due to the erosion of industrial R&D over the past decade caused by the current EU process for regulating agricultural biotechnology. In addition, abc believes that more thought should be given by the Government to how the remaining UK research base could provide solutions to the challenges identified.

4.8. abc welcomes this commitment by DfID to the research and development of agricultural biotechnology solutions to some of the key challenges facing global agriculture. However, it is regrettable that such a significant investment was not made in the UK, thereby increasing the ability of the UK research sector to achieve its full potential in addressing the challenges facing global food supply.

4.9. Through its refusal to allow the cultivation of biotechnology, Europe is continuing to erode the industrial R&D base including jobs, skills and corporate infrastructure across the EU which is required to catch up with global competitors and contribute to tackling issues such as food security in the developing world.

Agricultural Biotechnology Council

16 December 2011

[1] International Fund for Agricultural Development. (2011). Rural Poverty Report. IFAD

[2] Overseas Development Institute. Agricultural Productivity and Poverty in Developing Countries. ODI

[3] ISAAA, (2011) Global Status of Commercialized Biotech/GM Crops: 2010




Prepared 22nd December 2011