A new FAO publication calls for greater national and international efforts to bring agricultural biotechnologies to smallholder producers in developing countries.

The publication, Biotechnologies at Work for Smallholders: Case Studies from Developing Countries in Crops, Livestock and Fish, asserts biotechnologies can help smallholders to improve their livelihoods and food security.

Biotechnologies at Work for Smallholders covers 19 case studies in crops, livestock and fisheries, written by scientists and researchers worldwide. It describes the practical realities and experiences of taking biotechnology research and applying it in smallholder production of bananas, cassava, rice, livestock, shrimp and more, in different parts of the developing world.

The case studies encompassed a wide range of biotechnologies. They included older or "traditional" ones like artificial insemination and fermentation, and cutting-edge techniques involving DNA-based methodologies - but not genetic modification.

The publication was prepared by a multi-disciplinary team at FAO as part of an agricultural biotechnologies project partially funded by the Government of Canada.
"With the right institutional and financial arrangements, governments, research institutions and organizations can help to bring biotechnologies to smallholders, improving their capacity to cope with challenges like climate change, plant and animal diseases, and the overuse of natural resources," said Andrea Sonnino, Chief of FAO's Research and Extension Unit.

Case studies

Four case studies were from India, two from China and one each from Argentina, Bangladesh, Brazil, Cameroon, Colombia, Cuba, Ghana, Nigeria, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Tanzania and Thailand.

Researchers used their knowledge of DNA markers to develop a flood-tolerant rice variety in India with a potential yield of 1-3 tons per hectare more than previously used varieties, under flood conditions. After being released in 2009, the new variety, Swarna-Sub1, spread rapidly and was used by three million farmers in 2012.

"In summary, submergence-tolerant varieties provided opportunities for improving and stabilizing yields in flash flood-affected areas, significantly contributing to national food security," stated Uma Singh and colleagues from the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) who prepared the case study.

In China, the Jian carp was developed using within-family genetic selection and gynogenesis (a reproductive technology resulting in all-female offspring that have only received genes from their mother). The Jian carp is now grown on about 160,000 fish farms and makes up over 50 percent of common carp production in China.|

In northern Cameroon, the use of DNA-based diagnostic tools in the field allowed veterinary authorities to quickly diagnose outbreaks of Peste des Petits Ruminants, a highly contagious viral disease affecting goats and sheep. Rapid and accurate disease diagnosis meant that the authorities could stamp out these outbreaks and stop the spread of the fatal disease to other flocks.

"Without this rapid response, thousands of sheep and goats would likely have succumbed to the disease during these outbreaks, leading to millions of CFA francs in losses," affirmed Abel Wade and Abdoulkadiri Souley from the National Veterinary Laboratory (LANAVET) in Cameroon.

The editors say biotechnologies can improve crop-, livestock- and fish-related livelihoods by boosting yields and enhancing market access. Introducing new and traditional biotechnologies on family farms can also keep production costs down and improve sustainable management of natural resources.

Lessons learned

The publication offers lessons from the case studies which can be used to inform and assist policymakers in making decisions on programs involving biotechnologies. High up on the list was the need for national political commitment to improving smallholder productivity and livelihoods; financial support from non-governmental sources to supplement national efforts; and, long-term national investment in both people and infrastructure linked to science and technology.

The publication also found international and national partnerships were vital for achieving results, as was the sharing of genetic resources, techniques and know-how across national and continental borders.

Biotechnologies at work for smallholders also underlines the importance of involving smallholders in the process at all stages, taking into consideration their knowledge, skills and own initiatives.