Akila Wijerathna explains how biotechnology can build the rural economy

Food and agriculture systems are interconnected, and vital to providing energy for human survival, economic growth and development. A global crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic can affect our access to food while introducing other challenges in the food and agriculture sector.

Given the increasing population – and decline in arable land, water resources and manpower – the sector has been severely affected.

In spite of its reducing share of GDP, the sector continues to play an important role in the national economy since agriculture engages more than 50 percent of the workforce on the island. Farming activity not only provides their livelihoods but also nurtures a social environment.

Over time, rural farming workforce numbers have decreased due to environmental and economic challenges.

To achieve the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030, we have a responsibility to urgently transform our current agricultural produce system. The application of novel biotechnological systems will be part of the solution.

The application of biotechnology will optimise the use of available resources without placing additional demands on land or water to boost yields. These solutions – which can be easily implemented across the island – will improve the quality of various crops that are disease free and nutritionally enhanced.

Biotechnology can generate economic opportunities, investment and employment in the agriculture sector, through the development of new varieties of crops, new uses for crop residue and waste, as well as support the development of new markets for farm produce.

Additionally, it offers huge potential to drive improvements in agricultural productivity and profitability, consequently creating opportunities to ensure farmers’ economic wellbeing as well as food security for the nation.

The Department of Agriculture and other crop research institutes in Sri Lanka have set up several centres to study plant molecular biology and crop biotechnology. Moreover, numerous agricultural universities in the country have begun their own biotechnology programmes with financial support from the state, and national and international funding agencies.

However, we still haven’t seen the application of agro-biotechnology in animal husbandry, fisheries, floriculture, horticulture, food processing and GM production in Sri Lanka. This is basically due to the lack of coordination between research centres and an absence of a common goal.

Functional genomics and molecular breeding techniques, transgenic (GM) and genome editing techniques are key agriculture biotech technologies that can be adapted to crop improvement.

Apart from genetically modified crops, agricultural biotechnology is leveraging molecular markers in crop breeding for the selective propagation of genes that improve yields and resist disease.

Micro-propagation is another area where this technology is helping produce pathogen free plants and address soil imbalance issues.

Biotechnology offers multiple innovative techniques to develop high yielding crops that can counter the biotic and abiotic stresses associated with agriculture. Regrettably, the debate on the subject is often limited to GM crops whereas the reality is different. We need to look at the complete array of solutions provided by biotechnology and use it in a more comprehensive manner. It yields better results than traditional techniques, and maintains the stability and fertility of soil.

High yielding seeds greatly enhance productivity potential and provide resistance from adverse environmental stresses, such as drought and salinity. They’re particularly effective and relevant to a country such as Sri Lanka, which suffers annually from water scarcity and drought. High yielding seeds also protect crops from diseases and insects.

The current opposition to GM by a group of people is largely due to the lack of understanding of the technology. A comprehensive evaluation of it needs to be undertaken, and all aspects including social, environmental and economic analysed.

Government agencies do not have a broader view on the application of agro-biotechnology and the country lacks a road map to leverage it. The government should set up a biotechnology regulatory authority in Sri Lanka with experts from the public and private sectors, and an independent regulator from the Ministry of Science, Technology and Research.

The challenges will be to establish an effective regulatory system and a communication mechanism on GM foods, which can help allay fears about the safety of such crops while ensuring improved productivity and higher remuneration for farmers.

To kick-start the rural economy, there should be policies that help people emerge from an existence of perpetual disadvantages. At the end of the day, bridging of the urban-rural divide is an imperative for the long-term sustainable growth of the economy.