Improving Seeds to Meet Future Challenges

by | 2.8.2013 at 6:18pm
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Perennial rice seeds.

Will there be enough food to feed the world in the future? The global population will likely hit 9 billion by 2050, climate change is bringing about extreme weather and altering agricultural conditions, and around the globe, 925 million people still go hungry.

Scientists and agronomists are racing to develop seeds that are higher yielding, more nutritious, and drought and climate resilient to meet these challenges. But while some experts believe genetically modified seeds are the only solution to the problem, others claim small-scale organic agriculture is more effective and sustainable. This is a look at some of the ways seeds are being improved.

First, a definition of the different types of seeds that exist.

Open pollinated seeds are those produced from natural, random pollination. Traditionally, farmers saved the best of these seeds for use from year to year.

Hybrid seeds result from cross-breeding two parent plants that have desirable traits. The resulting plants realize their potential in the first season, but lose effectiveness in subsequent generations so farmers must buy new seeds each year.

Genetically modified seeds are created when one or two genes with the desired traits from any living organism are transferred directly into the plant’s genome.

Higher Yields

Higher yields are achieved when seed heads produce more seeds per head or bigger seeds; but plants with tall stalks cannot always support the added weight. In the 1960s, as India was facing famine, the American agronomist Norman Borlaug developed dwarf wheat varieties with stalks that could support larger seeds and brought them to Punjab. By 1970, wheat yields in Punjab had tripled, provided the seeds were given sufficient water and synthetic fertilizer.

Norman Borlaug (second from left) and shipments of dwarf wheat. Photo: CIMMYT

Between the mid-1950s and mid-1990s, Borlaug and other researchers succeeded in more than doubling the yields of wheat, rice and corn, averting a mass famine, and kickstarting the “Green Revolution.” Using hybrid seeds, fossil fuel-based fertilizer and pesticides, and intensified irrigation, the Green Revolution greatly increased agricultural output throughout the state.

Since the mid-1990s, however, Punjab’s crop yields have stalled, due to increasing complications from Green Revolution techniques. Excessive irrigation has resulted in rapidly falling water tables. Soil health has been depleted. The adoption of high yield varieties has led to more monocultures and decreased biodiversity. And farmers are now dependent on expensive inputs that profit big companies, rather than traditional farming methods that draw on local resources and skills.

Sub-Saharan Africa, where 239 million people go hungry, has not been able to recreate Asia’s Green Revolution. The reasons are many: poor infrastructure, political instability, little access to credit, minimal fertilizer use, and the limited availability of high-yielding seeds. Agricultural productivity here has been outstripped by the growing population.

Malawi, one of the world’s poorest countries, has 13 million people who depend on agriculture to survive. Many grow maize in depleted soil on small farms. For a time, however, Malawi experienced an agricultural “miracle.” During the 2004-2005 growing season, insufficient rainfall almost caused total crop failure. The Malawi government established a program to subsidize inputs­­, giving farmers coupons to buy improved open pollinated seeds or higher yielding hybrid seeds and fertilizer.

These maize fields in Malawi were planted at the same time, but the field on the right was treated with fertilizer. Photo: John Duffell

At the same time, The Millennium Villages Project, set up by the Earth Institute and the U.N. Development Programme to tackle extreme poverty through an integrated, sustainable approach, was established in the Malawi village of Mwandama. Here, households were given 10 kilograms of hybrid maize seed and the fertilizer needed to grow it; in return, they had to donate two bags of grain to the local grain bank for use by the schools.

With good rain, Malawi’s maize harvest doubled in 2006, and almost tripled in 2007. The government subsidy program transformed Malawi into a food exporter and became a model for other African countries. For a while, it seemed to herald a new African “green revolution.” But today Malawi is once again facing serious food shortages. Political corruption, economic mismanagement and severe flooding have derailed progress. Joyce Banda, Malawi’s new president, is now trying to establish a new food policy to get the country back on track.

Proponents of genetically modified seeds claim they can increase yield and are necessary to feed the growing global population. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has given $9.8 million to British scientists researching ways to genetically modify corn, wheat and rice seeds so that they can extract nitrogen from the atmosphere, which would reduce or eliminate the need for expensive nitrogen fertilizer. Katherine Kahn, senior program officer of agricultural development at the Gates Foundation, said, “Improving access to nitrogen could dramatically boost the crop yields of farmers in Africa.”

Genetically modified rice plants. Photo: BASF

Physicist/environmentalist Vandana Shiva argues that Bill Gates is “totally wrong on this assumption that genetically modified seeds produce more.” She contends that small-scale, biologically diverse farms can produce more food with fewer fossil fuel-based inputs.

A 2008 study undertaken by the World Bank, the U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization and others from around the world, concurs. It reports that  “…better use of local resources in small scale agriculture can improve productivity and generate worthwhile innovations, and agroecological/organic farming can achieve high production efficiencies on a per area basis and high energy use efficiencies, and that on both these criteria, they may outperform conventional industrial farming.”

Climate Resilience

In the last 30 years, global corn and wheat production has decreased 3 to 5 percent as a result of the warming climate. According to the Rockefeller Foundation, by 2030, maize production in Southern Africa could drop 30 percent due to climate change.

Biotech companies are racing to develop drought tolerant seeds that will fare better in hot, dry conditions. Dupont and Syngenta have developed drought-tolerant hybrid corn varieties that have not been genetically modified. Monsanto touts its DroughtGard Hybrid genetically modified corn as biotech’s first drought solution that is “designed to help farmers mitigate the risk of yield loss when experiencing drought stress.”

A report by the Union of Concerned Scientists, found that DroughtGard produces only “modest results”— about 6 percent more drought protection than non-engineered varieties—and only under “moderate drought conditions”; it does not reduce the crop’s need for water. The genetically modified corn would boost the overall productivity of the U.S. corn crop by only about 1 percent.

Genetically modified seeds are controversial because few tests of genetically modified crops have measured their effects on humans. Seeds genetically modified to be herbicide-tolerant or carry a built-in pesticide have led to the development of new super pests and super weeds. Genetically modified crops also have significant socio-economic impacts. Because the seeds are proprietary, farmers must pay royalties to use them and purchase new seeds every season, facing rising costs, and often increasing debt.

Drought tolerant maize ready for distribution in Malawi. Photo: CIMMYT

The Gates Foundation also funds the Drought Tolerant Maize for Africa project which is developing drought tolerant varieties using conventional breeding techniques. More than 100 drought-tolerant varieties have been distributed to small farmers.

Vandana Shiva’s Navdanya (which means nine seeds) Biodiversity Farm in India is developing climate-resilient crops by saving 1500 varieties of seeds and growing them out, using organic methods that enhance natural processes and cycles, and allowing plants to naturally adapt to changing climate conditions. Navdanya has also established 111 community seed banks across India, creating stores of climate-resistant crops. Shiva’s research has shown that using compost instead of fossil fuel-derived fertilizer increases organic matter in the soil, sequestering carbon and holding moisture, which helps mitigate the effects of climate change.

Most grains are annual crops from which farmers have traditionally saved the best seeds for the next season, gradually improving the seeds. Because perennial grains do not need to be replanted each year, they have not been improved as much over time. Perennial grains put most of their energy into roots and not into large seeds, but the deeper roots make better use of rainfall and deep soil water resources and lessen erosion. Since the seeds do not need to be replanted each season, they block weed growth and thus save on costs of pesticides and herbicides, as well as on energy and labor.  Scientists are using new plant breeding techniques to develop perennial grain crops which can match annual grain crops in yield yet retain their environmental benefits.

Improved Nutrition

In Timor-Leste, in Southeast Asia, 58 percent of children under 5 are  chronically malnourished, and almost 39 percent suffer from anemia. Jessica Fanzo, professor of nutrition at Columbia University’s Institute of Human Nutrition and director of nutrition policy at the Center for Globalization and Sustainable Development at the Earth Institute, is embarking on a new project to combat this crisis. She and colleague Sarah Curran are working with the government’s Seeds of Life program to incorporate nutrition into its work.

“Something is deeply wrong with how we are growing our food and distributing it—even in the U.S.—when 1.6 billion people are obese. The developing world offers a great opportunity not to repeat some of the mistakes the developed word has made, and a great place to start is with subsistence farmers,” said Fanzo.

A TImor-Leste rice field. Photo: Jessica Fanzo

Since 2001, Seeds of Life has been identifying high-yield varieties of Timor-Leste’s staple crops (corn, rice, cassava, sweet potato and peanuts) best suited to the country’s climate and setting up a national seed network to supply local farmers.

Fanzo explained that there are two ways to make diets more nutritious. The first is to promote varieties of seed that have been bred to be more nutritious. Since 70 to 80 percent of the developing world’s diet consists of carbohydrates, the idea is to pack more nutrients into the staple crops.

For example, Harvest Plus, part of the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research, Research Program, works on boosting micronutrients in seven staple crops the people of Asia and Africa most eat—cassava, maize, rice, wheat, sweet potato, beans and pearl millet. Iron, zinc and Vitamin A are the micronutrients usually lacking in the diets of millions of people. Harvest Plus breeds food crops naturally rich in these micronutrients, then “biofortifies” them by loading higher levels of minerals and vitamins into their seeds and roots during growth.

The second method of making diets more nutritious is to encourage farmers to grow more diverse crops, to utilize local and wild biodiversity, and to raise animals such as chickens and goats to provide a wider ranging and more nutritious diet.

Photo: Jessica Fanzo

Fanzo’s program will involve more than just improved seeds and diets. The multi-pronged approach includes persuading Seeds of Life and agronomists to begin incorporating nutrition into their work; figuring out how to increase nutrition in already established programs; training agriculture extension workers working for the government and private sector who provide seeds, technology and knowledge to farmers, to better understand nutrition and promote nutrition education among the farmers and women; and distributing nutrient dense seeds through Seeds of Life’s community seed groups. Eventually, Fanzo hopes to involve HarvestPlus as well.

The project will be presented to Timor Leste’s Ministry of Agriculture and non-governmental organizations in March 2013. If it gets the go-ahead, Seeds of Life would begin working with local  partners and communities on new initiatives.

Fanzo concluded, “There are so many around the world who are producing food. Let’s ensure that these producers grow nutritious crops and foods for consumption in an environmentally sustainable way that improves the nutrition of future generations. Timor Leste provides a great opportunity to build a resilient food system that is healthy.”

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