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Organic Agricuture in Developing Countries
Needs Modern Biotechnology
By
Nguyen Ngoc Hai
 
Keywords:  Vietnam; Disease/pest resistance; Inputs (agricultural); Green Revolution; Sustainable agriculture; Biosafety/Foodsafety.
Correct citation: Ngoc Hai, N. (1998), "Organic Agricuture in Developing Countries Needs Modern Biotechnology." Biotechnology and Development Monitor, No. 34, p. 24.

Organic agriculture, defined by the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (IFOAM) as all agricultural systems that promote the environmentally, socially and economically sound production of food and fibres, seems to leave no room for the application of certain modern biotechnologies such as genetic engineering. In organic agriculture systems local soil fertility is the key to successful production. By respecting the natural capacity of plants, animals and landscape, it aims to optimize quality in all aspects of agriculture and the environment. In the opinion of Nguyen Ngoc Hai, however, the use of modern biotechnologies does not necessarily violate the essence of organic agriculture and is justified in developing countries.

In Vietnam, organic agriculture has been practised for immemorial time. Manure, compost, human faeces and green manure such as Azolla, Sesbania sp. and Tephrosia sp. have been used. Prior to 1954, chemical fertilizers were not generally applied. In combination with mixed cultivation and crop rotation, organic agriculture followed natural ecological processes and was durable. The traditional rice varieties often have a high stem, big leaves, and are not only used as food, but also as straw for roofing, cooking and as domestic animal feed. However, traditional varieties also had their shortcomings. They often fail to give high yields and are therefore less suitable in agriculture-dependent regions with a high population.
The Green Revolution attempted to solve these problems by developing higher yielding varieties that are responsive to chemical inputs. In Vietnamese agriculture, it has been estimated that currently 1.5 million tonnes of urea and ammonium sulphate, 0.6 million tonnes of phosphorous fertilizers and hundreds of thousands of tonnes of potassium fertilizers are used annually. Herbicides also more widely applied than in the past. Although the use of inorganic fertilizers in Vietnam has been less than in other countries, the efficiency has been higher because of the simultaneous application of organic fertilizers.
Nevertheless, the Green Revolution in Vietnam has led, just as in other well-documented cases, to monocultures of preferred and constantly used varieties, which in turn has led to pests and diseases. In addition, the increased use of chemicals has unbalanced the natural ecology and has led to an infertile soil. In this context, a return to the principles of organic agriculture may seem the solution.
However, organic agriculture in Vietnam differs from that in developed countries. In developed countries many of the products are of high quality and relatively expensive. This is possible because there are no food shortages and the consumers in these countries can afford more expensive products. The situation of developing countries is different because of overpopulation, so both quantity and quality are needed. Therefore, as is done in Vietnam, organic fertilizers need to be used in combination with an appropriate amount of chemical fertilizers, simultaneously to maintain quality and yield.
In this situation, biotechnology may also be of use. For example, the use of growth hormones in veal and milk production may be justified. Moreover, it may be highly desirable for plant biotechnology. Simple and proven technologies such as cell and tissue culture or micropropagation have been used in combination with techniques like hybridization to shorten breeding time in cases of varietal improvement. The use of anther culture in hybrid rice is an example. Moreover, resistant or tolerant varieties are needed. For example, if drought-tolerant varieties are cultivated in areas where farming is dependent on rain, irrigation requirement can be reduced. These tolerant varieties may be developed through natural crossbreeding and selection (traditional techniques) or alternatively by selection through micropropagation (biotechnological techniques). While the goal may be a rice variety resistant to blast or blight disease, it makes no difference if this is accomplished through wide hybridization or by gene transfer. If chemical fertilizers or chemical pesticides need to be reduced, why not with biofertilizers or biopesticides? And how about bacillus thuringiensis gene transfer to obtain varieties resistant to harmful insects?
Therefore, contrary to IFOAM’ s definition of organic agriculture, I would argue that organic agriculture should make use of modern biotechnologies such as genetic engineering, as long as this means using living matters that are safe for the environment and people. It should aim at preserving and developing biodiversity in an integrated farming system, with the goal of meeting production and environmental demands. A challenge for biotechnologists is the transfer of specific genes from native species/varieties into new, higher yielding varieties adapted to organic agriculture. If successful, the contribution of biotechnology to organic agriculture will be shown clear enough.

Nguyen Ngoc Hai

Head of Scientific Information Division, Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, Institute of Agriculture Genetics, Hanoi, Vietnam
 

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