Towards the Eradication of Global Hunger and Undernutrition
Enhancing Local Understanding With the Power of World Class Knowledge
While we tend to think in terms of hundreds of millions of deprived and stunted lives, the reality is that each starving child, each malnourished expectant mother, each person who does not have the energy to develop, learn or contribute is a horrible tragedy, and together these individual tragedies add up to an unacceptable loss to the human commonwealth. Simply stated hunger and undernutrition are among the most severe and least addressed challenges facing humanity today. Not only are they preventable, but success in addressing hunger and undernutrition, in achieving the objectives of MDG 1 is essential to meeting all the Millennium Development Goals.
“For the first time in history more than a billion people go to bed hungry each night” Robert Zoellick, President of the World Bank ( 2010).
Research and experience show that a holistic approach that focuses on addressing the issues on a national and local basis, looking at the activities and interrelationships of farmers, scientists including agricultural experts, seed-breeders, etc. as well as the role of the communities, civil society, the private sector, and key international organizations including UNICEF, UNCTAD, UNDP, FAO, IFAD and UNIDO, is the most sustainable approach towards achieving long-term food security for all.
Increased quantitative and qualitative productivity of seed, land, labor, water and capital as well as tolerance to drought and climate variations and resilience to disease and pests are among the most critical factors to effectively and efficiently address this challenge. To be effective and sustainable, approaches to increased productivity must take into account diversity at local level. Culture, traditions, habits and tastes are to be considered along with hard factors such as climate, soil chemistry, and access to water and above all to effectively compete against hunger and undernutrition. All stakeholders require appropriate access to leading edge technology. For example, high yielding seeds that are locally adapted require breeding that is done locally and this requires the on-going development of local human resources that have access to top level scientific support and methodology. In turn to make this function effectively and economically, the latest advances in communication, education, computation and data management must be brought in to play.
Within this context, the Fourth United Nations Conference on the Least Developed Countries (LDC-IV) held in Istanbul, Turkey 9-13 May 2011, concluded that proper agriculture technology for the development of new hybrid seeds and innovation in agronomy and horticulture are urgently needed.
The development of relevant technologies is already well advanced in Europe, the Americas and in parts of Asia. And a number of public and private research institutes have already shown concrete results and significant progress on some of the most daunting issues. However, at this moment there is a pressing need to enhance and strengthen links and cooperation between the broad array of potentially relevant stakeholders as well as to fully integrate the LDCs at the policy, scientific, financial and business levels in research, development and implementation.
This article provides an overview of a small sampling of agriculture technology providers using drought-resistance studies as concrete examples. The article then proposes some strategies on approaches to transfer and co-develop agricultural technologies specifically for LDCs and how LDC groups and coalitions can effectively and sustainably address the challenges of hunger and poverty at the national and local levels.
There are a number of agri-tech providers in Europe, the Americas and China that are able and willing to transfer knowledge and technologies as well as to facilitate co-development. Here is a small sampling:
- The Plant Systems Biology (PSB) department of VIB (Flanders Institute for Biotechnology) and Gent University in Belgium, which in 2010 was ranked the best plant biotechnology research in the world by the Australian Center of Excellence. In the eighties, Gent-based professors Marc Van Montagu and Jeff Schell created the base of developing technology to genetically modify plants. Over the past decade, VIB has made significant contributions to the optimizing of plants for the production of food, especially in the studies of high yield, drought-resistant plant seeds etc.
- CropDesign, a spin-off of VIB in 1998, now a BASF Plant Sciences Group, has a trait discovery program that is powered by the TraitMill™ platform, which is a unique platform for applied genomics. Through TraitMill™, the company is discovering a range of proprietary leads for yield-enhancement, drought tolerance and improved nutrient use efficiency, and is further testing and developing those leads in crops such as corn, soybean canola and rice with the aim to launch commercial products in these crops.
- The Institute of Plant Biotechnology for Developing Countries (IPBO), an initiative of Gent University founded by Em Prof. Marc van Montagu in 2000, has the mission to contribute to sustainable socio-economic development in low and middle income countries, by enabling access to the latest technologies in plant science and by assisting in the design of effective biosafety and regulatory mechanisms.
- BGI (formally known as Beijing Genomics Institute) in Shenzhen, China, boasting the world’s largest and most powerful genome sequencing platform. Together with Zhangjiakou Academy of Agriculture Sciences, they have researched and developed a hybrid Millet that has high land/labor productivity, pest resistant and drought tolerant. This variety of hybrid Millet had already field trials in various locations in China, Laos and Ethiopia with concrete and positive feedback from all key stakeholders.
- Some Netherlands excellence of agronomy technology providers are: Plant Research International (PRI) in Wageningen in the Netherlands, Technology Top Institute of Green Genetics (TTIGG) and its associated seed and plant biotech companies, such as Rijk Zwaan, Nunhems, Een Zaad etc. These institutes and companies already had very good collaborations with China in developing new plant varieties to produce higher yields and better nutrients.
- FuturaGene, an Israel-Brazil forest biotech company. It aims to solve the common problems faced by forestry and agriculture. It has well established platform for abiotic stress (drought, salt, cold tolerance) and yield enhancement gene discoveries and has already transformed varieties that showed enhanced tolerance.
- Cornell University’s System of Rice Intensification (SRI) or Systems of Crop Intensification (SCI), which is a set of good practices of farm technologies for increased yields, resistance to abiotic stresses like drought, resistance to pests and diseases etc. by better management of micro-environment such as soil, water and nutrients. It is not a fixed set of precise techniques, but an adaptable and variable system depends on the local field conditions. SRI has been reported to be successful in some Asia, Africa and Americas developing countries.
Looking at the specific examples dealing with drought-resistance, there is an array of studies to tackle this global yield-affecting problem from different angles. We focus on a few successful examples taken from the Netherlands, Belgium, etc. – small countries renowned for their advanced biotechnology and agricultural productivity. These examples are but the tip of the proverbial iceberg and are offered to show concretely a small part of what is being done and a clarion call for even greater efforts and contributions from every corner of the globe:
- PRI’s drought-resistant study focused on the structure of the wax layer on leaf that is a heterogeneous layer composed mainly of lipids. They have identified a “gain-of-function” mutant SHN that showed shiny green leaf surface with increased cuticular wax compared with leaves of wild-type plants. Biochemically, such plants were altered in wax composition showing reduced stomatal density (therefore, reduced transpiration and water loss). The transformed plants displayed significant drought tolerance.
- PSB’s study focused on mild drought stress. It showed that plants that survive extreme drought conditions do not grow better than under mild conditions. It also showed that plant hormone ethylene acts as a sensor of water availability and regulator for “pause-and-stop” of plant growth. If it senses limited water, it shuts down leaf growth; if the stress is only temporary, growth can resume. This research opens up new approaches to develop crop varieties that keep on growing during mild and temporary drought that mostly resemble the real field situation, avoiding yield losses and thus resulting in higher crop productivity.
- FuturaGene’s drought tolerance studies focused on the phytohormone, abscisic acid pathways that control many adaptive responses in plants. They have discovered key genes implicated in these pathways that regulate stomatal pore closure to reduce water loss through transpiration in order to enhance their tolerance to drought stress. Transformed plants showed enhanced tolerance.
The above mutant/transformed varieties could be further transferred and co-developed for field testing and application. This of course would not only help a LDC to solve pressing practical problems but also would lay the ground work and prepare the human, informational and other resources for in depth scientific assessment and future discoveries.
Looking at the extent of the challenge and the need for the proactive involvement of all relevant stakeholders, it can be argued that there is a need and definite role for a central coordinating agency that can push forward agriculture knowledge and technology transfer, provide the platform for co-development and integration of all stakeholders in each participating LDC. Given its mission, mandate and experience the United Nations Industry Development Organization (UNIDO) and its Agribusiness Development Branch would seem particularly well suited to play a leading role in such an effort.
It is imperative to proactively seek and work for increased joint public-private collaborative effort to achieve technology and knowledge transfer from developed to developing countries and to incentivize and support co-development in the war against hunger, undernutrition and poverty.
The key strategic steps proposed for consideration are:
- Building on the Istanbul conference work with the LDCs to further identify needs, threats and opportunities.
- Identify technology providers and other potential stakeholders/contributors of specialized institutions and industry representatives.
- Using existing structures, organize Expert Group Meetings , invite experts from developed countries and LDCs stakeholders; bring together and match-making supply (such as the technology providers mentioned above) and needs (LDCs stakeholders); identify, define and set specific goals for collaboration projects.
- Seek bilateral government supports and funding: set trust-funds and sign MoUs; The United Nations through a specialized agency such as UNIDO would function as a supervising/budget management/project managing agency to push and supervise the projects, to make sure IPR issues of the technology provider will not be infringed and make sure the knowledge is disseminated and knowledge and technology receiver do benefit from using it as well.
- Project implementation. Ensure that a project manager/multi-stakeholder task force is established in each country, with a multi-lateral organization to drive/coordinate the project process. Identify those who have the ability to mobilize resources/sources, can see the niche market potential and dare to ‘think-beyond-box’, as well as can lead multi-sector actions Leadership is a key to the successful implementation of the projects.
- Project progress will cover: training of LDCs experts and farmers, especially focus on empowering women (since women account for majority of the agriculture force in LDCs); agriculture-extension trainings; bio-safety trainings; seed Research & Development and breeder development; bilateral visits; exchanges and cross fertilization; identify and facilitate the role of Small and Medium Enterprises and encourage their participation in the whole agribusiness value-chains from upstream to downstream agro-products processing.
At LDC-IV (Istanbul, 2011), the Least Developed Countries concluded that proper agriculture technology for the development of new hybrid seeds and innovation in agronomy and horticulture are urgently needed.
While it might be tempting to return from Istanbul to the shelter of well-worded declarations and the comfort of the tried and true tracks of “business as usual”, the plea of the LDCs must serve as a clear and powerful call to take bold steps to address a problem that is effectively killing and debilitating hundreds of millions of us.
Only with a holistic approach centered on local realities, a clear commitment to joint learning and co-development supported by open access to state of the art technology, the rigors of scientific development and entrepreneurial innovativeness will it be possible for LDCs to acquire the necessary agriculture technologies that they need to sustainably produce sufficient food/nutrition to alleviate and eliminate hunger, undernutrition. Given these prerequisites and the political will to set firm goals, ensure enabling environment and resources and to address and overcome an array of concrete and intangible barriers including inertia, can the rapid, radical and disruptive progress needed by the hungry of the world be achieved.
To paraphrase Kofi Annan’s call at World Economic Forum, Davos 1999, lets us reconcile the authority of universal ideal, the power of science and the creativity of entrepreneurship to meet the needs of the disadvantaged and the requirements of future generations.
“I urge everyone to work towards such a comprehensive approach, and to do so in partnership, so that we can build on the progress we have made in reducing the numbers of hungry people. Let us unite against hunger and ensure food and nutrition security for all.” Ban Ki-moon – World Food Day, 2010.
Prof. Frederick Dubee, an advocate for the United Nations Global Compact since its inception in 2000, is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace Development Environment; professor (hc) BGI (formerly the Beijing Genomics Institute); executive director, Global Management Development Institute, Shanghai University; and teaches at the post graduate level in China, Switzerland and Australia. With extensive experience as an international business executive, his research interests focus on the role of business working in partnership with relevant stakeholders to overcome structural violence and accelerate sustainable development. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org
Dr.Xin-Ying Ren received her MSc in Biotechnology in 2002 and PhD in Plant Sciences in 2006 from Wageningen University and Research Center, The Netherlands and currently works as a technology transfer officer and an international scientific and business development consultant. Her major interests are to bridge knowledge and technology transfer from developed to developing countries and to empower women. Contact: email@example.com
This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 6 Jun 2011.
Anticopyright: Editorials and articles originated on TMS may be freely reprinted, disseminated, translated and used as background material, provided an acknowledgement and link to the source, TMS: Towards the Eradication of Global Hunger and Undernutrition, is included. Thank you.
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