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Russia: Scientists Seek Valuable Plant Genes In Once-Closed Labs

  • Robert Lyle

Washington, 29 October 1996 (RFE/RL) -- The closed and secretive nature of the former Soviet Union may turn out to have been a small blessing in disguise to international agricultural researchers. They are hoping that previously untapped gene pools of wheat and other crops in the now independent states will play a major role in expanding global food production into the next century.

Scientists from around the world will be discussing that prospect and other questions facing global agriculture as they gather in Washington this week for the annual meeting of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research, known as CGIAR.

CGIAR is an informal association of 52 countries, international organizations and private foundations, to contribute to sustainable agriculture through research. Together with the World Bank, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the United Nations, CGIAR supports 16 international research centers, employing over 880 senior scientists and more than 10,000 staff members around the world.

Ismail Serageldin, the chairman of CGIAR and the World Bank Vice President for Environmentally Sustainable Development, says that despite some "gloom and doom predictions, the world has the resources needed to feed the 8 billion-plus people who will be on earth in 2025, provided that appropriate policies are adopted and support for agricultural research is enhanced."

He notes that since the founding of CGIAR in 1971, research has led to food increases sufficient to feed 1 billion more people. The production of ten major developing country food crops has increased by 74 percent since the early 1970s.

But simply increasing yields won't be enough to feed everyone 30 years from now, says Serageldin.

"The best research in the world means little if farmers do not find the results practical, or if they're too expensive or not fitting in with their needs," he says.

Wheat, for example, is becoming the preferred grain all over the world. Researchers have been able to modify the grain, once mostly restricted to temperate zones, to make it productive even in warmer climates.

But the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) in Apdo, Mexico, (a CGIAR center) says gains in wheat production "may not be keeping pace" with world demand. The center says that while world population is growing at around 2.5 percent per year, wheat yields are increasing only about one percent.

At a conference of top scientists from eight countries at the center last spring, a consensus was reached that the only viable option to increased wheat yields is to improve the breeding of the plants "so that more wheat can be harvested on the same land, using the same amount of inputs."

Matt Reynolds, a Wheat Physiologist at CIMMYT, says exploiting the "genetic diversity of wheat" is the top scientific strategy.

"Hundreds of thousands of years ago, wheat was a wild grass," says Reynolds. "By a chance cross of two wild grasses, something similar to wheat was created....Thousands of years later, breeders have applied the best in science to create today's elite varieties of wheat -- thoroughbreds -- in the fight against hunger."

But now, he says, scientists need to go back to those wild grasses -- wheat's distant relatives -- and even to other plants to find "better genes" than we have now. A prime source of those untapped genes is believed to be in the countries of the ex-Soviet Union.

The U.S.S.R. had "restrictions on visiting" and "prevented a free exchange of germ plasm," making cooperation during the cold war "complicated" or extremely limited, Reynolds says. But all that has changed completely now, he told RFE/RL from the center in Mexico. He said slowly the research centers and scientists in these nations are pushing to connect with the global agricultural research community.

"We suspect there is a tremendous germ plasm base there and we can't wait to get our hands on it for the benefit of everyone in the world," Reynolds told our correspondent.

"If we can use that germ plasm it becomes available to everyone either in its original form through our germ plasm bank -- the World Wheat Collection -- or, once it's been used in a breeding program that has produced new lines incorporating that diversity, it becomes available to anyone in the world who wants it."

These untapped gene pools, says Reynolds, could "enhance genetic diversity and may create even more high-yielding plants."

He says the biggest problem now is getting the resources -- the money -- to support some of the former Soviet research centers and their cooperative work with the global groups. The CIMMYT is currently seeking funding from the European Union to underwrite a major program of cooperation. Reynolds says the center wants to work with all the wheat growing areas of the Commonwealth of Independent States, especially Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Belarus, and Moldova

The CGIAR meeting in Washington will draw officials and scientists from several member nations in the region, including Kazakhstan, Russia, Estonia and the Czech Republic. The week of discussions will include looking for ways to increase general funding for research as well as spreading the word on what its research has already developed in increasing yields while cutting the use of pesticides and fertilizers.

Dealing with acidic soils, for example, which are widespread in Central Asia, Africa and Latin America, has led scientists to develop corn, rice and legume varieties that can be grown on soils previously considered practically useless.

And recent scientific breakthroughs in potato production should begin making the tuber far more widely available in the world than is now the case. Today, Russia is the world's largest potato grower, but with these developments, say the researchers, countries as diverse as China and India could become major producers.