The May 2014 newsletter is being readied: it will include new feature articles on post-harvest management of cassava and pumpkin, and also a new dossier on nutrition research. Please find here below a selection of recent developments and publications.
Discussion paper: What is a sustainable healthy diet?
In this paper, Tara Garnett, of the Food Climate Research Network (FCRN, UK), considers the increasingly topical question of 'What is a sustainable healthy diet?' She begins by highlighting the rationale for focusing on the diets question, and then moves on to discussing definitions of ‘good nutrition’ on the one hand, and ‘sustainability’ on the other. The main substance of her argument focus on the major food groups that constitute UK’s Eat-well plate, examining the health and sustainability issues that their consumption raises. She also included a review of recent studies in this area. An important limitation of her paper is that it focuses largely on developed country contexts. Being a discussion paper, FCRN is looking for input from members in low income and emerging economies, where the sustainability and health issues play out very differently.
Nutrients in crop fall as CO2 levels rise
Andrew Leakey, plant biology professor at the University of Illinois, US, and colleagues report that levels of zinc, iron and protein drop in some key crop plants when grown at elevated CO2 levels. The teams simulated high CO2 levels in open-air fields using a system called Free Air Concentration Enrichment (FACE), which pumps out, monitors and adjusts ground-level atmospheric CO2 to simulate future conditions. The experiments revealed that the nutritional quality of a number of the world’s most important crop plants dropped in response to elevated CO2. Zinc and iron went down significantly in wheat, rice, field peas and soybeans. Wheat and rice also saw notable declines in protein content at higher CO2. Nutrients in millet, sorghum and maize remained relatively stable at higher CO2 levels because these crops use a type of photosynthesis, called C4, which already concentrates carbon dioxide in their leaves.
(University of Illinois, 07/05/2014)
Crop yields and global food security: Will yield increases continue to feed the world?
Three agricultural scientists, Drs Tony Fischer, Derek Byerlee and Greg Edmeades, have written a 640-page reference book (published by ACIAR, it is free to download and available in print) on global crop yield prospects and food security. This book, well received by experts in the field, considers the influences behind crop area and yield change over the past 20 years in the key breadbasket regions of the world for wheat, rice, maize, and soybean, along with 20 other important crops. It provides some answers and considers the opportunities for future yield prospects through lifting potential yield and closing yield gaps to 2050. After years of research the authors concluded: (i) progress in potential yield, when the best management practices and varieties are used, continues (+0.7% annually); (ii) yield gaps between potential and actual farm yields vary greatly across crops and regions (gaps over 100% for some crops such as maize); (iii) closing the large yield gaps in developing countries would seem the quickest and most feasible intervention for lifting progress (more research and public investment needed); and (iv) technological prospects exist for raising rates of potential yield progress, for example through increasing photosynthesis, utilising untapped diversity in crop gene banks, low-cost molecular markers for desirable genes and genetic engineering.
How to improve the evaluation of research activity at universities
At a seminar organised by the Interuniversity Institute for Advanced Research on Science and Universities (INAECU), Rafael van Grieken, director of the Spanish National Agency for Evaluation of Quality and Accreditation (ANECA), spoke about the evaluation of research activity at universities. Van Grieken argued that the model of accreditation and evaluation of research at universities is characterised by being overly quantitative and by not sufficiently appreciating aspects such as professional activity and knowledge transfer. 'The model tries to evaluate quality, but ends up being very quantitative because of the regulatory framework, the secondary or indirect nature, the structuring (of knowledge) into large areas and the obligation to express it by points', explained van Grieken, who noted that knowledge transfer is not sufficiently appreciated in some areas while in others it is perhaps valued too much. According to him, there was a need to develop solid qualitative indicators to assess the universities' activities and impact. The purpose of the seminar was 'to help Spanish science improve, be competitive, on the basis of proposals of evaluation and of policies of incentive schemes for research activities'.
(Universidad Carlos III de Madrid, 07/05/2014)
Engage farmers in agricultural research
Tom MacMillan, director of innovation at the Soil Association, Bristol, UK, and Tim G. Benton, who leads the United Kingdom's Global Food Security programme and is professor of population ecology at the University of Leeds, UK, argue that the next wave of agricultural innovation must be at smaller scales and engage farmers directly in scientific research efforts. Enhancing farmers' own R&D could reap big rewards for minimal extra cost as farmers everywhere are practical experimentalists who understand the idiosyncrasies of their land. Technologies not invented by farmers – new kit, seeds or chemicals – are almost always adapted by farmers to fit their circumstance but such essential contributions are rarely recognised in official assessments of agricultural R&D. These count farmers as users, rather than makers, of knowledge. Some of the best returns can come from helping farmers to assess their own ideas. Until now, such initiatives have been at arm's length from formal science, and almost exclusively in the developing world. The authors' involvement in a farmer-focused innovation programme in the UK has convinced them that such participatory R&D could also boost agricultural innovation in rich countries.
Scientists race to develop farm animals to survive climate change
A report in the Los Angeles Times details the efforts Carl Schmidt and his colleagues at the University of Delaware, USA, put into developing heat-resistant chickens. They are trying to map the genetic code of African naked neck chickens to see if their ability to withstand heat can be bred into flocks of US broilers.
(Los Angeles Times, 03/05/2014)
Julius Kofi Hagan, at the Department of Animal Science, School of Agriculture, University of Cape Coast, Ghana, was awarded the third prize in the Young Professionals in Science competition for his research on developing chicken breeds that can be highly productive under the hot and humid environments of the tropics. The research undertaken in this breeding programme involved introducing two heat-tolerant genes – the naked neck (Na) and frizzle (F) traits – into chicken of the Lohman Brown, an imported bird of hybrid origin, to make them more productive in Ghana.
Hotspots of climate change impacts in Africa: making sense of uncertainties
A study published in Global Change Biology by Christoph Müller and colleagues of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK), Germany, presents a map of hotspots of climate change impacts in Africa to help guide regional food security interventions. The researchers explored the spread of climate change impact projections and develop a composite impact measure to identify hotspots of climate change impacts, addressing likelihood and strength of impacts. They found that overlapping impacts in different biosphere properties (e.g. flooding, yields) will not only claim additional capacity to respond, but will also narrow the options to respond and develop. However, each hotspot must be evaluated case-by-case, the authors argue, and a continental scenario analysis like this one is not a blueprint for adaptation: only with local expertise can such a tool help to decide where to best put the limited resources allocated to climate adaptation.
Novel plant bio-resources: Applications in food, medicine and cosmetics
Ameenah Gurib-Fakim is the editor of a book entitled Novel Plant Bioresources: Applications in Food, Medicine and Cosmetics, recently published by John Wiley & Son. The book serves as the definitive source of information on under-utilized plant species, and fills a key niche in the understanding of the relationship of human beings with under-utilized plants. After an introductory section which sets the scene with an overview of the historical and legislative importance of under-utilized plants, the main four parts of the book are dedicated to the diverse potential application of novel plant bioresources in food, medicine, ethno-veterinary medicine and cosmetics. Examples and contributors are drawn from Africa, Europe, the USA and Asia. The economic, social, and cultural aspects of under-utilized plant species are addressed, and the book provides a much needed boost to the on-going effort to focus attention on under-utilized plant species and conservation initiatives. By focusing on novel plants and the agenda for sustainable utilization, Novel Plant Bioresources highlights key issues relevant to under-utilized plant genetic resources, and brings together international scholars on this important topic.
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