Tuesday, August 7, 2012


No one disputes that this Planet is heading for difficult days in a few years' time if food production does not keep pace with the expanding population. The debate revolves around the means required to achieve quantum jump in food production. Options like expanding the area of cultivation, increasing productivity through better inputs to agriculture and reducing wastage are good to talk about but are mired in uncertainties and road blocks which are difficult to be overcome easily. Genetically engineered agricultural crops are touted as an answer to the vexing food problem but unfortunately the GM technology has not been able to convince majority of scientists that it is a safe bet beyond a shade of doubt regarding its credentials to achieve perceptible yield increase. Another dimension to this problem is the inability of many poor farmers to cultivate available land due to economic limitations to harness the essential inputs to agriculture. Recent entry of large charitable organizations into efforts to generate technologies that can work efficiently without vital inputs like nitrogen fertilizers and water is a welcome development. Here is a report about such an effort by one such organization which wants to evolve cereal plants with an ability, like leguminous plants, to fix atmospheric nitrogen and self generate the required natural fertilizer.

"It is one of the largest single investments into GM in the UK and will be used to cultivate corn, wheat and rice that need little or no fertiliser.  It comes at a time when bio-tech researchers are trying to allay public fears over genetic modification. The work at the John Innes Centre in Norwich is hoped to benefit African farmers who cannot afford fertiliser. Agricultural fertiliser is important for crop production across the globe. But the many of the poorest farmers cannot afford fertiliser - and it is responsible for large greenhouse gas emissions. The John Innes Centre is trying to engineer cereal crops that could get nitrogen from the air - as peas and beans do - rather than needing chemical ammonia spread on fields. If successful, it is hoped the project could revolutionise agriculture and, in particular, help struggling maize farmers in sub-Saharan Africa - something the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is keen to do. 'Major problems' Professor Giles Oldroyd from the John Innes Centre, who is leading the team, said the project was vital for poorer producers and could have a "huge impact" on global agriculture. "We believe if we can get nitrogen fixing cereals we can deliver much higher yields to farmers in Africa and allow them to grow enough food for themselves." However, opponents of GM crops say results will not be achieved for decades at best, and global food shortages could be addressed now through improving distribution and cutting waste. Pete Riley, campaign director of the group GM Freeze, said there was a realisation by many farmers across the world that "GM is failing to deliver". "If you look in America, yields haven't increased by any significant amount and often go down," he said. He added: "Now we're seeing real, major problems for farmers in terms of weeds that are resistant to the herbicides which GM crops have been modified to tolerate."

While the gesture from organizations like the one above is worthy of appreciation, use of the funds exclusively to go in for genetic modification to alter the basic nature of cereal plants and their genetic signature may invite criticism from those having severe reservations regarding safety of GM crops. With most consumers shunning GM foods, if offered as a choice, how far the newly engineered crops will find acceptance is a question that begs for an answer. Alternate options like traditional hybridization and other possible techniques should not be ignored because development of new strains takes long years to fructify and world should have as many options as possible when the crunch comes.


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