Mutation Breeding and Food Security

penicillin rot on sweet potato

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Author
Aaron Inamara

On the other side of climate change is the face of technology racing against both time and nature for practical relevance. In fact, technology for food security is an agenda that is now driving concerted actions across the globe, and the Pacific region is no different. There is new interest in innovations that would make agricultural practices compatible with fluctuating climatic conditions to avoid slumps in productivity and negative socio-economic impacts.

From the 26th of November to the 7th of December 2018, scientists form selected Pacific island countries participated in a two weeks course in Fiji. The training was facilitated by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the Secretariat of the Pacific Community (SPC). Its purpose was to up-skill scientists in the latest crop breeding techniques under the theme: Improving Crops Resilience to Climate Change through Mutation Breeding in Pacific Islands.

Mutation and breeding are two related but distinct processes. A mutation is a naturally occurring (spontaneous) change inside the cells of living organisms that results in the emergence of observable (or unobservable) changes which ultimately affect their levels of productivity. Breeding, on the other hand, is a deliberate human intervention in selecting and raising species with changes or characteristics that are desirable. Desirable features could range from plants or animals that are able to produce quality yields or thrive despite unfavourable climatic and environmental conditions. Up until the early 1900s, maintenance of species with productive qualities was largely limited to selective and cross-breeding processes.

Since the 1920s, new developments in agricultural sciences have resulted in mutation and breeding being integrated in controlled condition where desired changes are artificially induced using agents known as mutagens. Mutation breeding has been enhanced through collaborations between the Food and Agriculture Organization and IAEA. Today, radioactive rays could be used to trigger desired mutations in living cells under controlled conditions. This is different from methods that employ non-radioactive rays and chemical mutagens.

Mutation breeding contributes immensely to crop resilience against biotic stresses such as pests and diseases, and abiotic stresses posed by climatic and soil conditions. A principle advantage it offers is the enhanced capacity to generate improved seed systems that could afford social and nutritional as well as commercial benefits, against projected stresses.

This technology is gaining wider interest but efforts to adopt it do pose added challenges. Besides a lack of sound research capacity, financial limitation is singularly the most critical constraint. Much funding is needed to set up state-of-the-art facilities and up-skill the human resources. These are key priorities that Pacific governments and research agencies, such as the National Agriculture Research Institute (NARI), have to contend with.

After its inception in 1997, NARI has carried on with programmes initiated by the Department of Agriculture and Livestock. Its primary focus is on food crops and livestock in the smallholder sector. In crops research, the institute integrates aspects of pest and disease management, climate risk reduction and food security themes. Such work has led to official releases of new varieties of high yielding taro hybrids that are resistant to Taro Leaf Blight; drought tolerant sweetpotatoes; high yielding, pest and disease tolerant rice; and drought tolerant, high yielding cassavas that are low in cyanide. These innovations have helped to enhance food security and resilience against extreme climatic events across coastal and highland regions of PNG, in recent years.

NARI is keen to expand its range of climate resilience innovations and has embraced collaborative engagements diligently. Recent projects are helping it to realize that ambition. Through partnerships with the European Union, prevailing biotechnology methods have been used to develop pathogen tested sweetpotato varieties. In addition, the institute is engaged with leading international agencies such as IAEA to explore potentials of mutation breeding for climate resilience in the region.

IAEA is a subsidiary of the United Nations (UN) that was created in 1957 to promote safe uses of nuclear energy especially in the fields of health and biotechnology. It supports 37 countries and territories in Asia and the Pacific. PNG and Fiji joined IAEA in 2012 followed by Vanuatu in 2015 while Marshall Islands had joined earlier, in 1994. To date, there are about 170 members.

The agency’s technical assistance programmes in the Asia-Pacific region target capacity building of its members through exchange of expertise that support respective national development plans. Assistance programmes are captured in the Regional Co-operative Agreement for Research, Development and Training Related to Nuclear Science and Technology for Asia and the Pacific (RCA). In addition, a Regional Programme Framework for Asia and the Pacific has been in place since 2015. The Framework complements RCA’s strategies which are aligned to UN's Sustainable Development Goals.

The recent training was attended by three scientists from NARI, four from Fiji and one from Vanuatu. The two weeks course was facilitated at SPC’s tissue culture laboratory. Both theoretical and practical sessions featured a wide range of topics from impacts of climatic variability on the agricultural sector to recent advancements in plant tissue culture and biotechnological interventions.

Importantly, the participants were tasked to develop research proposals on how mutation breeding could be employed to address food security needs in their own countries. For PNG, our scientists are looking into drought and disease tolerant varieties of sweet potato and banana. This is a promising development for us and the Pacific region as a whole.