Tag Archives: CGIAR

Climate change: Countries at loggerheads over how to share benefits from genetic plant data

Rich and poor countries are at loggerheads over how to share benefits from genetic plant data that could help breed crops better able to withstand climate change, as negotiations to revise a global treaty are set to resume in Rome on Monday.

The little-known agreement is seen as crucial for agricultural research and development on a planet suffering rising hunger, malnutrition and the impacts of climate change.

“We need all the ‘genetics’ around the world to be able to breed crops that will adapt to global warming,” said Sylvain Aubry, a plant biologist who advises the Swiss government.

Rising temperatures, water shortages and creeping deserts could reduce both the quantity and quality of food production, including staple crops such as wheat and rice, scientists have warned.

The debate over “digital sequence information” (DSI) has erupted as the cost of sequencing genomes falls, boosting the availability of genetic plant data, Aubry said.

“A lot of modern crop breeding relies on these data today,” he added.

At the same time, the capability of machines to process vast amounts of that data to identify special crop traits such as disease resistance or heat tolerance has grown.

Pierre du Plessis, an African technical advisor on treaty issues, said companies and breeders can use DSI to identify the genetic sequence of a desired plant trait and send it by e-mail to a gene foundry that prints and mails back a strand of DNA.

“Then you use gene-editing technology to incorporate that strand into a plant. So you have created a new variety without accessing the trait in biological form,” he said.

That process could enable businesses to circumvent the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture which stipulates that the benefits derived from using material from species it covers – including money and new technology – must be shared.

Developing states, which are home to many plant species such as maize and legumes used in breeding, hope to add digital sequence information to the treaty’s scope.

This would force companies and breeders that develop new commercial crops from that data to pay a percentage of their sales or profits into a fund now managed by the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

The fund’s resources are used to conserve and develop plant genetic resources – the basis of the foods humans eat – so that farmers, particularly in the developing world, can cope better with a warming climate.

Most wealthy nations, which are generally more active in seed production, argue digital information on plant genetics should be available to use without an obligation to share benefits.

“There’s almost no one still doing the old-fashioned, ‘let’s try it and see’ breeding. It’s all based on the understanding of genome and a lot of CRISPR gene editing creeping in,” said du Plessis.

CRISPR is a technology that allows genome editing in plant and animal cells. Scientists say it could lead to cures for diseases driven by genetic mutations or abnormalities, and help create crops resilient to climate extremes.

But developing nations and civil society groups such as the Malaysia-based Third World Network say companies that develop new crop varieties using this information could lock access to their critical traits using intellectual property rights.

SCIENCE FICTION?

The treaty row emerged in late October when representatives of governments, the seed industry, research organisations and civil society attended a meeting at FAO headquarters in Rome.

Negotiations have been going on for more than six years to update the treaty, which came into force in 2004 and governs access to 64 crops and forage plants judged as key to feeding the world.

Last month, the United States, Canada, Australia, Japan and Germany rejected a proposal from the co-chairs of the talks to include “information, including genetic sequence data” in the treaty’s provisions on benefit-sharing.

Africa, India, Latin America and the Caribbean pushed back but the meeting ended without a compromise, which negotiators now hope to secure before the treaty’s governing body meets on Nov. 11.

The International Seed Federation, a body representing the $42-billion seed industry, says plant breeding still requires the use of physical material and it is too early to set the rules on genetic data.

“Developing policy based on speculation and on things that are bordering on scientific fiction doesn’t seem wise,” said Thomas Nickson,  who attended the Rome talks for the federation.

“It is critical to have the information publicly available, especially for small companies in developing countries,” he added.

But Edward Hammond, an advisor to Third World Network, said small farmers needed support, and open access to plant data should not mean a “no-strings-attached free-for-all”.

“Resilience to climate change is being grown in the fields,” he said. “Interesting and new varieties are appearing in the fields as they adapt. This is not coming from companies using new seeds.”

Kent Nnadozie, secretary of the treaty, said if it were agreed the genetic data should be freely available, it would be mostly developed countries that had the capacity, resources and technology to put it to use.

“The fear is that (this) perpetuates and reinforces an unfair system or… amplifies it,” he said.

Concerns over increasing privatization and monopolization of food crops – which experts say threaten agricultural biodiversity – played a role in the treaty’s origins.

Its aim was to build a multilateral approach to access and exchange plant resources, with “fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising from their use” as a means to address historical imbalances between farmers and seed companies.

While breeders and seed firms rarely pay for the knowledge and genetic resources they source from farmers and indigenous peoples, farmers usually have to buy the seeds of the improved crop varieties businesses produce and sell.

So far, more than 5.4 million samples of plant genetic resources have been transferred under the treaty between governments, research institutes and the private sector in 181 countries, its secretariat said.

A large majority of those transfers are improved materials from CGIAR, the global agricultural research network, to public-sector research organizations in developing countries tackling food security issues, said Michael Halewood, head of policy at Bioversity International, a CGIAR center.

“Countries around the world have always been interdependent on crop genetic resources. Climate change is making us all more interdependent than ever on those resources,” he said.

Funding injection needed to help poor farmers cope with climate

A doubling of international funding for agricultural science is needed to help half a billion small farmers cope with climate change – or the world risks mass migration and widespread instability, said the head of a major farm research network.

Investment is “woefully short” of the amounts required for farmers to adapt to more extreme weather and cut planet-warming emissions from their activities, said Elwyn Grainger-Jones, executive director of CGIAR, a global group of agriculture research centers.

“If people are preoccupied with issues such as security, then they’d better take a closer look at what’s going to happen if a significant share of those 500 million smallholder farmers loses their livelihoods,” he warned.

Worsening droughts and floods have already slashed yields of staple crops, as the planet warms, and “dreadful” predictions show a further decrease in future of up to 40% in maize harvests and up to 15% for millet and sorghum, he said.

If farmers abandon their land and migrate to cities without proper planning and compete for limited natural resources there, “that will create a spiraling security situation around Europe and globally”, Grainger-Jones told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview.

“I think we are barely looking around the corner of what that means for us,” he said ahead of a U.N. summit on Monday where a push is due to be made for more agricultural funding, as governments promise to boost action to tackle climate change.

The CGIAR head said he hoped they would pledge to raise funding for his network to $2 billion a year from the current level of nearly $1 billion.

The Global Commission on Adaptation, chaired by billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates, World Bank CEO Kristalina Georgieva and former U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, also urged a cash injection for CGIAR in a flagship report published last week.

The network’s 15 non-profit research centers have provided poor farmers with varieties of high-yielding maize and potatoes, and disease-resistant rice and wheat for nearly half a century.

But to feed a growing population nutritiously without clearing more forests or losing species will require more backing for innovation and research, Grainger-Jones said.

A doubling of funding would help speed up the network’s new 10-year strategy which includes developing farming systems that can adapt to drier and hotter weather, sea-level rise and flooding, while emitting less greenhouse gases, he said.

Small farmers in poor countries also need access to new technologies, especially smartphones, that can help them get timely weather information and tailored advice, just like farmers in industrialized countries, he added.

The United Nations said in a recent report that land must be used more wisely to curb global warming, as agriculture, forestry and other land activities accounted for nearly a quarter of man-made greenhouse gas emissions from 2007-2016.

“Agriculture is victim and villain in all of this. It’s got to change urgently,” said Grainger-Jones.

REUTERS

Food-borne Illnesses Cost US$ 110 Billion Per Year in Low and Middle Income Countries – World Bank

 

World Bank President

 

 

A new World Bank study finds that the impact of unsafe food costs low and middle income economies about US$ 110 billion in lost productivity and medical expenses each year. Yet a large proportion of these costs could be avoided by adopting preventative measures that improve how food is handled from farm to fork. Better managing the safety of food would also significantly contribute to achieving multiple Sustainable Development Goals, especially those relating to poverty, hunger, and well-being.

Food borne diseases caused an estimated 600 million illnesses and 420,000 premature deaths in 2010 according to World Health Organization. This global burden of food borne disease is unequally distributed. Relative to their population, low- and middle-income countries in South Asia, Southeast Asia, and sub-Saharan Africa bear a proportionately high burden. They account for 41 percent of the global population yet 53 percent of all food borne illness and 75 percent of related deaths. Unsafe food threatens young children the most: although children under 5 make up only 9 percent of the world’s population, they account for almost 40 percent of food borne disease and 30 percent of related deaths.

The Safe Food Imperative: Accelerating Progress in Low- and Middle-Income Countries translates these grim statistics into economic terms to focus government attention on the need for greater investment, better regulatory frameworks, and measures that promote behavior change. The total productivity loss associated with food borne disease in low- and middle-income countries is estimated to cost US$ 95.2 billion per year, and the annual cost of treating food borne illnesses is estimated at US$ 15 billion. Other costs, though harder to quantify, include losses of farm and company sales, foregone trade income, the health repercussions of consumer avoidance of perishable yet nutrient-rich foods, and the environmental burden of food waste.

“Food safety receives relatively little policy attention and is under-resourced. Action is normally reactive to major food borne disease outbreaks or trade interruptions rather than preventative,” Juergen Voegele, Senior Director the Food and Agriculture Global Practice at the World Bank said. “By focusing on domestic food safety more deliberately, countries can strengthen the competitiveness of their farmers and food industry and develop their human capital. After all, safe food is essential to fuel a healthy, educated, and resilient workforce.”

For many low- and middle-income countries, rapid demographic and dietary changes among others are contributing to wider exposure of populations to food borne hazards, stretching if not overwhelming prevailing capacity to manage food safety risks. The Safe Food Imperative: Accelerating Progress in Low- and Middle-Income Countries schematically describes the alignment or lack of alignment between food safety risks and the capacity to manage them as countries develop economically and food systems and diets transform. The study finds that the gap is the most pronounced “in the middle of the pack,” that is, among lower-middle income countries, and it offers targeted recommendations to address these.

“Governments in low and middle income countries not only need to invest more in food safety but also invest more smartly,” Steven Jaffee, Lead Agriculture Economist at the World Bank and study co-author said. “This means investing in foundational knowledge, human resources, and infrastructure; realizing synergies among investments in food safety, human health, and environmental protection; and using public investment to leverage private investment.”

The study also supports a shift in approaches to food safety regulation. The traditional approach centers on enforcing regulatory compliance through product testing and food facility inspections, and the application of legal and financial penalties for infractions. Greater emphasis is needed on providing information and other resources to motivate and empower food sector operators to comply with food safety regulation.

“The results of regulation should be measured in terms of compliant enterprises, confident consumers, and food safety outcomes rather than the number of fines or business closures,” says Jaffee.

The Safe Food Imperative: Accelerating Progress in Low- and Middle-Income Countries was supported by the US Food and Drug Administration. It is a collaborative effort involving multiple researchers and practitioners and draws on data and insights from the CGIAR Research Program on Agriculture for Nutrition and Health, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the World Bank, the World Health Organization, the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE), and other partners.

(World Bank)