Agricultural biotechnology, when done wrong, has the potential to be environmentally, scientifically and economically disastrous. The negative scenario is grim and familiar: monoculture crops, with insufficient testing for complex interactions with other organisms, owned by giant biotech companies paranoid about intellectual property ("genetic rights management," as I've termed it). But genetic modification techniques are not inherently evil, and when applied with wisdom, can have positive results. Alex has mentioned this more upbeat scenario in a few posts, but it's useful to see it in action. And, thanks to the Timbuktu Chronicles, we now have an excellent example: NERICA, or New Rice for Africa.
Developed by Dr. Monty Jones of the West Africa Rice Development Agency (WARDA), NERICA is a hybrid strain of rice, developed using biotech by West African researchers, which is on its way to bettering the health of West and Central African citizens, restoring agricultural sustainability, and improving the economics of food importation for the region.
NERICA mixes African rice (Oryza glaberrima), which is highly resistant to drought and local pests, but has a very low yield (which in turn leads to widespread "slash and burn" style farming), and Asian rice (Oryza sativa), which has a very high yield per plant, but is much more sensitive to environmental conditions (which leads to increased use of pesticides). These two species of rice do not cross naturally or with traditional hybridization techniques; the genetic differences are just too much. Jones began a biotechnology-based program in 1991, and by the mid-1990s had developed different strains of a hybrid rice combining the best aspects of both parent species. WARDA then embarked on a multi-year community-based program to test these strains across West Africa:
This work has led to the rapid development of more than 3000 NERICA lines. Dr. Jones and WARDA, under the leadership of its Director General Kanayo F. Nwanze, have worked on multiple levels to ensure the widest possible use of this new improved rice. Using gender sensitive approaches, they have brought together farmers, scientists, extension workers, NGOs, and governments to create a “community based seed system” whereby local farmers can choose which NERICA variety best fits with their local needs. As demonstrated in the pilot projects undertaken in Benin, Côte d’Ivoire, Gambia, Guinea, Mali, Nigeria, and Togo, NERICA has the potential to benefit 20 million rice farmers (many of whom are women) and 240 million consumers in West Africa alone.
In 2004, Dr. Jones won the World Food Prize for his efforts, the equivalent of a Nobel Prize for Agriculture. The NERICA research made use of -- and has helped to preserve -- the genetic lines of 1,500 varieties of African rice facing extinction as farmers shifted to higher-yield Asian varieties. NERICA is helping to improve agricultural sustainability, as well, in terms of both the environment and food supplies:
About 40 percent of West Africa's 4.1 million hectares of rice is grown under upland/rain-fed conditions, grown like maize, and about 80 percent of this is slash-and-burn agriculture. Each crop grown after a slash-and-burn cycle produces less than the previous harvest—stressing an already fragile ecosystem, and driving up demand for rice imports.
The new hybrid varieties of upland rice mature in only three months, allowing for planting of a second crop or a leguminous cover crop to improve soil fertility. This makes it possible to plant rice for more than one year before returning land to fallow, reducing slash-and-burn agriculture. It also provides food during the difficult "hungry" season.
Wider adoption of NERICA will have economic benefits, as well. Africa is a net importer of rice; demand for rice in West and Central Africa is growing at over 6% annually, faster than anywhere else, and rice imports represent 25% of food imports to the region. Jones asserts that a 25% adoption of NERICA in West Africa would lead to savings over $100 million every year, money which can then be spent on other pressing needs. And NERICA is not just appropriate for Africa -- there are 17 million hectares of rice in Asia and 4 million hectares in Latin America grown in conditions similar to those in West Africa, where drought-resistant rice could be of great value.
What makes NERICA most exciting, at least for me, is that it is African researchers doing work to benefit Africa, using advanced scientific techniques to develop something the world had never before seen, which could in turn improve lives around the world. It's South-South Science, it's leapfrogging... "A Technology from Africa for Africa," as the WARDA flyer asserts, but potentially far more.
I'm curious about how the intellectual property issues surrounding NERICA are handled. Does anyone own it? How is it distributed?
By existing outside of agribusiness, this new rice avoids one of the major concerns of the anti-GMO crowd. But it seems to me that NERICA is still subject to concerns about contamination/invasiveness in the local environment and unknown potential effects on consumers. Have the developers addressed these concerns?
Excellent question on IP issues; I'll see if I can find anything.
Both contamination and health effects are fairly low-grade concerns in this case, as the transgenic elements of the biotechnology appear to be limited to pulling genes from two fairly closely-related species, one of which was native to the region and the other already common. Most of NERICA's characteristics come from the African variety, with the main improvement brought from Asian rice being an increased density of rice kernels per cluster, and a tighter bond to the stalk, making the kernels less likely to drop off on their own.