Academic journal article Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society

Unleashing the Genius of the Genome to Feed the Developing World1

Academic journal article Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society

Unleashing the Genius of the Genome to Feed the Developing World1

Article excerpt

THE PROSPECT of another agricultural revolution evokes both hope and fear. The first agricultural revolution-the domestication of edible plants-began a long process of narrowing the genome of plants for farming. Centuries of selecting, crossbreeding, and propagating plants for traits such as grain size, pest resistance, food safety, and color have increased and refined our food, but have also inadvertently eliminated countless genes that are important for crops' natural defenses and for our nutrition.

There has been a corresponding narrowing of the global food base. Ninety-nine percent of agricultural production today depends on only twenty-four different domesticated plant species, with three-rice, wheat, and maize-accounting for about two-thirds of the world's food volume. These crop plants have become increasingly distinct from their wild relatives.

The more recent agricultural revolution-the Green Revolution-also involved conventional breeding to enhance the yield of major crops, mainly in areas with plenty of water. This revolution led to agricultural gains in much, but not all, of the developing world and introduced further vulnerability, particularly in the early years, to pests, diseases, and weather as a limited number of cultivars spread across large areas.

Now we are in the midst of a third agricultural revolution driven by biotechnology-a field that we define as including advanced genetics and genomics, bioinformatics, genetically modified plants, and tissue culture. Will the poorest regions benefit from this revolution? Will the "global commons" of agricultural research and genetic diversity remain open to the world? Will the technology displace more rudimentary forms of crop improvement on which poor societies depend? And, finally, what is the potential of biotechnology for removing some of the most critical constraints in agriculture? Answers to these questions lie at the ethical and pragmatic core of humanity's future.

Some critics see biotechnology as solely a private-sector enterprise favoring a few rich countries and few crops. We disagree. Genetics, genomics, and the supporting computing technology have now advanced to the point of promising egalitarian means of feeding the world. By understanding the genomes of crops, scientists can more effectively tap into the huge reservoir of genetic diversity held in wild relatives of domesticated crop plants and work across a wide array of agroecosystems. Researchers are no longer restricted to the one-size-fits-all approach of technological change characterized by the Green Revolution. As plant geneticists Stephen Goff and John Salmeron note, "The real revolutionary potential [of biotechnology] lies in its power to open up the genetic bottleneck created thousands of years ago when our major crops were first domesticated."

Recent advances in genetics and genomics provide a more coherent understanding of the biology of plants. As a result, new opportunities now exist for extending the science from major crops, such as rice, wheat, and maize, to orphan crops, such as finger millet, cowpeas, yams, and tef. Orphan crops are valued culturally, often adapted to harsh environments, and nutritious. International investments in orphan crop improvement have been negligible to date, even though these crops are critical for feeding the world's most disadvantaged regions.

For an idea of scale, orphan crops (excluding fruits and vegetables) currently cover more than 250 million hectares in the developing world. By comparison, the world's major crops-rice, wheat, maize, and soybeans-are grown on 395 million hectares in developing countries. In sub-Saharan Africa, sorghum and millets are more important than rice and wheat, both in area and in contribution to the diet. Similarly, roots and tubers play a dominant role in Africa, providing more than four hundred kcal per person per day.

Crop improvement in the poorest regions is needed now more than ever. …

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