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January 22, 2019


Biotechnology: The Race to Feed World’s Undernourished

Development of new varieties an export opportunity for Canadian producers
The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reports that out of the 795 million people in the world that are chronically malnourished (lack of nutrients), 155 million of them are children.
Current statistics estimates that the world population is expected to grow by 83 million people each year until 2100. For our current agricultural industry to keep up, food production will have to ramp up dramatically, on virtually the same amount of land as we are farming today.
In the agriculture industry there is a lot of talk about the need to increase food production in order to feed the world of the future. The irony is that we actually have enough food right now, today, to adequately feed everyone. The problem is about waste and how food is distributed.
Most food shortages begin with inequitable distribution, waste, wars, drought and government policies. Micronutrient deficiencies on the other hand, also known as hidden hunger, are much subtler, usually occurring where soils and/or plant varieties are low in nutrients. The result s a lack of essential vitamins and minerals in the human diet.
While we may not be able to control wars, government policies or global food distribution, we may be able to assist with a problem that contributes to stunted growth, poor cognitive development, increased risk of infections, eye disease and complications during pregnancy and childbirth.
Supplementation has been a solution used for decades around the world to alleviate micronutrient deficiencies, but it requires repeated investment and is a resource-intensive approach. Food fortification (e.g. Iodized salt) added to commonly consumed foods at the processing stage, has had greater success in developing countries.
Unfortunately, the poorest families in remote communities, that grow and process food locally, may not have access to fortified foods and tend to be most affected by hidden hunger. An alternative approach that can be utilized in agricultural production, to enhance micronutrient concentration of staple crops, is achieved through cross-breeding.
Biofortified crops, primarily focused on enhancement of iron, zinc and vitamin A, have been introduced into countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Vitamin A maize, vitamin A cassava, vitamin A sweet potato, iron beans, iron pearl millet, zinc rice and zinc wheat are some examples of crops currently being grown.
Having several advantages over food fortification, these crops are often more resilient to pests, diseases, higher temperatures and drought. Each biofortified crop requires meticulous development and evaluation to ensure the micronutrient concentration is sufficient to make a significant impact on nutritional status.
While biofortification can be achieved through established breeding techniques, transgenics, or genetic modification, may pave the way for more rapid development. One success story is the development of Golden Rice, which is genetically modified to be infused with beta-carotene, a chemical substance responsible for producing vitamin A in the body.
The biofortified rice helps prevent vitamin A deficiency, which causes immunity deficiency syndrome and is the leading cause of blindness in children in developing nations. Following its initial introduction, scientists recognized the need to improve the variety in 2005. As a result, they licensed their intellectual property to Syngenta, who made the improvements with no commercial control over it and now market it royalty free.
Crossed with many local varieties, farmers in the Philippines, Bangladesh, India, Indonesia and Vietnam can maintain the advantages of the cultivars they’ve been growing and eating for years and improving their varieties via conventional cross breeding methods.
While a global race is on to develop new biotech varieties, the potential is there for Canada to play a leading role in the biofortification of pulse crops.
Some breeders are working to develop varieties suitable to local conditions but based on the needs of developing countries.
One example among many is Tom Warkentin, a breeder at the University of Saskatchewan’s Crop Development Centre, who has been working on the biofortification of pea crops for several years.
Phytate, the major storage form of phosphorous in seeds, can’t be easily digested by humans and tends to carry iron and zinc with it as it passes through the gut. The nutrients are essentially lost, so Warkentin and his colleagues have focused their breeding program on low-phytate peas since 2002.These varieties have 50 percent more available iron.
Crossed with high yielding pea varieties the result is a strain that will be highly adapted to Canadian growing conditions. When asked by farmers if biofortified varieties will improve their bottom line, Warkentin’s response is that while they may not sell for more money, Canadian farmers will have an advantage over other countries as a preferred supplier abroad.
Even though many of the new biofortified pulse varieties developed in Canada over the next number of years may not be designed to be grown in developing countries, their availability will provide greater options to improve nutrition globally.
 Upcoming Events
  • EFP Workshop on Tuesday, February 5 from 1:00 – 5:00 p.m. – Clearwater County Farmers and Ranchers are invited to join us for a FREE Online Environmental Farm Plan (EFP) Workshop. This is a chance to start, complete or update your EFP. Join us at the Rocky Learning Centre in Rocky Mountain House. Bring your own laptop or use one at the facility. For more information and to preregister, contact Agriculture and Community Services at 403-846-4040.
  • March 6 - Realtor Workshop: Subdivision, Zoning, Reserves, the Pine Beetle and more.
  • March 13 - Celebrating our Successes: storytelling event.  Details coming soon.
  • 2019 Conifer Seedling Program – Clearwater County in partnership with West Fraser, are making white spruce and lodgepole pine tree seedlings available for purchase/planting within Clearwater County. Applications are first come first served basis with the deadline April 19, 2019.  Information and application forms are available through the Agriculture and Community Services office or request by email to Danielle or Gary
  •  Looking to do more to strengthen your land to handle drought and flooding?  Consider Caring for my Land – the cost-share grant available to landowners in Clearwater County with funding from the provincial Watershed Restoration and Resiliency Program. Examples include watering systems, fencing, seeding and planting trees and shrubs. Applications are available at Clearwater County’s Agriculture and Community Services office.

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