Ecology in the seed

The foregoing examples are often effective and meet the requirements of a resilient agriculture, but they often have the drawback of being highly labour-intensive. It used to be thought that developing countries had plenty of labour and hence this was not an insurmountable problem. But even when labour is apparently available, demand is often very seasonal and it is not available when needed. Moreover, in Africa in particular, the growing HIV/AIDS crisis is making rural labour once again very scarce. The answer would appear to be building characteristics that promote not only productivity but also the other three characteristics—stability, resilience, and equitability—into the crop seed itself. Seeds can be made available to farmers cheaply or at no cost, providing they are produced by government or public-private partnerships. And in the case of self-pollinating crops such as rice, farmers can keep the seeds after harvest for the next season.

Our capacity to build ecology into the seed is largely a consequence of modern biotechnology. The Green Revolution depended on working to blueprints of desirable new plant and animal types through painstaking conventional plant breeding. Biotechnology offers a faster route. It is probably the only way to ensure that yield ceilings are raised, excessive pesticide use is reduced, the nutrient value of basic foods is increased, and farmers on less-favored lands provided with varieties better able to tolerate drought, salinity, and lack of soil nutrients (Conway, 2005).

Modern agricultural biotechnology consists of three practical processes:

• Tissue culture, which permits the growth of whole plants from a single cell or clump of cells in an artificial medium.

• Marker-aided selection, based on our ability to detect the presence of particular DNA sequences at specific locations in an organism and link these to the presence of genes responsible for particular traits.

• Genetic engineering, based on recombinant DNA technology, which enables the direct transfer of genes from one organism to another.

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