In Laos, there is a proverb: "If you want to eat rice, you have to work hard. If you want to be a real person, you have to learn." This embodies the essence - and the near-future goals - of a small land-locked country, with a mountainous terrain and a society that still lives mostly on agriculture and cattle-breeding.
Laos hosts many plant varieties – more than 10,000 species – but its population uses mainly sticky rice as the staple food, despite many neglected and underutilised species that could well support the local economy.
"There is an urgent need to improve the amount and quality of Laotian plant varieties, to provide our population with better and more nutritious foods," observes Bounthong Bouahom, director general at National Agriculture and Forestry Research Institute (NAFRI), which resides in the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry of the Lao People's Democratic Republic. Bouahom is one of the two first ever TWAS Fellows elected from Laos; he joined the Academy this year after being elected at the 2018 TWAS General Meeting in Trieste, Italy. Also from Laos is Boviengkham Vongdara, Minister of Science and Technology, President of the National Academy of Science of the Lao PDR.
The election was "tremendous good news for me, my institute and my country," Bouahom said in a recent interview. "Hopefully this election will open up many opportunities, in terms of research networks. I really hope we can get more support from the government and from international organizations."
Bouahom earned a PhD in agriculture in 1989 at the Belarusian State Academy of Agriculture, and from 1989 to 1999 served as the director in the livestock adaptive research and extension division in the Laotian Ministry of Agriculture & Forestry.
There, he set up new livestock development strategies to implement food security, and worked to promote better use of local resources to increase livestock production. He also developed an action plan for conservation and use of domestic animal genetics resources.
His engagement with the National Agriculture and Forestry Research Institute began in 1999, when it was established, and he was named deputy director general. In that post, he assisted the director general in shaping innovative agriculture and forestry research strategies.
"NAFRI was founded to help the development of our country, to consolidate agriculture and forestry research activities, and to develop a coordinated national agriculture and forestry research system," Bouahom said. "It is the only research institute in Laos, a sort of umbrella with 15 field centres that carry out research in agriculture, livestock, animal nutrition, fishery and forestry."
A growing research and economic force
During its first 20 years, the centre flourished and today it has more than 500 staff, including more than 100 scientists. It has also earned an international reputation and succeeded in establishing important cooperation with donors such as the International Water Management Institute (IWMI), the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (CIAT) and the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI). All are partners in the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research - CGIAR, a global initiative unifying international organizations engaged in food-securing research.
Thanks to NAFRI's research, the quality of Laos' rice has improved and today many Southeast Asian nations are looking to the country as a supplier. And the government's policy supports rice production for export.
As Bouahom, currently in his second term as NAFRI director (2010-present), explained: "Now I try to orient our scientific efforts on upland areas, that cover about 70% of the country and are dominated by poverty and food insecurity, and on neglected and underutilised species that are still at the level of traditional practice, because cultivation, harvest and storage have neither been scaled up nor modernized."
Why uplands? In the past, people settled in Laos' uplands were traditionally dependent on agriculture and farming, and lived in extreme poverty. Recent growth is changing the geography of these areas, putting a pressure on them because farmers receive "policy push" from the government and tend to be more market-oriented. Therefore, trying to be competitive, they adopt unsustainable land-use practices based on deforestation and land degradation.
"On this side, my research is focused on helping local people to avoid using slash-and-burn farming methods followed by shifting cultivation, which is a low-paying practice that damages the environment," Bouahom said.
With the slash-and-burn method, the natural vegetation is cut down, left to dry and then burned to obtain lands full of ash that make the soil fertile. Each field is exploited to exhaustion; then it is abandoned, and another field becomes the new source of food.
"In parallel, I'd like to introduce new types of cattle forage to help the farmers get more income in a sustainable manner," Bouahom said. Different kinds of forage, in fact, would promote sustainable farming, improve breeding and provide animals with better nutrition.
Today, Laotian cattle generate little income because, as Bouahom explained, cows are not very big; the average weight is under 200 kilograms. "We are trying to increase their weight through artificial insemination, step by step, as our Ministry considers this a priority. We'd like to increase our export to China and other countries." By artificially inseminating cows with semen from stronger and bigger animals, he said, breeders can obtain better offspring, generation after generation.
Neglected and underutilised crop species are another front where Bouahom is investing his efforts. Such "orphan crops" receive little attention or are ignored by agricultural researchers, plant-breeders and policymakers because they are perceived as without economic and nutritional value.
"This is not true," observed Bouahom. "Instead they offer tremendous opportunities, if properly valorised." Roots and tubers, cereals, fruits, vegetables and legumes could improve people's diet, empower women's role in the society and preserve local knowledge.
Replacing opium fields
Abandoning the cultivation of opium poppies is another goal that Bouahom is trying to achieve, acting as an adviser to policymakers. "In the past," he explained, "Laos used to be one of the few countries that grew opium. But with time, the government decided to stop its production. Now we need to keep in mind that people who used to grow opium need to be given another job: cattle raising, agro-forestry, crop production as alternatives to opium production."
Bouahom is a member of the science and technology council in the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry, and a member of the Council of National University of Laos. His election to TWAS may open up even more possibilities for engagement and impact.
For example, in 2018 Laos suffered from severe flooding from the Mekong River. "I have many ideas for the future, but among the priorities there is flood-prevention," he said. "Of course, we cannot change the seasons. But we can instruct farmers to change the period when they plant rice and disseminate our scientific findings to improve their condition."