Applicability of Biotechnology to Specific Agricultural Objectives

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In Asia, biotechnology has been applied mainly to develop improved varieties adapted to specific environments. Specific areas where new applications of biotechnology could address poverty reduction and food security are summarized as follows:

(i) Increasing Productivity and Stability of Crops in Rainfed and Marginal Environments. Producing more food on the same area of cultivated land would reduce pressure to expand cultivated areas to forests and marginal areas. Broadening tolerance of existing HYV cereals for drought, flooding, salinity, heavy metals, and other abiotic and biotic stresses would increase yields in rainfed areas. CIMMYT and IRRI, in cooperation with NARSs in different countries, are focusing their efforts to develop HYVs of rice and maize for rainfed areas.

(ii) Improving Water Use Efficiency in Crops. Future availability of water for agriculture is a major issue. By 2020, there may be a water crisis in Asian agriculture (ADB 2000c). Crops with higher water use efficiency and tolerance for drought would be an advantage. With the completion of the rice genome, scientists will be able to identify genes responsible for drought tolerance.

(iii) Integrated Pest Management (IPM) Strategies to Reduce Pesticide Use. The insecticides now used in many developing countries are often older, broad spectrum, acutely toxic compounds. Many are now banned in industrial countries except for export. They are a significant health hazard to farmers and farm workers throughout Asia. Over 80 percent of total pesticide use in Asia is on cotton, rice, and vegetables.

In the past, governments encouraged the use of chemical pesticides as part of a yield-increasing package of farm inputs, and some governments still subsidize pesticides. The need is now recognized for more sustainable approaches to IPM to reduce losses to pests without harmful side effects on human health and the environment. New pest- and disease-resistant crops, produced with the aid of modern biotechnology, may be important components of IPM strategies (Persley 1996).

Early applications are being seen in the use of novel sources of resistance (Bt genes) to control insect pests on maize and cotton. New pest-resistant cotton varieties are being grown widely in the PRC by 3 million farmers covering 500,000 ha (Pray 2000). Similar cotton varieties are undergoing field tests in India, Indonesia, and Thailand. Genetically modified maize resistant to insect pests is being tested in the Philippines.

(iv) Increasing Disease Resistance in Crops. Biotechnology applied to disease resistance in crops would be especially valuable for combating diseases in tropical environments that have not been controlled by conventional means. These include important diseases such as downy mildew of maize; bacterial blight and blast of rice, papaya ringspot virus; banana bunchy top virus; and bacterial wilt of tomato, eggplant, and potato.

(v) Increasing Nutritional Quality. Enhancing the protein, vitamin, and micronutrient contents of food grains would greatly benefit poor consumers who cannot afford supplementary vitamins and micronutrients. Under the Golden Rice Project, IRRI scientists are undertaking biotechnology research to enhance the vitamin A content of rice by introducing genes from daffodil (IRRI 2001).

(vi) Increasing Sustainable Production of Livestock. Research to increase the productivity and quality of farm animals, especially of dairy cows, small ruminants (sheep and goats), and water buffalo is promising. Vaccines and disease diagnostics for control of epidemic and endemic diseases of livestock are being developed.

(vii) Increasing Productivity in Fisheries and Aquaculture. Development of vaccines and disease diagnostics for control of epidemic and endemic diseases of shrimp in Thailand is a good example of where modern biotechnology has been used successfully (Box 3).

Box 5.3: The Success Story of Shrimp Biotechnology in Thailand

Shrimp is one of the top 10 exports for Thailand, generating about $1.5 billion in annual export earnings. In 1999, there were about 25,000 shrimp farms, producing 240,000 t valued at 87 billion baht ($ 1.8 billion), and employing about 1 30,000 people.

Diseases are a major constraint in the production of cultivated shrimp. In 1994, the white spot syndrome virus became a major disease in the PRC, and quickly spread to the rest of Asia, including Thailand. The disease caused a sharp drop in shrimp production in the PRC from 1 55,000 t to 35,000 t, a decline of about 77 percent. National Center for Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology (BIOTEC) quickly supported research at the Universities of Chulalongkorn and Mahidol to develop DNA probe technology for the rapid detection of major shrimp pathogens. Rapid diagnostic reagents were quickly developed, the technology was transferred to the shrimp industry, and the virus was effectively controlled. It is estimated that shrimp biotechnology research and development has yielded a net benefit of about $ 1 billion since 1996. That constitutes a return on investment of 5,000 times in a single year, since the total cost of the biotechnology was only $200,000.

Source: Morakot Tanticharoen (2000).

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