Knowledge for Development

Judith's pick - August 2014

25/08/2014 -

Dear readers, 

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Below, we're sharing a number of recent developments we spotted during out web research. We like ASARECA’s  Situation analysis of the current status of tissue culture application in the Eastern and Central Africa region and the discoveries in the field of new water-hunting power of plant roots. We would like to focus your attention on the potential impact of recent findings by the synthetic biology  on the livelihoods of smallholder farmers. But the other developments are relevant too and worth knowing about.


Situation analysis of the current status of tissue culture application in the Eastern and Central Africa region

This situation analysis documents the existing tissue culture capacity in terms of human resources and physical infrastructure. This study covered six of the ten ASARECA member countries: Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi and Ethiopia, and is the first comprehensive analysis of the current state of tissue culture in East and Central Africa. The report presents valuable information that can help scientists, donors and policy makers make informed decisions on issues related to tissue culture application in the region and can inform the development of tissue culture application policies and programmes and their management. (ASARECA, 17/07/2014)  

New water-hunting power of plant roots discovered

Using an advanced form of X-ray imaging, researchers from the University of Nottingham, in collaboration with several international research groups, discovered that the presence of even small amounts of water can influence the structure of plant roots in soil. The degree of root branching determines the efficiency of water uptake and acquisition of nutrients by plants. Any new understanding of the regulation of root branching is of vital importance, and this finding could open up new ways of improving the water and nutrient foraging qualities of important food crops and hence could significantly improve crop yields. (University of Nottingham website, 3/06/2014) 


Cocoa butter and synthetic biology

The synthetic biology company Solazyme could threaten the livelihoods of millions of farmers. This California-based company has engineered synthetically modified microbes that produce a cocoa butter substitute for use in food and personal care products. At present, cocoa butter, the main ingredient of chocolate, is produced in 30 tropical countries and provides livelihoods for an estimated 6 million smallholder farmers. The world’s top three cocoa-producing countries are Ivory Coast, Ghana and Indonesia, which together account for over two-thirds of all cocoa bean production. (ETC Group, 3/07/2013)


Patchouli and synthetic biology

Making use of synthetically altered micro-organisms, patchouli oil can now be produced from yeast. Known for its distinct fragrance, patchouli oil is used in perfume, laundry detergents, air fresheners, baby wipes, and more. The California-based biotech company Amyris and the Swiss purveyor of perfumes and flavours Firminich have developed a new manufacturing process that produces patchouli oil in large quantities in about two weeks. Smallholder farmers in Malaysia, China and Indonesia, who traditionally produce patchouli oil through a lengthy cultivation and extraction process, will inevitably be affected. (ETC Group, 3/07/2013)


Exploring biodiversity to produce sustainable cosmetics and agrochemicals

AGROCOS is a pioneering European project that is using modern scientific techniques to develop new products for the agrochemical and cosmetics industries. At the heart of the AGROCOS project are molecules extracted from 1800 plant species harvested in ‘biodiversity hotspots’ in Africa, Europe, Latin America and the Asia Pacific region. These compounds are tested for their anti-fungal, herbicidal or insecticidal qualities, and for their UV protection characteristics and anti-ageing properties. From the thousands of compounds extracted, the project hopes to identify the five most promising ones for developing new products. The project represents an important breakthrough for the technique of ‘bioprospecting’, or deriving materials from nature. (EU/EC, June 2014)


Biotech in Africa

Florence Wambugu and Daniel Kamanga of Africa Harvest Biotech Foundation International, Kenya, brought together a large number of African experts from fields as diverse as economics, agriculture, biotechnology, law and politics and asked them to review various biotechnology initiatives in Africa. In this book, available both as e-book and hard cover edition, the experts argue that there is a great future for biotechnology that sidesteps Western interests that do not necessarily match those of Africa. They demand a greater say in how research and development funds are allocated and spent, and ask for more elbow-room for Africa’s political leaders to drive the development of feasible policies, suitable biosafety legislation and regulation, and to respond effectively to public-private partnerships. (Springer website, July 2014)


Climate change adaptation in crop production: Beware of illusions

More consistent treatment of climate change adaptation is needed to inform assessments of the impacts of climate change and to more easily identify innovations in agriculture that are truly more effective in future climates than in current or past ones. At present, many potential changes in agricultural management and technology, including shifts in crop phenology and improved drought and heat tolerance, could help to improve crop productivity but do not necessarily represent true adaptations. In this article, David Lobell of Stanford University, USA, argues that such ‘adaptation illusions’ arise from a combination of faulty logic, model errors and the management of assumptions that ignore the farmers’ tendency to maximize profits for a given technology. He asserts that the concept of adaptation should be more consistently treated in order to better inform assessments of climate change impacts, and that agricultural innovations should be identified that are truly more effective in future climates than in current or past ones. (Global Food Security, 25/6/2014)


The risks of a global crop yield slowdown from climate trends in the next two decades

In discussions of the impacts of climate change on agriculture, it is often mistakenly argued that most of the expected impacts will occur toward the end of this century and that therefore most of the risks will have to be dealt with by future generations. In this article, Claudia Tebaldi, National Center for Atmospheric Research, USA, and David Lobell, Stanford University, USA, argue that the growth in demand for food is expected to be much slower after 2050 than before it, and that most of the growth will take place before 2050 – in the next two decades, in fact. They explain that smaller climate change impacts in the near future could have much greater consequences for food security and food prices than larger ones after 2050. They continue to argue that in the coming decade, global warming will substantially increase the chances that climate trends will cut yield growth rates to half, with a roughly 1 in 4 chance for maize and 1 in 6 chance for wheat. Although such scenarios may seem unlikely for many, the authors recommend further study, particularly by institutions that are potentially affected by associated steep rises in international food prices. (Environmental Research Letters, Vol. 9 no. 7, July 2014)


New technology for monitoring tuna fishing in the Pacific  

New technology for monitoring tuna fishing in the Western and Central Pacific Ocean is being tested on two large Chinese tuna longliners under the Taipei flag. The e-monitoring system uses high-definition video cameras, GPS and a central computer unit to record all events and video footage and with which the information gathered can be analyzed by experienced longline fishing experts and observers. As part of this test, the e-monitoring results will be compared with information collected by two independent fisheries observers who were assigned to each vessel to carry out their regular tasks of observing and recording the catch. The project partners are Tri Marine, National Fisheries Developments (NFD), Yi Man Fishing Company, Satlink, FFA, SPC, Solomon Islands Ministry of Fisheries and Marine Resources (MFMR) and the International Seafood Sustainability Foundation (ISSF). They presented preliminary findings of this test at the meeting of the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission’s annual Scientific Committee to be held in Majuro in August 2014. Implementing e-monitoring technology in all or parts of the Western and Central Pacific Ocean fisheries will require logistical and legal frameworks to be put in place at national and regional levels. (SPC, July 2014)  


First arboretum opens in the Seychelles

The Seychelles National Biodiversity Centre, located at Barbarons on Mahe, the largest and most populated island of the Seychelles, was officially opened in July 2014. The centre is set to become a 17 hectare arboretum for preserving rare and endangered plants species that are only found in the Seychelles. In view of the extraordinary biodiversity in the Seychelles, more than 50% of Mahe island has been declared a protected area. (Seychelles News Agency, 19/7/2014)