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Enhancing agricultural productivity in those areas of the world bypassed by the …


Biology Articles » Agriculture » Agriculture in the developing world: Connecting innovations in plant research to downstream applications » Translational Biology in Support of Agriculture

Translational Biology in Support of Agriculture
- Agriculture in the developing world: Connecting innovations in plant research to downstream applications

Creating Links to Academia. Plant biologists, like all scientists in academia, are overworked human beings whose achievements are measured by success in teaching, service to their institutions, gaining funding to support their basic research efforts and, above all, using that funding to make discoveries that can be published in high-profile scientific journals. Although many have a real desire to see the fruits of their fundamental research translated into concrete benefits, they have little opportunity to interact with those involved in international agricultural development and even less opportunity to find sources of funding to support such interactions. Despite all of the complaints, scientists of the “North” do have strong and relatively stable sources of funding for basic plant research, in particular for plant genomics. On the other hand, donors who support work on global agriculture are largely constrained to fund downstream applications relevant to the developing world. What seem to be lacking are systems that promote and reward efforts to create a strong interface between fundamental and applied research in support of global agriculture.

The concept of “translational biology” has received attention in the field of health, where the focus is on the promotion of better collaborations between bench scientists and clinicians; in fact, there is even a Journal of Translational Medicine devoted to this type of collaborative work. There are a few indications that this concept is taking hold in the plant community as well. Within the U.S. Department of Agriculture's National Research Initiative, there is now a program for Coordinated Agricultural Projects that has sponsored conferences on translational genomics for crops such as cotton, soybean, and barley and intends to fund integrated projects that will help engage applied plant scientists to better use the tools of genomics for crop improvement. The focus is on U.S. agriculture but, if partners and funding sources could be identified, such efforts could also be of great benefit for the improvement of staple crops important to the developing world. The Developing Country Collaborations Program at the National Science Foundation will support research collaboration between U.S. scientists and scientists in the developing world. The leadership of the 15 international research centers of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) that are strategically located throughout the developing world also has created a Standing Panel for Mobilizing Science that aims to engage scientists from the “North” in issues of priority to their efforts. As part of its strategy for human capacity building, the Rockefeller Foundation, through its grantmaking in support of agriculture, often promotes collaborations between scientists in the developing world and those in advanced laboratories. Yet funds are woefully lacking to identify and carry out full-fledged projects that connect upstream science with serious downstream applications to agriculture. Recently, at a meeting of a joint U.S.-European Commission Task Force assembled to identify challenges for plant science in the next few decades, one recurring theme was the need to support more efforts designed to apply new discoveries to downstream efforts in crop improvement, perhaps through the establishment of specific programs that fund imaginative efforts in plant biotechnology. Certainly any efforts that provide incentives for meaningful collaborations are needed and should be promoted by the entire plant science community.

A Role for the Private Sector. Scientists in the private sector are much more adept at working in the interface between basic and applied biology. In contrast to academia, success for these scientists is measured in the development of real products that generate profits for the shareholders of their companies. Personal interactions with such scientists indicate to me that many, like their colleagues in the public sector, would welcome the opportunity to work with the public sector to apply some of their findings to benefit poor farmers, in addition to serving their traditional clients, who are large-scale farmers. This latter group has the resources to optimize the use of inputs, yields in good years can often approach true yield potentials, and intense competition exists among the various large private-sector seed companies to develop only those new technologies that can enhance farmer profits, even by relatively small margins. For developing world agriculture, the considerations are quite different. A large-scale farmer in subSaharan Africa can get a yield of 10 metric tons (MT) per hectare for maize, whereas a poor farmer using a comparable variety with little or no inputs will obtain a yield <2 MT per hectare (3). What may be considered small gains in yield for the large-scale farmer, therefore, can be a quite significant increase for crops grown under low-input conditions, so crop improvement strategies that focus on optimizing yield under stress and minimal inputs may be, at least in the short-to-medium term, more appropriate than those that focus on enhancement of yield potential under optimal conditions. Given these different agronomic scenarios, it is easy to imagine that a promising technology for disease control may sit on the shelf at a company yet have enormous potential in the developing world.

The emergence of supermarkets in many places in the developing world (4) demonstrates there can be real potential for markets that serve the poor. Poor farmers increasingly recognize the benefits of hybrid maize and other high-quality seed. Yet there is little doubt that the current cost of good-quality seed, especially in subSaharan Africa, poses a real constraint for poor farmers. When technology fees for genetically modified (GM) crops are added on, the risk of purchase can often be considered too high for a poor farmer who is also burdened with excessive fertilizer prices and unpredictable rainfall. Efforts directed at enhanced microcredit and/or two-tiered pricing schemes for small- vs. large-scale farmers (with reduced or eliminated technology fees, where applicable) could certainly help mitigate some of these risks.

Because seed markets for poor farmers will grow slowly, it is not realistic to expect the larger private-sector companies to spend much in the short term to optimize their products for small-farm environments. Similarly, it is clear that they will be targeting few if any crops beyond cotton, maize, canola, and soybean, even if they possess technologies that might be beneficial to other crops. At least for maize, where there are markets for both large- and small-scale farmers, the analogy with the development of vaccines and medicines for neglected diseases is not perfect, but it is still worth considering. Because of imaginative thinking, public pressure, and truly significant funding, public–private partnerships (PPPs) have indeed emerged in the health sector for the development of vaccines to fight HIV/AIDS and for the development of medicines against the diseases of the poor, such as tuberculosis and malaria (5). For PPPs in the health field, the Rockefeller Foundation was instrumental in helping partners identify the prime targets for development and the motives for both sectors to join the efforts, to sort out issues of intellectual property, and to facilitate acquisition of the substantial funding needed for such large efforts. We have no equivalents yet for agriculture, but very promising are several meetings held recently to explore possible mechanisms for companies like Monsanto and Dupont/PioneerHiBred to work with the public sector to ensure that new traits under development, like drought tolerance, will benefit both large- and small-scale farmers. Also welcome are some of the projects funded by the Gates Foundation Grand Challenges in Global Health and the USAID-sponsored ABSPII program, which involve collaborations among pubic- and private-sector scientists.

There is a vast difference between what happens in the fields of a farmer growing just one or two different crops on 500 hectares in Iowa and another growing many more different crops on <1 hectare in Africa. The former will use varieties developed from highly inbred lines adapted to temperate climates, sophisticated agronomic practices, and optimal amounts of fertilizer and pesticides and, at least in most years, will operate with reliable and adequate rainfall. The latter, usually a woman, may live in any one of a number of diverse agroecologies (3, 6). She will also grow many different crops that will minimize her risk, growing for example some maize and beans in case rainfall will be plentiful and perhaps sorghum, cassava, and cowpea in case of drought. Cost considerations will prevent her from using even marginally acceptable levels of fertilizer or pesticides. These differences almost guarantee that any crop bred in the “North” will not be adapted to her growing conditions. Thus, one model for public–private partnerships (PPP) could be based on the fact that development of beneficial traits such as disease and pest resistance or drought tolerance in major commercial crops may sometimes best be addressed by the private sector, whereas the public sector holds a wide range of locally adapted germplasm relevant to poor farmers. In such a PPP, the public sector supports efforts to transfer valuable private-sector traits/genes into a range of locally adapted varieties suitable for low-input agriculture, with the private sector concentrating on varieties that would be sold in the larger, more profitable, markets of large-scale farmers. In cases where there would be an overlap in varietal preference, imaginative two-tiered marketing schemes might be devised. Yet we must recognize that, looking beyond maize, for certain important crops like cassava, banana, legumes, sorghum, and the millets that are often traded informally, the burden for crop improvement will certainly fall to the public sector, although the private sector should be strongly encouraged to find ways to share relevant technologies and provide crucial advice.


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