In another new episode of the second season of the Asia’s Farm to Fork: 5 Good Questions Podcast, we speak to Dr. Neoh Soon-Bin, Managing Director, Soon Soon Group, about food security and price inflations. We also learn about the benefits of governmental partnerships in the agricultural sector. Dr. Neoh brings an insightful perspective from the food and feed ingredients industry in Malaysia. Listen ’til the end for a quick introduction on how his favorite dish is prepared, the Peranakan dish – Assam Laksa.
A joint project of CropLife Asia & the Southeast Asian Regional Center for Graduate Study and Research in Agriculture (SEARCA)
Well into his senior years, Vietnamese farmer, Hoang Trong Ngai, 69, reflects on how adopting genetically modified (GM) maize has benefited not just him but his community as well.
Ngai first heard about GM maize in 2015, when he attended a farmer’s conference organized by the provincial government. Back then, Vietnamese farmers were still hesitant to adopt GM crops since they knew little about it.
However, among the technologies presented during the event, it was GM maize that caught Ngai’s attention. So much so that he quickly began testing several varieties and finally settled on a GM hybrid which is one of the widely adaptable varieties in Vietnam. According to Ngai, the crop produced higher yield and had better resistance to pests and diseases compared with the conventional variety. It was also suitable for local soil conditions.
Starting with merely a hectare of farmland in 2015, Ngai now plants GM maize on nearly three hectares. The average yield of the GM variety is 15% higher (55 quintals/ha) than that of traditional varieties (47.9 quintals/ha), which makes him and his family one of the highest corn producers in the Vinh Phuc province. “With GM maize, we can harvest as much as 60 quintals/ha when the weather is good. It also requires minimum care and reduced pesticide use,” Ngai shares.
The GM maize also generates higher profits. With 2.6 ha of farm area and two production seasons per year, Ngai earns 41% more (3,914 USD/crop) than the average annual income of farmers planting conventional maize (2,759.5 USD/crop).
While farmers can apply the same planting technique used for conventional varieties, GM maize comes with added savings since it does not require any pesticides. It also reduces the cost of labor for land preparation. Ngai recalls, “we had to employ 25 laborers to till the land but now, it only takes three family members to prepare the land for cultivation.” “With these savings, I can say that the total production cost of GM maize is significantly lower compared to traditional varieties,” he adds.
IMPROVED FARMING METHODS
Ngai also saw huge improvements in his farming practices. “We used to till the land manually, which led to low sowing density. Only two crops per season (corn crop and cash crop) were planted on the family farmland. But since the GM maize variety has better tolerance and shorter growing period (115 days), I was able to re-arrange the planting schedule to accommodate three crops in the farm.” More importantly, Ngai does not use insecticides anymore. This, he notes, is one of the biggest benefits of planting GM maize.
“…since the GM maize variety has better tolerance and shorter growing period, I was able to re-arrange the planting schedule to accommodate three crops in the farm.” – Hoang Trong Ngai
With his increased income, Ngai was able to support the needs of his family and actively take part in community events. “I bought motorbikes and repaired our house. I was also able to send my children to college and buy them computers and phones that they need for online schooling,” he happily shares. Since they spend less time tending to their field now, their family has also been able to actively participate in other community activities.
Inspired by Ngai’s success, other farmers wanted to plant GM crops, too. To consolidate their efforts, Ngai established a farmer group in his community. The farmers have planted GM maize on 120 hectares in their district to date. “Since introducing GM maize to the community, the farmers have been working more closely together. We regularly exchange information and experiences with farmers within and outside the group,” he continues. The farmer group has also allowed members to share expenses for land preparation and harvesting.
Ngai admits that the progress of GM crops in Vietnam still face some challenges. Although “GM maize is still mainly consumed within the province and the local corn industry lacks linkages with animal feed processing enterprises to create a large raw material production area,” he explains.
The Vietnamese government has also officially banned the use of the herbicide Glyphosate in 2021, which is seen as an inconvenience for GM maize farmers. He adds, “The GM maize variety we are planting is insect-resistant, but we also used Glyphosate to control the weeds. Because of the ban, farmers must manually remove the weeds.”
Another challenge is land availability. Ngai shares that since more households in the Vinh Phuc province have converted their lands for growing other crops, flowers, and fruit trees, it has been difficult to expand the area for GM maize.
With all its benefits, Ngai considers GM maize a personal success story. “Planting GM maize is efficient and low-cost. I can attest that it’s a safe investment for farmers.” He also advised fellow farmers to consult experts and test varieties to ensure that it’s suitable for local conditions.
Ngai further highlights the safety of GM crops. “The public should not be afraid of GM products. Other countries using it have proven its safety. My family and community have been cultivating GM maize for a long time without experiencing any health problems. This is even better than the traditional varieties since we don’t use insecticides,” he states.
A joint project of CropLife Asia & the Southeast Asian Regional Center for Graduate Study and Research in Agriculture (SEARCA)
A man out of his mind! Leaving a stable job overseas to start farming back home might be seen as a move only an unstable person would do. Not for Emerson Agno, though, it was just the beginning of something worth the cliff jump.
Now at the helm of a successful business and an active farmer’s organization, Emerson and his business partner, Lualhati Alfonso Kimura, share how Bt corn opened opportunities for them to support his fellow farmers and made it their mission to transform them into ‘agripreneurs.’
“There’s no money in farming,” Emerson recalls the comments of his Filipino coworkers when he decided to resign from his job at a multi-national construction company in Qatar and come home to help supervise his family’s agricultural commodities business in 2018.
Four years later, he has proven them wrong.
Sparked by the desire to help fellow corn farmers in the province of Quezon, Emerson later founded the Gintong Butil (Golden Grain) Agricultural Commodities and Services Company together with Lualhati when he returned from working overseas. To further assist the farmers in their area, they formed a farmer’s organization in their barangay, the Samahan ng Masisipag na Magmamais ng Mangilag Norte, in which Emerson and Lualhati are the current president and vice president, respectively. Emerson is also the current president of the Quezon Corn Growers Federation.
From four hectares, Emerson and Lualhati now manage around 20 hectares of personal farmland dedicated to Bt corn. They are also involved in managing more than 200 hectares of land by financing farmer-partners within Quezon and neighboring provinces through Gintong Butil.
CHOOSING BT CORN
“When I was able to save enough money from working in Qatar, my father retired, and we decided to go back to farming and plant corn. We chose to plant Bt corn because there was a market for it,” says Emerson. Based on their estimates, Region 4-A, comprised of five provinces namely Cavite, Laguna, Batangas, Rizal, and Quezon (CALABARZON), can only produce five to eight percent of its total corn requirement. Most of the corn supply comes from the northern parts of the country. This presented an opportunity for them to fill up the market gap in the region.
Planting conventional varieties demands more labor and inputs compared to Bt corn, according to Emerson and Lualhati. Bacillus thuringiensis or Bt corn is a genetically modified (GM) corn variety that is resistant to the Asiatic corn borer. “The conventional corn is prone to pests and diseases, so it constantly needs pesticides, which adds to the production cost. With Bt corn, we mostly spray herbicides, and we only use Fertilizer and Pesticide Authority (FPA)-approved insecticides when needed for insects such as the fall armyworm. Using chemicals are necessary at times but we need to use it properly,” Lualhati further clarifies.
They also saw the Bt corn produced better yield than the conventional variety, averaging around six to eight tons per hectare on their best crop season (the average yield for the conventional variety is 2-3 tons per hectare). “Since we are going to pour effort and resources into it, we might as well use high-yielding GM corn seeds. Though it costs more compared to non-GM seeds, the benefits and returns of a higher yield can cover those costs and more,” he notes. “We also promote Bt corn to the farmer-partners of Gintong Butil,” Lualhati adds.
BEING A FARMER-LEADER
At its core, Gintong Butil’s goal is to increase the income of corn growers in Quezon and nearby provinces and to help them address farming concerns from land preparation, harvesting, pricing, to selling their crops. “We assist them through financing and post- harvest equipment rental. Our farmer-partners often have no capital, so they loan from us with low interest rates. They usually pay us back after harvest. Members of the Samahan (farmer’s organization) can also rent farm equipment from Gintong Butil at a lower price,” Emerson explains. Additionally, the Samahan receives assistance (i.e., seeds, fertilizers, and equipment) from the Department of Agriculture (DA). The Samahan currently has 25 members within the barangay, but Gintong Butil supports around 50-70 farmer-partners throughout Quezon. They plan to expand the services of the company to the farthest towns in the province.
Aside from financial assistance, another concern that they are particularly keen to resolve through Gintong Butil is the presence of middlemen. “They normally buy the corn at a significantly lower price that they earn more than the farmers. We inform the farmers that they can process their own harvest, so they can keep their full income,” Lualhati continues.
Emerson and Lualhati happily share that their partner corn farmers now avail of Gintong Butil’s services instead of dealing with middlemen. After drying, they look for purchase orders from their partner feed mills and poultry farms so farmers can directly sell their harvests. “Our partner-farmers can now have a better life because they earn more,” she adds.
Gintong Butil also leads capacity-building activities for its farmer- partners. They coordinate with technicians from their suppliers as well as feed and fertilizer companies to train the farmers. They also encourage them to join trainings organized by the DA.
FROM FARMERS TO ‘AGRIPRENEURS’
From working abroad, managing Gintong Butil has become Emerson’s primary source of income. They only had a small truck, one tractor and a corn sheller when they started. They now have two tractors, dryers, and trucks. They were also able to build a warehouse with their earnings. Gintong Butil regularly supplies feed mills in Quezon, Laguna, and Batangas. Along with the yield of their farmer-partners, they also supply around 20-25 tons of Bt corn monthly to one of the major food manufacturers in the Philippines.
“As for business expansion, we are exploring if we can meet the demand of other companies. One challenge is having farmer-partners who know how to market new products,” Emerson admits. However, he observed that a lot of farmers still practice traditional farming methods that don’t increase their yield and harvest.
This, he says, is why farmers should be encouraged to be ‘agripreneurs.’ “They think that just because they are farmers, they can’t be entrepreneurs. We need to change their mindset that they, too, can earn more if they know the business side of farming,” he points out. Lualhati shares this sentiment and adds that the youth should have a similar outlook to motivate them to venture into agriculture. “We have to advocate that farming can be a main source of income.”
From conversations with their partners, Emerson and Lualhati believe that farmers need to be updated with modern technologies and farming practices. Machineries and post-harvest facilities in the area should also be available. One of the goals of the federation is to establish a post-harvest facility in the province with the assistance of DA and in partnership with Gintong Butil. They also encourage small-scale farmers to form organizations and consolidate their efforts since it is easier to negotiate or demand prices as a group.
“We feel that we have a social responsibility to lend a hand to our fellow farmers. As our income increase and our quality of life improves, so should theirs. At the end of the day, we are all in this together,” Emerson states.
A joint project of CropLife Asia & the Southeast Asian Regional Center for Graduate Study and Research in Agriculture (SEARCA)
FROM OVERSEAS WORKER TO FARMER AND BIOTECH CHAMPION
Known in the Philippine agri-biotech community as the “Queen of Bt Corn,” Rosalie Ellasus shares her journey from working overseas to being a successful genetically modified (GM) corn farmer, and using her influence as a biotech advocate to inspire other farmers to plant GM crops.
Seated against a background of her lush corn fields, near a brand-new farm tractor, Rosalie fondly recalls how she initially had no background or interest in farming. Things changed when her husband died in 1995 and she decided to come home from working overseas to be with her three children. She invested her savings in a small farm, but the results were far from rosy. Her corn farm was riddled with pests and weeds; mere farm income was not enough to send her children to college. Selling the farm was not a lucrative option either.
In 2002, Rosalie attended a 16-week Integrated Pest Management-Farmer Field School (IPMFFS) for corn in her municipality. She notes that this was a defining moment since she learned about Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) corn, a GM corn variety that is resistant to the Asiatic corn borer. “We had a field trial and I volunteered to have a demo trial of Bt and non-Bt corn on my farm. We saw that Bt corn produced better yield than the conventional variety,” she adds. When the Philippine government approved the commercialization of Bt corn in 2003, Rosalie became one of the pioneer adaptors of the GM crop in the country. From just over one hectare of land in 2011, she now harvests corn from more than 10 hectares of farmland. Apart from Rosalie, other farmers in San Jacinto, Pangasinan have also found success in planting Bt corn.
Rosalie has enjoyed a multifaceted career over the years. On top of being a farmer, she also became a municipal councilor for nine years. She’s currently the Municipal Risk Reduction and Management Officer of her town. “I did not give up farming because I still wanted to provide livelihood to the farm workers that tend to my field,” she says.
She has also become one of the champions of biotech crops in the country. “Because of the positive outcome of the demo trial, I got invited to different gatherings in other towns to share my experience with the crop. That’s where my advocacy started. I want other farmers, big or small, to know that they, too, can have a better life with Bt corn,” Rosalie states. She admits that it’s rare for a farmer like her to be given the opportunity to travel, so it was a pleasure sharing her biotech experience with farmers in other countries such as Mexico, Peru, and Bangladesh.
In 2016, the Department of Agriculture- Biotechnology Program Office named her as one of the “Filipino Faces of Biotechnology” for her contributions to the country’s agribiotech sector.
SHIFTING TO BT FOR GOOD
It has been 15 years since Zosimo Gonzales started planting Bt corn and he has no plans of turning back. Now 70 years old, he first knew of Bt corn when Rosalie introduced it in their area during the demo trial. “When we tried planting it ourselves, we were convinced that Bt corn was better since it was high yielding. The corn borers were also gone so we did not have to spend much on insecticides, unlike the conventional varieties where we had to apply large amounts of insecticides but still had less yield compared to Bt corn,” he explains.
With this additional income from Bt corn and a small rice field, he was able to build a house and buy farm equipment such as a tractor and water pump. Both his children were also able to finish their studies. “Recently, we harvested 15 tons of corn on my 1.7-hectare farm,” he adds.
Husband and wife Trinidad and Saturnino Velasco, Sr., are also long-time Bt corn farmers from the area. Similar to Zosimo, the couple shifted to Bt corn after seeing its benefits. “We noticed an improvement in our farming methods. We used to spend a lot on insecticides, but now, we only spray it when needed.” Trinidad further clarifies, “there is no corn borer infestation anymore but sometimes, we still need to apply insecticides to eliminate other insects such as armyworms, fruit flies, and leafhoppers.”
“There are times that we are able to harvest 9.6 tons of corn per hectare. We will never get tired of planting Bt corn,” she happily shares. Saturnino continues, “we were able to send our five children to school and now, they all have good careers. We bought land and farm equipment. We were also able to buy a car with our income.”
Now in their sixties, the couple is still actively involved in managing their farm and they’ve hired other farmers to tend to their corn field. “We are glad to see fellow farmers such as Rosalie succeed because we are also encouraged to produce better crops. It’s like a friendly competition,” says Trinidad.
Another farmer in the area, Romeo Velasco, echoes similar sentiments. “Aside from higher income and improved farming practices, I can confidently say that Bt corn is safe for humans. I’ve been planting it for almost 10 years, and I haven’t experienced any negative side effects. It’s also safer than the conventional varieties since we use fewer insecticides,” he shares. With 25 hectares of land dedicated to Bt corn, Romeo shares that he has been able to help a lot of his fellow farmers in the area. “They have regular jobs because of farming, and they use this to pay for their children’s schooling and to support the other needs of their families.” His farm income also goes into the expansion of his agriculture supplies business.
“Corn farming used to be labor-intensive,” Rosalie recalls. Before, there were many activities involved during the planting season (i.e., plowing, fertilization, weeding, de-tasseling, watering, insecticide spraying, etc.) which were also costly. With Bt corn, this tedious process has been simplified. “The farmer just needs to focus on fertilization, watering, and manpower. We spray Glyphosate to get rid of the weeds, but the overall production cost has been reduced. Now, we can easily sell our corn to feed millers and traders since it’s not infested by corn borers,” she elaborates. Rosalie also attests to the safety of Bt corn. “We have been feeding Bt corn to our livestock for years and there have been no adverse effects.”
“More importantly, my children were able to finish university, which was my main concern when I became a single parent. I am now helping with the education of my grandchildren. I was also able to establish other businesses and buy farm equipment. Our life has certainly improved because of Bt corn,” she beams.
AGTECH IS THE FUTURE
Zosimo recalls that he was not frightened to try the technology when it was first introduced. “I have no regrets with planting Bt corn. Why would I be afraid of it? Farmers need to open their minds to modern technologies. These won’t be introduced to us if it will just cause more damage to our crops.” He also hopes that their experience will help convince farmers to plant Bt corn.
Meanwhile, Trinidad and Saturnino feel fortunate that they discovered Bt corn and enjoy its benefits. “If given the chance, we will still choose to plant Bt corn. It’s more profitable than the conventional ones,” they add.
Romeo shared his aspirations and hopes that the GM corn variety in the country will be further improved so that more farmers will be encouraged to plant it. “I also plan to expand my farm so I can employ more corn farmers in my area. That way, I can help them provide for their families,” he says.
Similarly, Rosalie expressed the need to advance technologies and biotech products in the country. She mentioned that farmers also need climate-resilient crops to cope with agricultural challenges. She expounds, “we need to invest in smart agriculture and biotechnology, otherwise, the Philippines will be left behind. Agriculture and technology should go hand in hand.”
For such an accomplished farming career, Rosalie plans to carry on with her biotech advocacy. “I still want to inspire other farmers especially the younger ones, to venture into agriculture, particularly GM crops. I can also explore other opportunities so that I can continue being of service to the people of San Jacinto and perhaps even beyond!”
Farmers were a coredemographicrepresented at the UN Food Systems Summit Pre-Summit, and for good reason. Farmers produce our food and cultivate the world’s farmlands — it would be impossible to positively transform global food systems without engagingfarmersandranchers.
Kylie Epperson and her husband Jordan are young farmers in northeast Missouri in the United States. Their diversified family farm is the center of their lives, and every day they strive to produce food and animal feed while preserving the beauty and fertility of their farmland.
CropLife International asked Kylie some key questions about what it’s like to be a young farmer, what kind of everyday challenges she faces and how she champions sustainability on the farm.
As a young person, what made you want to become a farmer?
Kylie Epperson: I married into the farm, but there is something to be said for choosing to marry a farmer AND wanting to return to work on the farm alongside my husband. Agriculture is a way of life like no other. Farmers are true entrepreneurs, mechanics, engineers, marketing experts and so much more. We grow food, especially here in the United States, to feed millions of people around the world. I love being able to run my own business and raise our family in a rural, farm setting.
“Farmers are true entrepreneurs, mechanics, engineers, marketing experts, and so much more.”
What are the main crops you grow on your farm and why?
KE: We grow yellow corn and soybeans on our farm in Missouri. We also raise hogs. Most of the crops we grow go into feed for hogs and cattle. Raising hogs helps us to diversify our farming operation and better manage risk in both commodities.
What does a normal day look like on your farm? What is your routine?
KE: As a 50/50 partner with my husband on our farm, my main role is working in our farm office. A typical day for me is waking, rounding the kids up and driving about 10 minutes to our home farm. After arriving at the office, I look over any urgent matters on my desk, sort and pay bills, review finances and any other accounting matters at hand. I also manage grain inventory and sales. Between bills, grain inventory and tending to three children at work, that makes up most of my day.
What are the major challenges you face on your farm?
KE: One of the major challenges we have on our farm, and really as an industrywide problem, is labor. It is incredibly hard to find a qualified individual who loves the land and animals just as much as you do and takes care of them to the level that you see fit. More and more people are leaving rural America, and that is a threat today and will continue to be a challenge in the future.
“There is not one person who cares more about the quality of our soil, water and air than a farmer.”
How do climate change and biodiversity issues affect your farm?
KE: As a row crop and hog farmer, we take all measures available to us to ensure we are doing right by our environment, by our land and by our community. There is not one person who cares more about the quality of our soil, water and air than a farmer, and we put practices in place to ensure we are doing our part to take care of the environment.
What would you say to young people who want to know about farming and plant science?
KE: Agriculture is one of the most rewarding environments to make yourself a part of. The community, the ability to work with your hands and with the land every day, the opportunity to raise a family on a farm, teaching your kids life lessons from a young age, gosh, so many amazing things about farming.
However, farming isn’t for the faint of heart. Farmers rely heavily on matters outside of our control, like commodity prices, land availability, weather and more, and often those uncontrollable matters throw curveball after curveball. Farmers are resilient, though, and you quickly learn the love for the land and the faith for the future is much greater in agriculture than the fear of the unknown. Agriculture is a community and profession that once you start, you’ll never want to leave.
Kylie takes a special interest in telling her story through her Instagram, Facebook and blog, where she charts the ups and downs of modern farming from the perspective of a young family. This is in part due to increased interest in farming from consumers who have increasing concerns about sustainability and the supply chain, or are just taking a greater interest in where their food comes from.
Kylie is just one of many young farmers and advocates throughout the world working to make our planet a greener and more sustainable one. Check out what other youth champions have to say about how we can better transform our food systems.
Addressing the many threats to food security was a key priority at the United Nations Food Systems Pre-Summit earlier this year. West Asia regional director for Youth4Nature Rayan Kassem offered closing remarks sharing his vision on how food systems could be meaningfully transformed. In celebration of International Youth Day and as part of our responsibility to include and uplift youth perspectives, we reached out to Kassem to learn more about his perspective on how key stakeholders can collaborate to help deliver more sustainable food systems for the world.
Kassem outlined 11 key action points that he believes will be vital for creating equitable and sustainable food systems.
- We must consider the indirect causes of food system challenges, not just direct impacts like hunger, poverty and climate change. Looking at factors like war, smuggling, food prices, violence and food import dependence is key.
- We need to create an accountability scheme for decision-makers. Our generation is making history as the first generation to actively care about the future of the planet. We must continue to call for accountability every time a shock, stress or challenge happens within food systems.
- We should address trade dependencies and politics within food systems. Some countries might have disputes and create artificial trade barriers. We need to protect food systems from such trade disruptions.
- We need to move beyond our unsustainable view that we can produce as much as we want, whenever and wherever we want. We need to create a new system where resources are looked at in a finite way.
- We need to look at subsidies. We should stop subsidizing agricultural products that are harmful for our health and for the health of the climate and biodiversity. Instead, we should shift those subsidies to local farmers and agricultural products that are good for our health and our planet. We should subsidize fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds, and whole plant-based food products as well animal protein that is produced sustainably be it fish or land-based animals
- We need to take care of farmers’ livelihoods. Farmers are the basis of our society as the producers of our food. Yet, they aren’t often able to have equitable livelihoods.
- We need to switch from monocultural tree planting to nature-positive, sustainable food production so that agriculture doesn’t hurt the health of our environment or impact the climate.
- We need to prioritize food justice and sovereignty, including regional culture and the heritage of food production and consumption. How people eat and how they produce food is very specific to their cultures and hundreds of years of interaction with nature. The development of food production and consumption patterns are often local, so food systems should not be approached from a global perspective with a standard diet and way of producing food.
- We must use resources sustainably. That means growing crops best suited to each region based on their natural resources.
- Developing countries must have access to agricultural technologies. The use of these technologies helps farmers produce food more efficiently. There is still a very large gap between the Northern and Southern Hemisphere in access to technologies.
- Lastly, we need a circular economy. Technology has advanced enough to create products from food waste, and we need to incorporate these products into local, regional and global food production.
Kassem believes that if we address these 11 strategies, we will be able to improve global food systems and end world hunger. He added that we already have the policy systems in place, through both the United Nations and member states, to address these points — we just need action. Youth advocates are key to encouraging decision-makers to create lasting, long-term policies that leads to more equitable, sustainable and accessible food systems.
As the global federation representing the plant science industry, CropLife International is committed to advancing innovation in agriculture for a sustainable future, and to playing a lead role in enabling sustainable food systems. We are proud to feature the voices of stakeholders like Rayan Kassem that are shaping global negotiations at the UN Food Systems Summit.
To hear food systems perspectives directly from youth leaders, check out our most recent map: How Youth Envision Global Food Systems in 50 Years.
Today, PLANT SCIENCE INNOVATIONS are making staple crops more profitable, more nutritious and better protected against unpredictable weather. Cassava is no exception. Both farmers and consumers throughout the world can reap the benefits of varieties that are healthier, heartier and more abundant.
Cassava provides sustenance for over 800 million people. A perennial woody shrub native to Latin America, cassava is primarily grown as an annual crop in the humid tropics. Studies indicate it is the only staple crop that stands to benefit from climate change. As more land is rendered unusable due to changing temperature and rainfall patterns, cassava will likely gain ground as a staple around the globe.
We spoke with Chiedozie Egesi of NextGen Cassava Breeding Project, who is at the forefront of new innovations to enhance this already resilient and hearty staple crop. Read our interview with him to learn how and why cassava is a major staple crop of the developing world and what its future holds. (This interview has been formatted for brevity and clarity.)
Chiedozie Egesi, leader of the NextGen Cassava Breeding Project, tells us how he and his team are developing better cassava plants to resist challenging growing conditions, be more productive and deliver more nutrition.
Tell me about your role at NextGen Cassava. What type of research do you lead?
Our main objective is to empower African cassava farmers through innovative, sustainable cassava breeding. We have begun the process of modernizing cassava breeding institutions in Africa and use cutting-edge tools for efficient delivery of improved varieties of cassava.
My role includes project coordination, charting the course we take and ensuring that our partners are supported to deliver on the project mandate. We specialize in cassava breeding implementation—cutting-edge research technologies that make for more efficient processes and demand-led breeding.
Why is cassava a staple crop in South America, Africa, and other developing countries?
Cassava is a major calorie source for over 800 million people. It has high productivity in marginal environments, making it an invaluable asset for food security—it survives where other crops fail. It also has naturally high resilience to climatic changes. Finally, it is produced mainly by smallholders [farmers with less than 2 hectares of land] – mostly women – with simple technologies, allowing it to be easily grown across multiple countries and environments.
What challenges have cassava farmers faced in recent years?
Cassava producers face several main challenges these days. First, many pests and diseases have constrained production for cassava growers. Part of this is actually because of cassava’s long growth cycle—its long duration in the field increases its exposure to pests and viruses. Also, cassava is perishable, which leads to limited flexibility in handling. Lastly, poorly linked value chains in Africa cause frequent boom-and-bust cycles of high and low productivity. The markets have not been well developed to make for sustainable agribusiness.
How have plant science innovations helped cassava farmers?
A recent example is the timely delivery of new, “best-bet” varieties to cassava farmers. Genomic selection is an integral technology that has enabled us to get these more resilient, more productive and more nutritious varieties. We have employed innovative “citizen science” approaches to enable participatory selection of improved varieties. In addition, new technologies have helped us rapidly screen large breeding populations. Others include techniques to improve flowering in cassava, an essential step for hybridization through pollination. Application of a combination of hormones has enabled us to make cross combinations that were not very easily done due to the poor flowering of some cassava varieties.
Which plant science innovations does NextGen Cassava utilize in its work with smallholder farmers?
We predicted the performance of new varieties based on the genetic information of their parents using modeling systems. This allowed us to reduce the generational cycle time for cassava from about 10 years to five. Better varieties can now get to farmers faster, and we are still working on further improving this. We are designing research that maps preferences and links to social differences such as gender, age, education, region, poverty and food security levels.
How will climate change continue to impact cassava and smallholder farmers?
Cassava is one of the most climate-smart crops in the tropics and has the capacity to withstand changes in the atmosphere, which it can use to its advantage for more productivity. As climate change continues to be a challenge for smallholder growers in Africa, cassava farmers stand a better chance to make more profitable agribusiness due to the robustness of the crop.
How will supporting plant science innovations help communities that depend on cassava?
Support for plant science innovations is needed to help communities that depend on cassava in Africa. New technologies will transform cassava production and deliver the best varieties for maximum impact on growers and their families.
For more information about cassava and its role as a staple crop in different countries around the world, please check out these resources:
Kenya Approves Disease-Resistant Biotech Cassava
In June 2021, the Kenya National Biosafety Authority approved the environmental release of genetically modified cassava, which is resistant to cassava brown streak disease. The disease-resistant cassava was developed under the Virus Resistant Cassava for Africa Plus project, a collaborative program between Kenya Agricultural and Livestock Research Organization, National Crops Resources Research Institute of Uganda and Donald Danforth Plant Science Center. Learn more about this breakthrough from the Cornell Alliance for Science and ISAAA.
Repairing the Root of the Problem
Despite the ability to turn cassava into an endless number of palatable dishes, the tuber has two major issues affecting the people who rely on it the most. First, cassava faces the threat of brown streak disease, limiting available food and second, the crop has a natural toxin that can cause severe physical and mental damage in the populations who need it most. For the millions it feeds, this important crop must be usable. That’s where plant biotechnology and gene editing come in. This video from the American Seed Trade Association and University of California at Berkeley shows the research being done to improve this staple crop for the millions who depend on it.
Save and Grow Cassava: A Guide to Sustainable Production Intensification
The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations has published a booklet about the production of cassava. It notes that cassava was first cultivated 9,000 years ago on the southern edge of the Brazilian Amazon, where it is still grown. Today, around 300 million tons of cassava are produced globally, with Nigeria as the world’s largest producer. Around 90 percent of harvested roots are destined for human consumption, while about 10 percent are semi-processed on-farm as animal feed. Read the entire 100-page PDF on the FAO website.
African Scientists Improve Cassava to Help Feed the World
A 2019 article in the journal Nature explains how researchers at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture in Nigeria are using both traditional breeding and genetic modification to improve the starchy staple crop. In Africa, where consumption is highest, cassava plants bear smaller yields than their cousins in Asia and South America. But African varieties tend to be more tolerant of blights, such as the deadly cassava mosaic disease now spreading across Asia.
Breeding Better Crops, From Maize to Cassava
In this video from the Gates Foundation, United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Agriculture Research Service (ARS) and Cornell University, plant geneticist Ed Buckler explains that cassava has not been bred as effectively as other crops – such as maize – and there is tremendous potential including disease and insect resistance, by taking new, modern breeding tools and applying them to cassava.
Developing GM Super Cassava For Improved Health and Food Security: Future Challenges in Africa
The potential for GM cassava also includes biofortification. According to a study in the open access journal Agriculture & Food Security, more than 800 million people suffer from micronutrient malnutrition in developing countries with Africa accounting for almost 50 percent of the children who are clinically or sub-clinically deficient in vitamin A, particularly under five years of age. The study found that an overwhelming majority of scientists agree that GM biofortified cassava will benefit the health of millions in Africa and that GM cassava conferred with disease and pest resistance will increase cassava production as it is currently plagued by cassava mosaic diseases (CMD).
Highlights need for agricultural innovation in addressing Asia’s growing food security crisis / Helping reach region’s hungry, undernourished
Singapore, 13 July 2021 – With the release of the United Nations (UN) 2021 State of Food Security & Nutrition in the World (SOFI) report, CropLife Asia highlighted the need for the region’s food value chain stakeholders to work together in transforming our food systems to better enable food security, improved nutrition, and affordable healthy diets for all.
The challenge of achieving the UN’s Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 2 of ‘zero hunger’ globally by 2030 has grown even more complicated with the broad impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. In this latest UN report, it is estimated that the number of people affected by hunger worldwide in 2020 was between 720 and 811 million people. This is a marked increase of over 100 million more people than in 2019. The prevalence of undernourishment (PoU) has also climbed up to around 9.9 percent in 2020 compared to 8.4 percent the previous year. This new report also confirms a sadly familiar refrain for Asia: our region is failing to deliver food security for far too many – particularly among the more vulnerable parts of society. Asia continues to be home to the greatest number of undernourished people with 418 million suffering from hunger in 2020.
“The challenge of feeding Asia and the world requires us to explore all possible solutions. This can only be achieved through greater collaboration with others, as multi-stakeholder approaches are crucial for transformation of our food systems.” said Dr. Siang Hee Tan, Executive Director, CropLife Asia. “The plant science industry champions innovation in both crop protection and plant biotech, as well as precision and digital agriculture solutions to benefit both people and the planet.”
“The innovative technologies of the plant science industry have a key role to play, but it is only one part of the solution,” Dr. Tan added. “Ensuring that an ample supply of affordable and nutritious food reaches those who need it most is a shared responsibility. Farmers’ access to innovation is an increasingly crucial component to combatting food insecurity in Asia and around the world.”
Global crop losses due to pests and disease are a major contributor to global food loss and waste. These losses would be twice as high without the use of crop protection products. Crop losses can be further reduced through more effective crop protection stewardship practices. Without innovations such as crop protection products and plant biotechnology, global pre-harvest crop losses could double(1). Meanwhile, biotech crops are developed with improved traits such as increased yield, better resistance to pests and/or improved nutrition, among others. These traits are crucial tools that enable farmers to produce more food using fewer resources to feed our growing world.
About CropLife Asia
CropLife Asia is a non-profit society and the regional organization of CropLife International, the voice of the global plant science industry. We advocate a safe, secure food supply, and our vision is food security enabled by innovative agriculture. CropLife Asia supports the work of 15 member associations across the continent and is led by eight member companies at the forefront of crop protection, seeds and/or biotechnology research and development. For more information, visit us at www.croplifeasia.org.
For more information, please contact:
Director, Public Affairs & Strategic Partnerships
Tel: +65 6221 1615
By: CropLife International
There is no planet B. Our earth’s environment must be both preserved and restored in order to secure a sustainable future for generations to come. The United Nations’ 13th Sustainable Development Goal states that we must take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts. Younger generations of advocates are taking notice of this imminent concern.
To meet these goals, all industries and sectors of the world must make climate change — and the existential threat it poses — a top priority. The agricultural sector is far from an exception. But it will be a solution.
We spoke with Nisreen Elsaim, chair of the United Nations (UN) Youth Advisory Group on Climate Change and chair of the Sudan Youth Organization on Climate Change, about the effects of climate change, especially in developing countries, and the role agriculture and plant science can play in combatting it. This interview had been formatted and adapted from its original recording for brevity and clarity.
Can you tell us about the U.N. Youth Advisory Group on Climate Change and what you do?
Nisreen Elsaim: The first ever Youth Climate Summit happened in 2019 in New York, right before the Climate Action Summit. Between the two summits, there was some youth involvement with the secretary-general to expand the influence of young people and better recognize their efforts in addressing climate change. One of the recommendations was to establish an advisory board for the secretary-general with young people taking action on climate. This led to the creation of the Youth Advisory Group.
This group is very diverse both in graphical representation and background. For example, Paloma Costa from Brazil represents Latin America and she’s a lawyer. Archana Soreng is from India; she’s in research and comes from an indigenous community. Vlad Kaim is from Moldova; he represents Eastern Europe and he’s the economist of the group. And I represent Africa. My background is in physics, and I have a master’s degree in renewable energy. I’m currently focusing on climate policies.
Our mandate is very simple: we advise the secretary-general on things that young people think should happen within the UN system. We play the role of a bridge between the secretary-general and young people.
What makes developing countries the most vulnerable to climate change? And how have the impacts of climate change been felt in Sudan?
NE: I recorded a video that covers just this. We know that climate change is real and that it is human made. A third of Sudan is covered by desert and desertification is a growing problem. The country has gone through a decades-long civil war and conflict over natural resources. This has put biodiversity, fertile land, food and water security in greater danger and made the country very vulnerable in the face of climate change. Floods destroy buildings, fields and people’s livelihoods, and they will get worse as climate change gets worse.
The country cannot compensate farmers who’ve lost whole harvests to floods. There are some insurance companies, but not everyone has access to them. Many farmers don’t have other options so they stick to agriculture. It’s a risky investment, especially in the flood season, which we know already they cannot change. Some farmers skip the flood seasons and try to intensively do agriculture in different seasons, but others take the risk.
There are many misconceptions about climate change in agriculture. What do you think is the most common myth that you encounter around the two topics?
NE: Well, I think there is more misunderstanding, or misjudging, about the situation. Not only in agriculture, but also with livestock. A lot of people think that eating meat is increasing a lot of emissions in the environment. And it’s true, but in certain climate or weather conditions, it’s different. For example, a cow in Sudan does not produce the same amount of methane as a cow in Poland or in Germany. Why? Because the climate situation in Sudan is very dry and hot. And we all know that methane is actually an organic result of fermentation.
Fermentation requires the presence of water. It needs specific conditions which don’t really exist in a dry, hot country like Sudan, but they do in humid, wet and cold countries like Poland, the Netherlands or Germany. So, it’s not the same impact. It’s not the same effect. And definitely, it’s not the same emission of methane gas.
What tools can help farmers best address the challenges presented by climate change?
NE: Desertification is a huge issue in Sudan and it’s moving very fast, covering big areas. Many tools can help address desertification. One example is center pivot irrigation, where you actually irrigate the crops in circles which helps farmers use water efficiently.
What are the concerns associated with misinformation around climate change and agriculture and the way that our food is produced?
NE: First, farmers who have a misunderstanding of the problem will implement the wrong solution, which perpetuates the problem.
A lot of consumers care about the origin or impact of their food. So, economically it will impact the farmer, especially in countries where farmers sell directly to consumers. If the consumers stop buying from the farmers, the farmers’ livelihoods are at serious stake.
In addition, general misunderstandings create a very negative atmosphere. In a country like Sudan, this will impact the policies, legislation and laws. Policies could be passed without any scientific basis.
What role do you think agriculture can play in helping communities adapt to climate change?
NE: In order for agriculture to help the community adapt to climate change, we must first help the agriculture industry adapt to climate change.
If agriculture becomes somehow immune to — or at least less impacted by — climate change, then it directly helps and supports communities through better food security, economic prosperity and so on. It will secure farmers’ income. It will secure food security, which is very important. And if we ensure a very good agricultural cycle, then we can even have other activities to increase the income and diversity of food. Building the resilience of communities through green jobs like agriculture is key.
What major milestones in the youth movement for climate change are you looking forward to?
NE: One of the things we are looking forward to is the Youth COP that will be held in Milan in September. It will be a very good milestone for the youth movement of climate change and climate diplomacy.
Climate change poses an existential threat to all countries, sectors, industries and businesses on earth — no matter how big or small. The only way to properly tackle this challenge is to work together. The agricultural sector offers much in the way of climate change solutions. The sooner we can dispel myths surrounding agriculture and climate change, the sooner we can more effectively fight back against it.
On November 16 -20, 2020, about a hundred participants from Australia, China, Japan, India, Indonesia, Korea, Malaysia, Pakistan, Philippines, Taiwan, Thailand, Singapore, Vietnam and the US attended the first virtual Pan-Asia Farmers Exchange Program. In its 14th year, CropLife Asia, CropLife Philippines and the Biotechnology Coalition of the Philippines organized and held the week long event as an online two-hour webinar each day.
Farmers, scientists and the academe, government officers and policy makers and experts on industry shared their knowledge and experiences in the fields of agricultural biotechnology, regulations, communications and commercial growing of biotech crops . Companies and institutions also gave virtual tours of their facilities and showcased how their products are produced and managed while ensuring its safety and quality, and following government regulations.
Below are the recorded videos of the 14th Pan-Asia Farmers Exchange Program.
INTRODUCTION TO BIOTECHNOLOGY
During the 1st day, Dr. Rhodora Aldemita, the Director, of ISAAA Southeast Asia Center and Director of the Global Knowledge Center on Crop Biotechnology – International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA), gave an overview of modern biotechnology.
Dr. Russell Reinke, Theme Leader of the Improving Health Through Safe and Nutritionally Enhanced Rice Program at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), shared the Golden Rice Experience. And Dr. Szabolcs Ruthner, Regulatory Affairs Manager of the International Seed Federation (ISF), presented a quick overview of new plant breeding innovations.
This session was opened by Dr. Sianghee Tan, Executive Director of CropLife Asia and moderated by Ms. Sonny Tababa, Biotechnology Affairs Director of CropLife Asia.
On the 2nd day, Dr. Saturnina C. Halos, President of the Biotechnology Coalition of the Philippines (BCP), discussed biosafety regulations, including environmental risk assessment and food safety assessment.
Dr. Gabriel Romero, Executive Director of the Philippine Seed Industry Association (PSIA) and Ms. Rosemary Richards, President of the Australian Oilseeds Federation, shared the road to commercialization of each of their very own country’s cultivated GM crop. Dr. Romero discussed about Bt Corn in the Philippines, and Ms. Richards talked about GM Canola in Australia.
This session was moderated by Mr. Abraham Manalo, the Executive Secretary of the Biotechnology Coalition of the Philippines (BCP).
BIOTECH COMMUNICATION WORKSHOP
The 3rd day was all about science communication.
Ms. Ma. Aileen Garcia, Manager, Project Coordination and Stakeholder Advocacy of the Healthier Rice Program at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), gave an overview on science communication.
Dr. Xiaoqing Liu, Associate Research Fellow of the Biotechnology Research Institute at Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences; Mr. Anil Ghanwat, President of the Shetkari Sangathan (farmer association) in India; Ms. Annalyn Lopez, Director-Coordinator of the Biotechnology Program at the Philippine Department of Agriculture; and Ms. Ta Thi Kieu Anh from the Biodiversity Conservation Agency at the Vietnam Environment Administration shared their experiences in communicating biotechnology in their respective countries.
This session was moderated by Dr. Rhodora Aldemita, Director, ISAAA Southeast Asia Center; Director, Global Knowledge Center on Crop Biotechnology, International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA).
EXPERIENCES IN COMMERCIAL GROWING OF BIOTECH CROPS
On the 4th day, farmers from different countries shared their experiences in commercially growing GM crops.
Ms Belinda ‘Bindi’ Murray, a dryland broadacre farmer from Woodanilling in the Great Southern Western Australia talked about how they grow gm canola.
Mr. Tulus Panduwijaya, the director at Pt. Perkebunan Nusantara XI, a government-owned estate whose main business activity is the production of sugar, and Mr. Alex Suherman, the Biotech and Seeds Director of CropLife Indonesia took us on a virtual tour and learned about Indonesia’s gm sugarcane.
Mr Juanito Rama, a successful Bt corn farmer from Tarlac, Philippines, shared how Bt corn has improved and made their lives better. Moreover, Bt corn farmers from Vietnam, Mr Nguyen Thanh Phong from Nghe An Province, Mr Hoang Van Tuyen from Son La Province, and Mr Hoang Trong Ngai from Vinh Phuc Province also shared their experiences in growing Bt corn. On the other hand, Mr. Amir Hayyat Bhandara, a corn, cotton & wheat farmer in Pakpattan, Pakistan, shared his views and expressed how Pakistan farmers need to have access to this technology, to these biotech crops.
This session was moderated by Ms. Ma Emeru B. Rodriguez, Seeds Committee Vice Chairperson of CropLife Philippines.