Knowledge for Development


News items relevant to the policy dialogue on S&T for Development.

Root traits contributing to plant productivity under drought

Louise H. Comas, US Depart. of Agriculture, Colorado and colleagues in the USA have identified a number of root traits associated with maintaining plant productivity under drought. These include small fine root diameters, long specific root length, and root length density. Small xylem diameters in targeted seminal roots appear to save soil water deep in the soil profile for use during crop maturation and result in improved yields. Capacity for deep root growth and large xylem diameters in deep roots may also improve root acquisition of water when ample water at depth is available. The authors believe a better understanding of root functional traits and how traits are related to plant productivity under different drought conditions is needed.   (Front. Plant Sci., 5/11/2013)


Curing cassava of deadly virus infections

Maruthi Gowda and his team from the Natural Resources Institute of the University of Greenwich have developed a procedure for eliminating virus infections from cassava. They built a 'virus-indexing' procedure for cleaning cassava lines, which involves a combination of protocols for accurate identification and elimination of viruses. The procedure involves growing disease-infected cassava stem cuttings and identifying at a later stage plants free of disease symptoms. Plants free of viruses are then grown in tissue culture media, certified to be virus-free after several disinfection protocols and shipped to African partners for further multiplication and subsequent distribution to farmers.   (NRI, 11/10/2013)


The weaver ant: an effective biological control agent in mango plantations

Research by CIRAD and IITA aimed to control fruit flies infestation in West Africa’s mango plantations found that weaver ants are a natural and effective biological control method against fruit flies. In-depth studies confirmed the ants’ impact on the structure and composition of plant-eating pests. These studies also showed that they prey mainly on larvae, as they leave infested fruits, and rarely on adults.  However, this is not their only mode of action. The scientists discovered that they have a repellent effect on fruit flies: after ants have been on mangoes, fruit flies turn away from them and lay much fewer eggs. This phenomenon of repulsion, which was confirmed in the laboratory and in the field, is caused by physical (micro-spots) and chemical (pheromones) signals left by ants.  (CIRAD, 10/2013)


Tree-crop interactions: recommendations for including trees in cropland

J. Bayala, ICRAF-WCA, Mali and colleagues in West Africa carried out an experiment in Burkina Faso to characterise crop-tree interactions under a series of tree maintenance regimes. The treatment included root trenching and crown pruning of two tree species Parkia biglobosa and Vitellaria paradoxa, known to improve soil fertility and redistribute water, in a sorghum field. The results show that sorghum yield vary significantly depending on the treatment and the species used. An implication of this is that recommendations for including trees in cropland, or for management of existing trees within cropland, must be context and species specific.   (African Journal of Agricultural Research, Vol. 8 No. 43, 11/2013)


Rubber plantations: intercropping with coffee or cocoa more profitable

Researchers from CIRAD and their partners in Ivory Coast spent 17 years monitoring trial plantations in which rubber was intercropped with cash crops suited to shade, such as coffee, cocoa, lemon and cola nut. Results show that intercropping rubber with coffee and cocoa is a profitable combination, helping smallholders diversify their sources of income and make better use of their land. Rubber-lemon and rubber-cola nut systems were never profitable however. In coffee or cocoa intercropping systems, gross profit was already positive in the third year compared to the eight years needed for financial equilibrium in rubber monoculture.   (CIRAD, 11/2013)


An advanced technique guaranteeing millions of true-to-type coffee plantlets

Researchers from CIRAD and its partner, Ecom Agroindustrial, have mastered ‘cell suspension’, a cutting edge propagation technique for Coffea arabica. This technique of propagating in vitro plantlets through somatic embryogenesis (a process where a plant or embryo is derived from a single somatic cell or group of somatic cells) will make it possible to produce the millions of coffee plantlets required to meet market demand for high-quality selected varieties. This pioneering work opens up new possibilities for the propagation of plants and varieties on an industrial scale. It will also mean considerably higher income levels for many producers and the rapid replacement of plants affected by disease.   (CIRAD, 10/2013)


Newsletter UMR DIADE on pearl millet

The October 2013 newsletter of the DIADE (a joint plant biotech research unit led by IRD Montpellier) is on the main cereals cultivated in the Sahelian countries, namely pearl millet, fonio and sorghum. It sheds light on the knowledge, recent research and new projects which now involve New Generation Sequencing techniques. One of the main specificities of these research activities is that they have integrated, since inception, an additional layer of social sciences and capacity building of the local communities. They also illustrate how plant breeding, genomics and bioinformatics can lead the way to better management of cereal biodiversity.   (UMR DIADE, 10/2013)


Identification and evaluation of sorghum germplasm from Eastern Kenya

Catherine Muui at Kenyatta University and colleagues collected the germplasm of sorghum landraces in four major sorghum growing regions of the eastern province of Kenya. Information was collected on farmer preferred traits, seed sources and variety type and recorded for each of the forty four different landraces obtained. Results show that the landraces carry unique traits associated with environmental adaptation, biotic stress resistance, grain yield and quality, food preparation and post-harvest processing. The authors believe this yet untapped diversity could be useful in crop improvement programmes. They fear however that the decline in use of the landraces may erode the genetic base of sorghum and prevent the use of distinctive traits in the future. The study underscores the importance of farmer-led ex situ conservation of plant genetic resources.,_2013    (African Journal of Agricultural Research, 19/09/2013)


Boost for seed research: developing a new seed bank management system

Peter Cyr, a genebank manager, and his team was asked by the Global Crop Diversity Trust, devoted to protect the world's plant genetic resources, to develop a new seed bank management system – GRIN-Global – that could provide for developing countries needing a zero-cost system as well as mature, better-supported gene banks. According to Cyr, ‘sharing information will be much easier as we will all be running the same system and it provides some wonderful capacity building for Third World countries’. Nearly every gene bank used a different data cataloguing system, making it difficult for plant breeders to search for potential genetic material. The GRIN-Global system is being introduced at seed storage banks around the world to begin consolidating data management.   (Weekly Times Now, 04/11/2013)



AGRICAB is an EU funded project that builds on GEONETcast, a near real time, global network of satellite-based data dissemination systems designed to distribute space-based, air-borne and in situ data, metadata and products to diverse communities. The project addresses three main topics: (i) sustained digital data access; (ii) enhancing earth observations through predictive modelling; (iii) expose, discover, experience activities to allow a large community to learn and implement. Dedicated use cases in various African countries designed to address policy issues related to livestock, crop systems and forest management will be used to train stakeholders atf the Observatoire du Sahara et du Sahel (OSS, Tunisia), the Regional Centre for Mapping Resources for Development (RCMRD, Kenya) and the AGRHYMET in Niger.   (AGRICAB, 2013)


Mapping the life cycle of crops

With the help of GIS and spatial analysis, Zhe Guo and colleagues from HarvestChoice and IFPRI (International Food Policy Research Institute) designed a methodology to harmonise and geo-reference crop phenology data, resulting in the first generation of Crop Calendar products at the pixel scale (1 km2) for sub-Saharan Africa. Crop Calendars can be developed in one or two ways: through coarser, more traditional methods that rely on household surveys, country census data, and ground verifications; or via modern methods using remotely-sensed, time-series data. Both methods have their advantages and limitations, depending on the nature of the region and the quality of the information needed. A next step in this study is to evaluate Crop Calendar products derived from both ways and design a strategy to geo-reference and harmonise the two data. By combining phenology products derived from remote sensing and geo-referenced tabulation data, the quality of Crop Calendar products could substantially improve and better inform stakeholders from suppliers and growers to marketers and traders.   (HarvestChoice, 27/09/2013)


Seasonal monitoring of soil erosion at regional scale

The Institute for Environment and Sustainability recently published a peer-reviewed article illustrating the application of the G2 model, a new model for understanding seasonal soil erosion dynamics. The G2 model allows for the regular mapping of soil loss estimations by land-use type on local and regional scales, and provides alternatives for the estimation of all erosion factors. It is based on moderate data input requirements; public users can download the data layers.  G2 was used in to produce seasonal erosion figures crucial for the identification of erosion hotspots and of risky land uses in the Mediterranean island of Crete.  (EC JRC’s Institute for Environment and Sustainability, 20/11/2013)


Practicality of biochar additions to enhance soil and crop productivity

David Filiberto at Cornell University and John Gaunt  of Carbon Consulting,  Ithaca, USA explain why the need for further clarity on optimising biochar (charcoal) application to various crop yields is necessary if it is to gain widespread acceptance as a soil amendment. Biochar may be added to soils with the intention to improve the soil, displace an amount of conventional fossil fuel based fertilisers, and sequester carbon. However, the economics of biochar use as a soil conditioning amendment are challenging. The authors suggest that further research is needed to determine the optimal biochar application rate. They believe that strategies focused on high value crops that require high levels of fertiliser application may prove more fruitful in sustaining the economic viability of the technique.    (Agriculture, 17/10/2013)


On-the-spot soil testing with newly-developed, affordable field kit

Researchers at the University of Maryland and Columbia University have developed SoilDoc, a new soil testing kit designed to test for the availability of nitrogen, phosphorus, sulphur, and potassium, as well as active organic matter and certain soil physical limitations. SoilDoc is lightweight enough to be used by extension agents to help them make on-farm nutrient recommendations. The raw results of the tests are sent by mobile phone to a central website where calculations are made; tailored fertiliser and organic input recommendations (following the Integrated Soil Fertility Management (ISFM) approach) are delivered back to the extension agent within minutes.    (ScienceDaily, 16/10/2013)


Fishermen in Palau take on role of scientist to save their fishery

Scientists with the Nature Conservancy organisation have come up with a new way to count fish on complex coral reefs of the island nation of Palau. Instead of counting the number of fish in the water, the idea is to determine the proportion of the population capable of breeding for each fish species. The scientists trained fishermen on how to measure the length of the fish they catch. They also showed them how to cut open the fish’s stomach and inspect their gonads to determine the sex and if it’s sexually mature or an immature juvenile. This information will tell them if enough fish are breeding to repopulate and sustain the fish populations, and if the fish are growing to their adult size. The data collected over a year clearly show Palau’s fish are in decline and risk of collapse. Because the Palau fishermen were involved in the data collection process, they were able to see and understand first-hand what was happening to their fish. Rehabilitation options include setting a minimum size requirement for harvested fish and closing fishing in some areas until the fish can rebound.    (International Collective in Support of Fishworkers, 05/11/2013)


Scientists unlock secret of cattle ticks' resistance to pesticide

Through frequent treatment of cattle with acarides – pesticides for ticks and mites – mainly amitraz, ivermectins and pyrethroids, ticks have become increasingly resistant to these pesticides. Nicholas Jonsson of the Institute of Biodiversity, Animal Health and Comparative Medicine at the University of Glasgow, UK and colleagues from the University of Queensland, Australia, have now discovered how ticks develop resistance to one of the main pesticides. The scientists have identified the genetic basis for at least one form of resistance to amitraz which will allow a genetic test for resistance to be developed. This research paves the way for a new genetic test for resistance that will help farmers make management decisions for the control of ticks. This will also enable empirical studies on field and laboratory populations of ticks to test the effectiveness of resistance management strategies.   (EurekAlert, 07/10/2013) 


Understanding resistance biology for sustainable agriculture

A seminar organised by PlantLink, a plant sciences research network of Swedish universities, reviewed key concepts related to the use of resistance biology in a sustainable agriculture. Questions discussed were; what is to be done on the pathogen side to limit future spread of disease and decrease pathogenicity, what future desirable traits for resistant crops can be and how they should be generated as well as the presenters’ visions of combining integrated pest management (IPM), conventional pesticide use and plant biotechnology. This web page provides a short summary of the main speakers’ notes., 16/10/2013) 


New strategic framework for addressing neglected and underutilised species

A new framework for addressing neglected and underutilised species (NUS) was launched in September 2013 at the 3rd International Conference on Neglected and Underutilized Species. The framework outlines the status of NUS around the world, describing their vulnerability and key challenges they face. In response to threats to NUS, it calls for changes in perceptions, increased capacity, enhanced research, improved conservation, greater stakeholder involvement, increased investment in value chains and a supportive policy environment.  (IISD Reporting Services, 29/09/2013) 


Shielded application technology reduces herbicide runoff in furrow-irrigated sugarcane plantations

Scientists from CSIRO, Australia, trialled a new technique for applying herbicides to raised beds of furrow irrigated sugarcane by using a specially adapted shielded sprayer. The technique minimises the likelihood of herbicides such as diuron, atrazine, ametryn and hexazinone coming into contact with irrigation water. The conventional application of herbicides in furrow-irrigated sugarcane production is to broadcast spray across the whole field using boom sprayers. By using shielded sprayers, runoff of highly soluble herbicides showed a 90% reduction.  (CSIRO, 16/10/2013) 


Shortcomings in communications on agricultural knowledge transfer

Findings of a 2012 study of over 600 small-scale farm households conducted in Kenya by the Multimedia University College of Kenya and the Zurich University of Applied Sciences, show that farmers receive only basic ‘how to’ and technical information that is not enough to enable them to improve their food production levels or practices. The study found significant gaps between the agricultural information farmers would like to receive and what they actually get through different communication channels. It appears the farmers would prefer information on markets, improving incomes and fighting farm-related diseases provided in detailed formats that lay out the different options available to them, rather than the currently simplified top-down ‘how-to’ formats shared on the multiple communications channels (radio, mobile phone services and extension). (ILRI News, 30/08/2013)


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