Genetic Intensification: An Essential but Not Sufficient Tool in the Fight Against Hunger

3 septembre 2013
Gordon Conway, Professor of International Development at Imperial College, London, and Director of Agriculture for Impact (

L’intensification génétique, un outil essentiel mais non suffisant pour combattre la faim

Today, the world is searching for solutions to a series of global challenges unprecedented in their scale and complexity. Food insecurity, malnutrition, climate change, rural poverty and environmental degradation, among others, persist as global leaders strive to find efficient and synergistic ways of tackling them sustainably.

In Africa alone over 200 million people are chronically hungry, many of whom are smallholder farmers, and 40% of children under the age of 5 are stunted. At the same time, the continent’s population is growing rapidly and is experiencing serious declines in the agricultural resource base with present food production systems only expected to be able to meet 13% of the continent's food needs by 2050.

A New Paradigm for Agriculture

A recent report, entitled Sustainable Intensification: A New Paradigm for African Agriculture, by the Montpellier Panel, a group of African and European experts in the fields of agriculture, sustainable development, trade and policy, outlines their solution to our food and environmental challenges, namely sustainable intensification.

The term ‘sustainable intensification’, first coined by Jules Pretty and brought to prominence in a 2009 Royal Society report and more recently in the FAO's Save and Grow report, can be simply defined as "producing more outputs with more efficient use of all inputs - on a durable basis - while reducing environmental damage and building resilience, natural capital and the flow of environmental services".

Sometimes viewed as a Trojan horse for the implantation of large-scale, industrial agriculture – increasing yields through an increase in the use of fertilisers and pesticides while paying lip service to the environment -, the report redefines sustainable intensification as relevant to smallholder farmers in Africa.
As the report explains, smallholder African farmers require innovation on three fronts, ecological, genetic and socio-economic, if they are to increase their production, incomes and nutrition for the long term.Out of these three, genetic intensification, altering a crop variety or livestock breed’s genetic make-up, has proven controversial, particularly in the case of genetic modification (GM).  

But genetic intensification encompasses a whole range of other technologies from conventional breeding to marker-assisted selection (MAS) and tissue culture. Rapid advances in crop breeding and biotechnology mean sustainability, resilience and increased yields can be built directly into the seed, and thus, when combined with environmental, social and economic considerations, can be transformative to on-farm productivity and nutrition.

Genetic Intensification in Practice

Orange-fleshed sweet potatoes have been conventionally bred in Mozambique to contain higher levels of beta-carotene, the pre-cursor of vitamin A, which is often lacking in staple diets. The breeding programme, begun in 1997, had distributed improved planting material to half a million households by 2005. In response to a severe drought in the country, the programme then began an accelerated breeding programme incorporating drought tolerance and by 2011 with 15 new drought-resistant varieties released, capable of producing 15 tons/ha.

One on-going project, the Water Efficient Maize for Africa (WEMA) partnership, aims to develop some 15 new drought-tolerant maize varieties using a whole range of conventional and biotechnological breeding processes, including GM.The resulting varieties will be marketed royalty-free to smallholder farmers in Kenya, Mozambique, South Africa, Uganda and Tanzania. The next phase of the project is developing drought-tolerant maize varieties also resistant to pests such as stem borers, which may present even more of a barrier to increasing agricultural productivity in a changing climate.

In East Africa, bananas are an important crop but have been devastated by Black Sigatoka fungus, a leaf spot disease, decreasing productivity by as much as 40%. Because new plants are grown directly from cuttings from a “mother plant”, any diseases present are transferred. Since 1995 the Kenyan Agricultural Research Institute (KARI) has made available tissue culture bananas, rapidly cloned disease-free plants. As a result banana production has doubled up to 2004 and more than tripled in average yield. In the last decade over 6 million tissue cultured banana stems have been planted in Kenya, producing an additional income of some $64 million to banana farmers.

The Need for All Forms of Intensification

The oncoming challenges the world faces, be they nutrition, drought or disease-related, will require considerable human ingenuity and innovativeness. Rapid advances in biotechnology hold great potential for transforming the agricultural sector. But we must be judicious. Whether conventional or biotechnological, every technology will need to be reviewed on a case-by-case basis to assess social, environmental and health-related impacts, weighing the risks against the benefits and ensuring new technologies are appropriate.

Genetic, ecological and socio-economic intensification combined are crucial to the success of these initiatives. For example, alongside the research and development, a business model known as Wangigi and piloted by Africa Harvest has greatly increased access to tissue culture banana outlets for 3,500 farmers.

Sustainable intensification can be relevant and beneficial as a prevailing paradigm for smallholder African farmers, prioritising equally the concurrent needs to boost productivity and profitability while promoting equitable access to resources and sound environmental management. Promising examples of sustainable intensification are already being seen throughout Africa, albeit on a small scale. If sustainable intensification is to have real impact, interventions will need to be scaled up and action will need to be taken on all three fronts, ecological, socio-economic and, equally important, genetic. All tools are needed to fight hunger and malnutrition, and promote agricultural growth to stimulate development.


1 commentaire(s)
Sélectionneur de tournesol et de maïs pendant toute ma carrière je suis convaincu que l'intensification génétique est une voie majeure pour relever les défis de l'alimentation humaine en particulier en Afrique, et cela d'autant plus que l'utilisation de pesticides sera plafonnée ou réduite pour des raisons écologiques et économiques. Cependant mon expérience de sélectionneur de terrain, en particulier dans le Sud de l'Europe et le bassin méditerranéen m'a souvent montré que les résultats de l'intensification génétique peuvent être limités par la faiblesse des conditions agronomiques, surtout fertilisation et irrigation. Bien que ce soit mon métier je placerais l'intensification génétique en troisième position, après fertilisation et irrigation dans les priorités du développement agricole.
Ecrit le 3 septembre 2013 par : Jean Beigbeder 2853

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