Seeds of Plenty; the Promise of Biotechnology

By Ovchinnikov, Yuri | UNESCO Courier, April 1984 | Go to article overview

Seeds of Plenty; the Promise of Biotechnology


Ovchinnikov, Yuri, UNESCO Courier


Over the past twenty-five years, total world agricultural production has doubled. Nevertheless, the problem of ensuring adequate nourishment for the world's growing population is still exceptionally acute. The Director-General of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), Edouard Saouma, recently declared that if present rates of impoverishment in the developing countries continue, the number of people suffering from hunger in the world will reach 750 million in the year 2000. But at nearly 500 million, 30 per cent of whom are children under ten years old, it is already quite high enough and is fraught with serious risks for the physical and mental development of future generations.

In an uneasy world, the food problem is aggravated by a series of social, economic and political factors, from the unequal or, to be more exact, inequitable distribution of goods to the often primitive conditions of production and processing of agricultural output. It is impossible today to achieve an increase in production yields per hectare of land, per head of cattle, or per ton of raw material unless advantage is taken of the latest scientific discoveries.

Nowadays production, including agricultural production, is becoming a science in its own right, with its own theoretical applied, practical and inventive aspects. The very development of agriculture, for instance, has led to many scientific discoveries such as fertilizers, insecticides, new means of plant protection, new species and varieties of farm animals and crops. All man's inventiveness was required to solve the problems of supplying water to farms and meeting their energy needs. Science--largy the biological sciences--has enabled agriculture to obtain record harvest yields, to produce strains of livestock of previously undreamed-of productivity, and to bring about "green revolutions".

In recent years work has intensified in many countries in the fields of cellular biology, physiology, the biology of growth, ecology, and above all, in those branches of physics and chemistry concerned with the study of the vital processes of organisms at the level of their molecular structures. The improvement in agricultural productivity is in large part due to genetics, to which we are indebted for many valuable varieties of plants, strains of livestock and productive families of micro-organisms.

Between 1976 and 1980, for example, in the USSR alone, 723 new agricultural plant varieties were perfected and introduced to certain regions of the country noted for their unfavourable climate and which statistics show to be characterized by far from propitious weather conditions during the planting and harvesting periods. A further 3,000 varieties were sent for quality testing at State experimental stations.

At the present time, Soviet scientists are busy working out theoretical bases for the selection of methods of creating new varieties, such as mutagenesis induced chemically or by irradiation, polyploidization and hybridization, and the preservation of genotypes.

Thanks to the chemical mutagenesis method, more than a hundred varieties of wheat, rice, oats, maize, sunflower and other crops have been obtained.

The advantage of this method is that it makes possible the production of completely new forms, previously unknown in plant-breeding, which are resistant to various diseases. From the hybridization of two mutants of sunflower, for example, one which synthesizes oleic acid in place of linoleic acid thus making its oil similar to olive oil, and another having a short stalk which enables a marked increase in sowing density to be achieved, a new strain with a yield capacity of up to 4,000 kilograms per hectare has been obtained. Furthermore, by using irradiation techniques, scientists in the USSR have produced a more productive variety of spring wheat and more than fifteen resistant varieties of cotton plant. …

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