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Technology Key to Producing More Food


The Green Revolution is a good example of how technological advances can have a dramatic effect on economic development - in this case on food production. Other technological innovations are helping to improve agricultural production, from empowering farmers in India to an international effort to breed food staples fortified with nutritional vitamins. VOA's Bill Rodgers has more in this fourth in our series on the impact of technology on the developing world, with additional reporting by Rosyla Kalden and Steve Herman in India, and Luis Ramirez in Thailand.

When farmers in northern India's Uttar Pradesh state harvested their wheat in the past, they usually had to sell to local middlemen at whatever price was offered. Now, thanks to the Internet, they can get higher prices for their crops.

In villages in Uttar Pradesh and eight other states, farmers can go to an Internet kiosk where they have access to a network set up by the India Tobacco Company. On the network, known as e-Choupal, they can check prices and sell their crops online.

In the village of Hathras, the local e-Choupal hub coordinator, Raj Kumar Sharma, says the Internet has all kinds of uses. He says the benefits of e-Choupal are that they not only get price information but weather forecasts as well. So farmers know in advance when the weather is right to apply pesticides.

More than 6,000 Indian villages are now connected to the e-Choupal network, an example of how technology is changing the lives of farmers.

The Green Revolution, which got underway in the 1960s, is the most well-known example of how technological advances led to the development of high-yield crops that dramatically boosted farm production. Harvests of rice, wheat and corn increased substantially because of improved seed varieties and the use of fertilizer and pesticides.

"The Green Revolution had an overwhelmingly positive impact in terms of huge increase production in Asia and to some extent in Latin America, significant increases in farmer incomes and contributing to a rapid reduction in poverty and food insecurity in Asia in particular," says Mark Rosegrant, who heads the Environment and Production Technology Division at the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington. "It has had some negative side effects, such as increased runoff from fertilizer and pesticides, some overuse of water for irrigation in some areas, but those are much counterbalanced by the positive benefits of the Green Revolution."

Rosegrant says that by the 1990s, productivity gains began to wane. He says a decline in investment in agriculture also has hurt.

"What you've seen now is more maintenance research and trying to adapt to new pest varieties that come along, new insects that come and attack the varieties," adds Rosegrant. "So there's a lot going on in research, but the investment hasn't been high enough to generate another round of very rapid productivity growth."

However, one promising area of research is the effort to develop "biofortified" crops - varieties bred for increased mineral and vitamin content to help reduce malnutrition.

The International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines is breeding strains of rice with high iron and zinc concentrations. The edible root cassava is being fortified with beta-carotene at the Tropical Agriculture Research Center in Cali, Colombia. Scientists at other research centers are experimenting with breeding varieties of wheat and corn with iron and other vitamins.

The goal of this international research effort, organized under a coalition called Harvest Plus, is to improve the nutritional quality of staple foods. Bonnie McClafferty, a Harvest Plus communications coordinator, says these biofortified staples will help millions of people in developing countries who do not get enough vitamins in their diet.

"You've got a situation in the developing world where you have millions, if not billions, of people who are micronutrient deficient," says McClafferty. "We often think of hunger and malnutrition in terms of energy or calories, but in truth there are several times the number of people who have micronutrient malnutrition and what that leads to are problems with growth, problems with immune systems, problems with cognitive development. It's a hidden hunger and it's quite insidious. So, what we're attempting to do is to breed the nutrients directly into staple foods."

Soaring food prices and grain shortages - which have recently been causing unrest around the globe - have created a new urgency for growing more food. Resistance to genetically-modified crops, which contain genes from other organisms, no longer seems to trigger as many protests as in the past.

Experts say reliance on these transgenic crops is likely to grow as the need increases for crops bred to withstand drought and other effects of climate change.

"You're really going to have to target things like heat tolerance, drought tolerance, and also salinity or salt tolerance, to make up for some of those negative consequences but also to address the future challenges," says Rosegrant. "To do that, some of that is still going to come through conventional plant breeding, but also I think you're also going to have to see a greater reliance on genetic modification or transgenics in the future, to get these kinds of traits tailored to the difficult environments that we're going to see," he adds.

Some video provided by the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) and the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT)

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