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Published in Issue No. 122, page 78 to 79 - (4293) characters

High tech tools are improving agriculture to fight poverty

Kuala Lumpur, June 16

Scientists are helping to reduce poverty around the world by using high tech tools to improve agriculture in the world’s poorest regions. "We have always known that the genetic diversity in crop plants can be used to improve agricultural productivity," said Dr Geoffrey Hawtin, Director General of the International Plant Genetic Resources Institute (IPGRI), co-sponsor of a meeting of biodiversity experts that finished today in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. "Now, molecular screening techniques and other biotechnology tools are speeding up the process of crop improvement enormously by helping us to pinpoint and extract the characteristics that poor farmers need."

The overwhelming majority of poor people live in South Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, China, East Asia and the Pacific, in countries where agriculture is the basis of the economy. In such countries, improving the agricultural system can give a significant boost to the economy, according to a study by Future Harvest, an international organization concerned with promoting agriculture. The study found that a one-dollar increase in agricultural production will typically generate almost two-and-a-half dollars in countries where farming is a mainstay of the economy. Improvements in farm output increases demand for other goods and services and become a catalyst for broad-based economic growth.

Traditionally, agricultural science has mostly concentrated on improving the productivity of so-called “major” crops such as maize, wheat and rice. Far less attention has been paid to crops that provide food and nutritional security for the poorest of the poor. "We call them neglected species because research has tended to ignore them," said Dr Stefano Padulosi. "But these species, which include many fruits and vegetables with high levels of Vitamin A and other micronutrients, play a vital role in the lives of the poor. Many of them are adapted to marginal farming conditions where major crops will not grow, such as degraded or hilly areas or zones with saline soils or arid conditions. Improving the management and use of these crops is a major research challenge for the future."
While scientists have learned much about the value of using plant diversity for agricultural development and poverty eradication, they are racing against time as genetic resources continue to disappear in nature, the victims of urbanization, deforestation, and changes in agricultural practices. "We need to improve the conservation of genetic resources if we are to continue to use them to benefit the poor", said Toby Hodgkin, Principal Scientist at IPGRI. "We have gotten pretty good at seed conservation, but there is still a lot to be learned about conserving crops that don’t produce seeds. New techniques, such as cryopreservation, which stores plant genetic material at very low temperatures in liquid nitrogen are enormously promising." Around 6 million samples of important crops are already stored in conservation facilities around the world for future use by farmers and breeders.

The conference identified the management and use of biological information as a critical goal for the future. "Biological information is doubling every two years, based only on DNA sequence data. In the past decade, more scientific information has been created than in all of previous history," said Hawtin. "Our knowledge about plant resources has grown exponentially as has our ability to manage and use that knowledge. It is providing us with powerful tools to use to improve the lives of the 1.5 billion people that live in abject poverty in developing countries."

IPGRI is a Future Harvest Centre, supported by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research. Its mandate is to advance the conservation and use of plant genetic resources for the benefit of present and future generations.

For further information, please visit the Conference Web Site at or contact

IPGRI Regional Office for Asia, the Pacific and Oceania

P.O. Box 236, UPM Post Office

43400 Serdang, Selangor Darul Ehsan, Malaysia

Tel: 603-9487655

Email: or

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