Category: Agriculture
GOLDEN RICE: A “GOLDEN” GIFT…??

Golden rice

Golden rice(right) compared with normal white rice(left).

GMOs: A Brief Insight on the Topic

GMOs are the products, often controversial, of laboratory process of taking the desired gene(s) from one organism and inserting them in the other in an attempt to obtain the desired trait(s) in the organism by the process of genetic engineering. Unlike the product of traditional hybridization and breeding in which genetic recombination occurs between the individuals of similar organisms, a GMO contains the gene(s) of an entirely different organism(s), eg: fish gene(s) in tomatoes. Some really interesting genetic engineering experiments have been carried out by scientists around the world like insertion of jellyfish genes in pigs that make the pigs’ noses glow in the dark, genes of artic fishes inserted in tomatoes for frost resistance, insertion of spider genes in goat DNA in hopes that the goat milk would contain the spider web protein that could be used in bulletproof vests, and so on.

GOLDEN RICE

There are hardly any human nutrition and agriculture science related people who haven’t heard about  golden rice. To begin with, golden rice is a genetically modified variety of Oryza sativa which is enriched with beta carotene, a precursor of Vitamin A, in its edible part, the endosperm. It is a product of an eight year project by Ingo Potrykus of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology and Peter Beyer of the University of Frieburg. The first scientific article about golden rice was published in Science, 2000.

Golden rice aims at serving as an effective source of Vitamin A, the deficiency of which is estimated to kill about 600000 children each year under the age of five. The brown or white rice that we usually consume contains a very negligible amount of β-carotene(nearly 0%). So, Vitamin A deficiency is quite common in south Asian countries where the white and brown rice are the commonly consumed staple cereals.

As the name suggests, golden rice has an attractive yellow colour due to the presence of β(beta)- carotene, the very pigment which imparts yellow colour to vegetables like carrots and pumpkins. β-carotene is an organic compound, specifically a terpenoid. One molecule of β-carotene can be cleaved by the intestinal (duodenal) enzyme β, β-carotene 15,15′-monooxygenase into two molecules of vitamin A.

Golden rice contains three β-carotene synthesis genes:
i) psy (phytoene synthase) from Daffodil (Narcissus pseudonarcissus)
ii) crtl (carotene desaturase) from the bacterium Erwinia uredevora
iii) lcy (lycopene cyclase), which is naturally produced in wild type rice endosperm.

The original golden rice called SGR1 produces 1.6μg/g carotenoids under greenhouse conditions(later researches have shown that 4-5 times more carotenoids are produced from field grown plants than that at greenhouse conditions). In 2005, a biotechnology company called Syngenta created the Golden Rice 2 which produces 23 times more carotenoids than the former which solved the controversy regarding the little amount of Vitamin A yielded by golden rice. Studies have shown that golden rice is non allergic to humans, the bioavailability of vitamin A supplied by it is as good as from the non-GMO sources and β-carotene is a safe source of vitamin A and it does not pose any health hazards or threats to the consumers.

CONTROVERSIES

In spite of the humanitarian motives behind its creation, golden rice has received significant oppositions from the environmental, political and health activists which has limited its cultivation in research stations and a very few fields. IRRI(Int’l Rice Research Institute), Philippines often describes the protests and movements as movements against a humanitarian project that aims in the well- being of the nutrition deficient people of the developing countries. Some major controversies related with golden rice are:

  1. IRRI claims that the β-carotene synthesizing genes are in no way a threat to human health as these genes already occur naturally in carrots, pumpkins, spinach, etc. which are regularly consumed by people and such genetic recombinations occur naturally too. But many other scientists have an opposing viewpoint. They claim that GMOs pose various threats to animal and human health in the areas of toxicology, allergy and immune functions, reproductive health and genetic stability. GMOs are suspected to cause mutations which can result in tumours and cancers.
  2. Golden rice has been criticized politically too. Testing of consumer safety in Asian kids has received a lot of criticism as an inhumane act of using the kids as experimental guinea pigs.
  3. Environmentalists often fear that the introduction of foreign genotypes in an area can cause the displacement and even disappearance of the local ones. Also, many literatures have cited that GMOs can disturb the activities of the local insects, microflora and other organisms which can ultimately lead to their disappearance.
  4. Golden rice has also been described by some activists as a source of profit making by the biotechnology companies. However, IRRI has claimed that the distribution of seeds of golden rice along with other inputs shall take place only through IRRI itself with no profit margin whatsoever.

Thus, golden rice has hit some bumps along its road for some quite reasonable causes. Despite the claimed “humanitarian motive”, the controversies cannot be overlooked. Genetic engineering is a gift of modern biotechnology which has enabled us to do things that would have otherwise been impossible due to natural barriers. But the questions regarding the safety and environmental feasibility of GMOs stand still. Lets hope that we come out with a specific answer to these questions very soon. It’s going to be a long debate!!

 

Agricultural Transformation in Nepal

In some years, the government declares the subsidy on quality seed to ensure food security through increased productivity but in the whole fiscal year there is neither mechanism developed nor execution. Similarly, with regard to access to credit, the so called Agriculture Development Bank changed its policy to invest in non-agricultural portfolio and some other commercial bank like, Mega Bank which has alternative name for plough to power (to promote small scale business), but speaking truly it’s no more than slogan. There are several instances of such nature. Weak policy formulation, implementation, monitoring, evaluation and revision system together with inconsistency in agriculture is an important issue which has created frustration among farm families and out migration of youth from rural areas.

Agriculture in Nepal

A glimpse of paddy and maize farming in Nepal

Agriculture in Nepal is characterized by low productivity which is mainly due to predominance of traditional farming practices, heavy reliance on weather conditions and poor infrastructure development. Government has been developing Agriculture Development Strategy (ADS) to replace Agricultural Perspective Plan (APP) from 2015 with the concept of agricultural transformation, but the transformation process is not getting momentum due to small uneconomic farm size, resource constraints, inadequate infrastructure development, lack of alternative employment opportunities, lack of technical knowledge and business skills among farmers and inadequate policy supports.

Agriculture has been one of the pillars of the development since I was a child. The 6th National Agriculture Census (2011/12) shows that there are 3.831 million farming number where 60 percent of farmers are unable to feed from their own production. Data from CIA World Factbook (2013) shows that 75 percent of whole population depends upon agricultural activities contributing 30.8 percent to the national GDP. The agriculture sector is expected to grow by more than 5 percent but it was only by 3.6 percent in 2012/13, this condition was stated as ‘jobless growth’ of Nepal in The Least Developed Countries Report 2013. On an average, in spite of two decades of investment, there is only decimal (about 3 percent) progress in Nepalese agriculture.

In this regard, here I am presenting some of the major ways to transform Nepalese agriculture to achieve much higher productivity, competitiveness, inclusiveness, and sustainability while making it more resilient to climate change impacts, which is also a road map of ADS.

Public Private Partnership

Coordination is one of the widely talked word and terminology in Nepal but it has failed almost all the time. The contribution of the private sector has been grossly overlooked. Hence, there is a need to create conducive environment which promote private sector involvement in agriculture. Moreover it needs to enhance a favorable environment for a broad and pluralistic participation and resource coordination amongst all potential service providers and beneficiaries in partnership to adapt and modify technologies to best meet its farmer’s requirement. So we need more public and private research to work hand in hand for farmers.

 Value Chain Approach

High value-added agricultural products in order to have a high return help to open up new markets, and even build their own brand, and promote farm diversification. Nepal is already member of WTO and other organizations which increases the competition between domestic and foreign products and entrepreneurs to satisfy consumers from their products and services. The association of actors in agribusiness chains helps to realize economies of scale and gain market power of Nepalese agricultural products. This has been observed explicitly in poultry, dairy, tea, cardamom, ginger, and fresh vegetable sectors.

Commercialization and Competitive Advantage

Investment of resources, horizontal and vertical linkages between value chain actors, and policy supports help to commercialize certain sector of agriculture industry. The involvement of farmers and resources invested in these sectors and outputs generated from them provide competitive advantage for import substitution and export promotion. Commercialization of agriculture, being a national goal, has been receiving top priority in policies, plans, and programmes of the government. However, such efforts have been in project mode not in policy shift mode. Such projects which are currently in implementation include Project for Agricultural commercialization and Trade (PACT), High Value Agricultural Project (HVAP), etc.

Agricultural Mechanization

Our agriculture is heavily dependent on human and animal power which constitutes 78 percent of the total farm power, while mechanical sources contribute only 22 percent, also one of the factors responsible for high cost of production. Agricultural mechanization, which includes improvement of simple farm tools and implements like sickle and hoe to use of power tillers, harvesters, planters and seed drills etc., has become the need of the day where concept of collective farming or block farming could be appropriate to make huge plots. Recently, government officials have developed Contract Farming Guideline focusing on the import of modern farming machinery, including discounts on VAT and other taxes. All of these particularly automation and use of ICTs will also add glamour to farming and attract more youth in agriculture bychanging their perception into an exciting and innovative industry.

Capacity building and farmer outreach

The current prevailing simple mechanistic delivery system of training is not enough to support farming. Limited numbers of experts (JTA to officers) are trying hard to teach the huge number of farmers and generate appropriate technology. In the field, one front line extension worker has to look after more than 1300 farm families. More ever, major of our technology transfer materials are outdated and more recent publication are in doner agencies preference language than in Nepali. There is also need to have better coordination among training providing institutions. Providing agribusiness or entrepreneurship trainings to remittance recipient households and returnee migrants can play vital role in commercializing agriculture at faster rate. Hence, the government should develop supportive policy for development of human resources to improve farmers’ livelihoods, support resource sustainability, ensure national food security and promote agribusiness and trade.

To conclude that it would not be wrong as Nepal’s agricultural policies are made without their serious engagement which was also stressed in recently held program called ‘Nepal Economic Summit 2014 – Destination Nepal for Investment.’ It is high time for the government of Nepal to look into these issues critically and get the policies implemented properly so that Nepal can once again entrench as an agriculturally self-sufficient country where farmers feel secure and embrace farming as means of business and not merely a way of living.