Lao to protect crop biodiversity with gene banks

rice gene bank IRRI
Copyright: Panos

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  • Lao is known for organically grown crops, especially its rice varieties
  • The country plans to set up a gene bank for agro-biodiversity protection
  • Problems brought on by climate change, such as locust infestation, are a worry

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[BANGKOK] The Lao People’s Democratic Republic (Lao PDR) will invest in a gene bank and in other methods of biodiversity conservation to protect its niche farm products, Phouang Parisak, the country’s deputy minister for agriculture, tells SciDev.Net.

Lao has over 15,000 varieties of rice, the second highest in the world after India. Parisak says the plan is to preserve genetic lines while expanding production and using “smart technologies” to improve farming and combat the effects of climate change.

However, this is easier said than done.

“It’s easy to say, but difficult to do because farmers are tempted to spray chemicals,” Parisak says “If you follow stringent technical procedures, it’s too complicated for them. Also organic production does not work everywhere in the country. Our job is to ensure that production in different regions is done in a way that it’s sustainable in the long-term.”

A mountainous, landlocked country, Lao has a population of roughly 6.5 million with three quarters of households engaged in agriculture. According to the World Food Programme (WFP), rice is the main staple and is produced by 90 per cent of farmers.

“It’s easy to say, but difficult to do because farmers are tempted to spray chemicals.”

Phouang Parisak, Agriculture and Forestry of Lao PDR

Malnutrition is a major concern and stunting affects over 30 per cent of children. Although the proportion of hungry poor people fell from roughly 25 per cent in 2008 to about 19 per cent last year, the 2016 Global Hunger Index still considers the situation “serious”.

According to WFP, Lao’s vulnerability to the effects of climate change, particularly drought, floods and typhoons, drives food insecurity, which affects 14 per cent of the country’s rural population with peaks of 25 per cent in the remote upland areas. Such challenges increase women’s workload and help increase the likelihood of diseases.

One such climate change impact is pest. For the first time in Lao’s history, the country now has to deal with locusts. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, locusts are becoming even more dangerous in the context of extreme weather events like typhoons that are associated with climate change. Locusts are able to take advantage of new situations.

“Locusts have become a very big problem, especially in the northern parts of the country where farmers are producing a lot of high quality agriculture products, particularly rice,” Parisak tells SciDev.Net during the side lines of a policy forum on food safety and market access in May co-hosted by the Asian Development Bank and the Greater Mekong Subregion.

Lao’s 2025 Agricultural Development Strategy focuses on achieving food security through sustainable agriculture and a strengthened agricultural production system. Parisak says that while his country is small, its strength is that it has a lot of nature, clean soil and agro-biodiversity.

“We can’t destroy the upper land or the forest, so we have to grow trees,” says Parisak. “But, we also have to organise the people, to preserve the environment for the lowlanders.”

The country’s most fertile lands found along the Mekong plains need investment to expand production and smallholders have problems accessing credit because they lack collateral. “The government has to come in and try to help them,” says Parisak.

As a member of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), Lao can take advantage of the free flow of products within the grouping. But, Parisak says, the quality standards imposed by ASEAN integration can be a barrier. Lao is already working with its ASEAN neighbours to standardise and harmonise food production through cross-border supply chains.

“It would be a huge advantage for countries like us because it would open us to new opportunities in the regional market,” he says.

This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Asia & Pacific desk.

This article was made possible with support from Monsanto.