US-UAE agriculture programme looks to DNA-editing and seed coats to boost yields

Price increases from war in Ukraine and rising temperatures mean innovation more necessary than ever, says US agriculture head Thomas Vilsack

Sweet corn plants grow at a Dutch research centre as scientists seek ways to help farmers overcome the challenges from volatile climate conditions, severe soil erosion and biodiversity loss. Bloomberg
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A joint UAE-US programme to modernise agriculture will focus on gene editing and protective seed coatings to help farmers boost yields and overcome threats from climate change, a top US official said on Thursday.

US Secretary of Agriculture Thomas Vilsack said the Agriculture Innovation Mission for Climate (AIM for Climate) project, being carried out in partnership with the UAE, would help farmers grow more and overcome price increases sparked by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“It's really about innovation … it's amplified by virtue of Ukraine, but it was there before Ukraine, and it's something we need to address,” Mr Vilsack said at UN headquarters in New York.

“We need to look at ways in which we can sustainably produce more.”

AIM for Climate was unveiled by the UAE and the US at President Joe Biden’s climate summit in April 2021. It now has 40 member nations and seeks to double its investment pot to $8 billion before Cop27 climate talks in Egypt in November.

The money will drive research into boosting output to feed the world’s 800 million hungry people while cutting the industry’s planet-heating emissions.

Research includes editing the DNA of plants and animals to make them hardier amid droughts and floods, and protective coatings to help seeds draw more nutrients from the soil, cutting reliance on costly fertilisers, said Mr Vilsack.

“There's a multitude of things that need to be done and will be done in order for the US to do its part, but the US alone is not in a position to solve this — this has got to be a global effort,” said Mr Vilsack.

He spoke at the UN after signing a deal to boost food production with Ukraine, where Russia’s invasion on February 24 and the ensuing war have hampered exports of grains and other foodstuffs, sparking a global food crisis.

“Russia’s actions are posing major threats not only to the people of Ukraine but to countries in Africa and the Middle East that rely on the grains and other staples,” said Mr Vilsack, a former governor of the US state of Iowa, a major agricultural producer.

“Russia is using food as a weapon and a tool of war to threaten the livelihoods of those around the world, and that is something the agriculture community cannot and will not stand for.”

Updated: June 16, 2022, 6:23 PM