Climate change and biofuels pose fresh challenges in the fight against poverty, which requires more than ever cooperation among scientists, the new head of an international body for agricultural research said.
Ren Wang, director for the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR), told Reuters that new crop varieties, such as drought-resistant rice, were crucial for securing food supply, especially as populations continue to grow.
Creating new species, which would allow farmers to adapt to increasing extreme weather conditions, is possible only via enforced partnerships, the Chinese scientist said.
I feel very strongly that CGIAR ... can do more, said Wang, who had arrived in Washington from the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines.
I'd like to increase and broaden partnerships in developing new, suitable technology to address climate change issues.
CGIAR is a worldwide network of agricultural research centers, supported by organizations such as the World Bank and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations and United Nations Development Program.
We have seen increased incidents of droughts and flood. All of these pose particular threats to the world food supply, Wang said this week via telephone.
We have seen dramatic increases in prices of corn or wheat ... Indonesia faces a really severe shortage of rice supply.
Wang's comments came as international wheat prices hovered near 11-year highs due to unfavorably dry or wet weather hitting the world's top wheat producing regions, such as Australia, North America or Europe.
Corn prices have also gained about 60 percent in the past two years, with high oil prices encouraging the United States, the world's top corn exporter, to use more of the grain for producing biofuel for running cars.
SORGHUM, GMO, C4 RICE
Referring to biofuels, Wang said: There are concerns particularly in developing countries.
(But) there's also considerable potential for achieving a win-win situation where small farmers can also benefit from an increase in biofuel production.
He said a new sorghum developed at a CGIAR centre in India contained more sugar in its stalk, raising hopes of growing biofuel crops to boost farmers' income without endangering food supply.
Over the past few months, biofuels have raised worries over food supply, especially as the world population is likely to reach 9 billion by 2050, more than doubling global food demand.
Wang said while genetic engineering had potential for the future, conventional technology was likely to remain in the mainstream for the next 5-10 years, partly because of consumer concerns over genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
In near future, this is not going to be the mainstream technology to solve these particular problems, he said.
It's going to take time ... And consumer acceptance still poses constraints.
Wang said an ambitious GMO research was under way at IRRI to develop C4 rice, which would have a more efficient photosynthetic system, similar to corn.
It can be more drought tolerant. It can have significantly increased efficiency in water use etc. But it is going to be a minimum of 10 years before that happens, maybe even longer, said Wang.
But among conventional new varieties, developed by CGIAR, Wang expected drought-resistant, high-yield rice to be introduced in the next 3-5 years in India, where many fields are not irrigated.
Submergence-tolerant rice, developed last year, will also reach farmers in Bangladesh, India, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia.
Drought-resistant maize from Mexico is undergoing large scale trials in Kenya, Tanzania and elsewhere in east Africa.
I see challenges ahead of us. On the other hand, I see the great need and opportunities, Wang said.