Addressing Food Security Challenges

Transforming Development Through Science, Technology & Innovation

On The Horizons of Innovation

Developing countries around the world face an increasing threat of hunger and poverty. It is estimated that by 2010, nearly two-thirds of the world’s under-nourished people will live in sub-Saharan Africa i .Smallholder agriculture supports the livelihoods of nearly 80 percent of the African subcontinent’s population and contributes over 30 percent to overall GDP.ii

Photo: Man with plants
USAID has been an innovator in biotechnology programming since 1989.xxvii In the past 10 years, the Agency has invested $49 million in biotechnology, specifically in research and development.

In Asia and the Near East, approximately 58 percent of the population work in the agricultural sector, and about 62 percent live in rural areas—one-third of them in poverty. iii Over two-thirds of the world’s 792 million under-nourished people live in this region. iv Considering the quintessential role agriculture plays in these countries, securing food production is an imperative. However, the threat of insects and plant disease is a real obstacle to food security.

The Insect Obstacle

Many key staple crops in developing countries fall prey to insect pests. Some of the most troublesome pests in south Asia are fruit and shoot borers, which force heavy pesticide applications and can reduce yields of eggplant by as much as 50%.v In South Africa, the potato tuber moth (PTM) causes up to 30% yield loss pre- and post-harvest of potatoes.vi Even more devastatingly, the Maruca virata pod borer can reduce yields of cowpea, a staple crop in Africa, by as much as 50-80%.vii Enhancing Plant Resistance to Insect Pests

A key protein in Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), a bacterium historically utilized as a pesticide in organic and traditional farming, can be inserted into crops to increase resistance to insect pest damage without harming non-target species and without the application of additional environmentally damaging pesticides.viii USAID and its partners are promoting the use of this technique, which has been used extensively in American crop varieties, in developing countries. In cooperation with universities, private institutions, and government agencies around the world, USAID has funded the development of several varieties of fruit and shoot borer resistant eggplant,ix tuber moth resistant Bt potatoes,x and the development of Bt cowpeas.xi

The Threat of Plant Pathogens

Plant diseases – fungal, viral, or bacterial in nature – significantly contribute to decreased yields in several key crops in developing countries. The Late Blight fungus can heavily impact potato yields, an important and nutrient-rich crop for resource-poor farmers in several Asian countries. This fungus can destroy a single crop within a week or two.xii The highly destructive Papaya Ringspot Virus Disease severely impacts the harvesting of papayas-- a key crop in the Philippines, particularly on the main island of Luzon.xiii The Black Sigatoka disease, an airborne fungal disease, can reduce banana yields by as much as 50%. Bananas are a staple crop in East Africa; two-thirds of Ugandans consume a cooked banana at least once per day, and bananas occupy up to 38% of Ugandan cultivated land.xiv In sub-Saharan Africa, cassava mosaic disease (CMD) and cassava brown streak disease (CBSD) each have had serious impacts on cassava yields -- a drought-tolerant and nutrient-efficient crop that is a primary source of calories for more than one-third of the population there.xv

USAID Partnership for Solutions

USAID has been working with several partners to facilitate research of disease resistance in various staple crops around the world. The Agency has been working with government, private and academic partners in the U.S., Bangladesh, India, and Indonesia to field test and commercialize disease resistant potatoes in several countries and bring these technology to small-holder farmers.xvi One example currently being evaluated is a bioengineered potato containing a gene (Rb) that conveys resistance to the fungus causing late blight disease.xvii

USAID is also working with academic and governmental partners in the Philippines and Malaysia to utilize genetic modification (GM) techniques developed in Hawaii to inoculate native papaya from the Ringspot Virus disease.xviii In Uganda, USAID is working in partnership with the National Agricultural Research Organization to develop Black Sigatoka resistant bananas in the laboratory. xix Resistant varieties are currently being trialed under local growing conditions, and additional crop improvements are ongoing for further trials.xx

To decrease the impact of cassava pathogens, USAID is working with researchers at the Danforth Plant Science Center in Missouri, the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute, the International Institute for Tropical Agriculture and the National Agriculture Research Organization in Uganda to develop varieties resistant to both plaguing viruses. The first field trials were planted in Uganda in late 2009 with subsequent field trials in Kenya and Uganda planned for late 2010.xxi

Beyond the Horizons

Crops improved with biotechnology can further increase productivity and food security and improve livelihoods in the developing world. More than half of the agricultural-productivity improvements over the last 20 years have succeeded because of improved crop varieties.xxii

Besides productivity gains, agricultural biotechnology promises further positive impacts. There are clear environmental benefits from reducing the use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers. Yields rise from reducing pest and disease attacks on staple crops, and improved crops are more environmentally resilient and can make better use of nutrients. Somatic enrichment of the nutritional quality of staple crops can be scaled up to result in even bigger health gains for consumers in partner countries.xxiii Additionally, through a series of public-private partnerships, USAID has begun to invest in bioengineered stress tolerant cereal crops (rice, wheat and maize) that require less-fertilizer, less-water and can tolerate warmer temperatures. Technologies such as these will be invaluable to increase productivity in the developing world in the face of climate change and decreasing water availability.xxiv

USAID has been an innovator in biotechnology programming since 1989.xxv In the past 10 years, the Agency has invested $49 million in biotechnology, specifically in research and development. USAID remains committed to further translating the results of its research and analysis into sustainable gains for developing countries.xxvi

Last updated: January 14, 2014

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