Towards sustainable agriculture for developing countries: options from life sciences and biotechnologies
Discussion Platform, Brussels, 30-31 January, 2003
Q. What are the background and objectives of this event?
The need to increase crop yields in developing countries in a sustainable manner, in order to meet the increasing demand for food. The objective is to listen to all points of view and assess how life sciences and biotechnology can foster sustainable agriculture in developing countries.
To meet this goal, the European Commission, assisted by the members of the European Group on Life Sciences (EGLS), organised this discussion platform. The aim is to critically review the options that life sciences and biotechnology offer developing countries. The conference brings together representatives of these countries, scientists, representatives of the biotechnology industry, non-governmental organisations, international organisations, education and media specialists, officials from several governments and European citizens – particularly the younger generation.The discussion platform will examine how life sciences can contribute to seven key challenges:
food production under marginal conditions,
improving the economic viability of food production,
improving health and nutrition without compromising food safety and the environment,
reducing poverty through income generation and by creating new markets,
reducing the use of pesticides,
providing added value from agrobiodiversity,
and how developing countries can become involved in the use of new knowledge from genomes.
Q. What financial provisions and tools are being made available for sustainable agriculture in the €17.5 billion EU 6 th Research Framework Programme (FP6 2003-2006)?
The Sixth Framework Programme offers several opportunities to fund research projects with a sustainability component. There are openings under thematic priority 5 (Food safety and quality), under thematic priority 6 (Sustainable development, global change and ecosystems) and under priority 8 (Activities supporting policies).
Q. What specific efforts are being made for developing countries in the area of research?
In FP6, €315 million is earmarked for international co-operation (1) . The INCO-DC (International Co-operation with the Developing Countries) programme is based on dynamic dialogue and promotes the development of long-term sustainable research partnerships at bilateral, bi-regional and global levels. It focuses on the specific opportunities and problems faced by countries undergoing the process of development, for which there are no solutions that can be found and transferred from industrialised countries.
Another €285 million is earmarked to finance the participation of third-country (2) organisations in the “Thematic priorities” and in the “Specific priorities covering a wider field of research”. Partners from developing countries can participate in projects receiving funding, in line with the topics selected in the calls for proposals. They can also present proposals under the specific calls which are dedicated to international scientific co-operation with developing countries and other targeted groups of countries, where the management of natural resources and food security represent priorities.
This brings the total amount devoted to international co-operation to €600 million. In addition, there are provisions to fund research training for third-country researchers in Europe within the “Human resources and Mobility” programme.
Q. Under what criteria are EU-funded projects selected, who controls their management and under what criteria are they deemed to be a success?
The fundamental principles governing the evaluation of proposals are: transparency, fair treatment, impartiality, efficiency and speed, as well as ethical considerations. Due to the limited budgets in each area, a rigorous selection procedure is necessary. The criteria can vary depending on the type of projects, but the scientific and technical quality of the proposals is a common criterion.
Partners in a project must delegate one person to act as project co-ordinator. To allow the Commission to monitor the progress of the project, the co-ordinator must submit regular reports together with a statement of expenses. These reports are examined by the Commission to determine whether or not to continue to support the project and whether to alter its direction.
In addition the Commission will monitor how the results of the completed project are implemented. It may also involve independent experts in all stages of this monitoring scheme and may also carry out specific, scientific, financial or technical audits.
Q. Are socio-economic, political and ethical issues taken into consideration in the EU approach to sustainable agriculture?
The selection process for research projects is a peer-review system. Independent experts evaluate the projects, including an ethical assessment of the proposals. They evaluate the level of awareness regarding the ethical and social implications of the research and also on the basis of whether projects respect fundamental ethical principles, the ethical framework for research under the 6 th FP, international codes and national legislation of the country where the research is carried out. When necessary or when the proposal is dealing with sensitive issues a specific ethical review can also be undertaken. This system applies to all areas, including sustainable agriculture.
In addition, the 6 th FP promotes the integration of the analysis of the ethical, legal and social aspects into research projects under “Life sciences, genomics and biotechnology for health” as well as for “Food safety and quality” projects. The relevance, quality and level of integration of these aspects are also assessed during the evaluation process.
Q. What was the thinking behind the creation of the European Group on Life Sciences and what are its objectives?
The Mandate of the EGLS is to respond to the needs of the European Commissioner in charge of Research, Mr Philippe Busquin, for high level advice from eminent and experienced practitioners of the life sciences and technologies. The EGLS will:
– address the current state of knowledge in the life sciences and technologies, advising the European Commissioner for Research on the current situation, and on imminent or foreseeable developments of significance;
– advise and assist / be assisted by Commission staff in the planning and organisation of a Discussion Platform, enabling leaders of the life sciences communities to engage in debate with the various “stakeholders” interested in the beneficial application and diffusion of new knowledge in these fields.
Q. What will be the next steps?
The EGLS will continue to follow the scientific and technological developments on life sciences, advising the Commissioner accordingly and identifying the issues that have special interest for society. In this way, it can prompt the organisation of future discussion platforms as appropriate to discuss these issues with all stakeholders.
Q. Can you give an overview of current projects and success stories in sustainable agriculture and guidance on access to further information?
Below are some examples of research funded by the European Commission in response to some of the challenges faced by agriculture in developing countries. These projects employ a vast range of strategies and tools, including modern breeding methods and in some cases genetic modification of plants.
Improving health and nutrition without compromising food safety and the environment
– Increasing the nutritional value of sorghum:
Sorghum is the fifth most produced cereal in the world and is well adapted to semi-arid conditions. However, while it is widely available, it is not very digestible and therefore offers limited nutritional benefit. One project has developed malting and fermenting processes to improve the nutritional value of grain sorghum and to increase its use as a source of protein.
Improving the economic viability of food production
– Preventing cattle disease
Rinderpest is one of the most devastating diseases affecting animals. Following major vaccination campaigns, this project, funded by the European Commission and 3 EU Member states, aims to establish a surveillance system that will allow African countries to monitor and control the health of their herds themselves. The ultimate aim is to ensure the eradication of rinderpest and help achieve a productive and harmonious development of animal farming in Africa.
Food production under marginal conditions
– Improving weed control:
Witchweeds (or striga ) are root parasites that affect cereal crops, not only by competing for nutrients, but also by literally sucking nutrient from crops. This project seeks to develop maize and sorghum varieties by selection to better resist the weeds, as part of an integrated and broad-based plan to control witchweeds.
– Growing maize in acid soils:
Maize is one of the world’s three most important crops and demand is expected to double by 2020. However, it is susceptible to soil acidity which occurs in 43% of the world’s tropical land area. This project strives to accelerate the development of new cultivars (varieties) of maize that are resistant to tropical acid soils by non-GM approaches. It should also lead to recommendations on how to prevent further soil acidification.
Reducing poverty through income generation and by creating new markets
– Generating income from coffee waste
Coffee pulp accounts for nearly half the annual coffee production in terms of volume. The aim of this project, based in Latin America, was to recycle and valorise coffee pulp and coffee husks to produce value-added products, such as silage.
How developing countries can participate in the use of new knowledge from genomes
– Molecular tools for breeding oilseed rape
Rapeseed oil is an edible oil that contains a near optimal balance of fatty acids for human health and nutrition. Oilseed rape represents an excellent cash crop for developing countries, particularly in developing countries where the by-product of oil production can be used as animal feed. This project aims to facilitate the rapid development of cultivars of oilseed rape, that are able to thrive in local conditions and under low input farming regimes, by promoting co-operation between European and Chinese crop research centres in the use of modern breeding tools and strategies.
Reducing the use of pesticides
– Promoting integrated pest management for cotton
Cotton is the main commercial crop in many Asian countries, but it is prone to a range of pest problems that were until recently only treated through the heavy use of pesticides, with inevitable damage to the environment and to human health. A joint FAO (3) EU project is teaching farmers integrated pest management strategies that draw them away from over reliance on pesticides.
– Using biotechnology to improve crop resistance to pests
Improving the resistance of crops to diseases caused by viruses, fungi and nematodes is a major priority for agriculture. Current protection strategies, based on the extensive use of chemicals, are considered untenable for sustainable agriculture due to the negative impact on the environment. Genetic engineering is a promising technique to overcome these problems by improving the natural resistance of plants to disease. This project aims to study resistant wild potato species and identify genes that may be useful for developing resistant crops.
Providing added value from agro-biodiversity
– Helping crops feed themselves
Leguminous crops are of great importance throughout the developing world, providing a valuable source of protein in the human diet as well as animal fodder. In addition they are key assets for sustainable agriculture because of their root nodules which contain bacteria (rhizobia) that fix atmospheric nitrogen, making it available to the plant. This in turn reduces the need for nitrogen fertilisers. China has a particularly high diversity of these bacteria that remains largely unexplored. This project focuses on the characterisation of these resources with a view to improving the quality of rhizobial inoculants for agricultural use.