Knowledge for Development

Related developments

Taking Root: Global trends in agricultural biotechnology

Transgenic crops have recorded the fastest adoption rate of any crop technology in the last century. However, restrictive regulations undermine society’s ability to reap their benefits. In this paper, Calestous Juma and Katherine Gordon of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard Kennedy School of Government, USA, argue that although many transgenic crops are still in the early stage of adoption emerging trends show significant societal benefits through positive economic impacts, fostering food security and promoting environment sustainability. They conclude that transgenic technology leads to more efficient production methods as well as a reduction in loss, which in turn leads to lower food prices. To realize these potential benefits, it is important to view transgenic crops as one of the many sources of food security and to assess their benefits and risks on a case-by-case basis. (Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, 01/2015)


New tools to breed cereal crops that survive flooding

Increasing the tolerance of cereal crops to low oxygen during flooding is a key target for food security. Scientists at the University of Nottingham, UK, have identified the mechanism used by plants under stress conditions to sense low oxygen levels that could lead to the introduction of advanced breeding techniques to developed cereal crops that are better able to tolerate flooding and other waterlogged conditions. They achieved this breakthrough in their work on barley but it could be applied to other cereals.    (University of Nottingham, 05/02/2015)Download the article


New tools to breed cereal crops that survive flooding

Increasing the tolerance of cereal crops to low oxygen during flooding is a key target for food security. Scientists at the University of Nottingham, UK, have identified the mechanism used by plants under stress conditions to sense low oxygen levels that could lead to the introduction of advanced breeding techniques to developed cereal crops that are better able to tolerate flooding and other waterlogged conditions. They achieved this breakthrough in their work on barley but it could be applied to other cereals. (University of Nottingham, 05/02/2015)Download the article


A new Bio-Economy web site

A newly launched website, Bio-Economy, of the South African Research Chair in the Environmental and Social Dimensions of the Bio-economy provides a platform for researchers, policy makers and students to engage with and learn more about approaches within the bio-economy that facilitate poverty reduction in a manner that is socially just and environmentally sustainable.  On the site, publications and other information are arranged according to five themes: (i) governance and rights; (ii) biodiversity use and trade; (iii) seed and knowledge; (iv) access and benefit sharing; and (v) the impacts of emerging technologies.    (Platform for Agrobiodiversity Research, 12/12/2014)


Plant breeding educators in Africa develop tools to train the next generation of experts

In November 2014, plant breeders from several African universities, regional and international organizations and the private sector met in Nairobi to develop new education and training materials for ‘Demand-led plant variety design’. They decided to develop new educational materials based on demand-led R&D for inclusion in postgraduate programmes in African universities. The course materials will also be available for continuing professional development of practising plant breeders.    (BecA, 14.11.2014)


Scientists breed nutritionally rich yam bean

African Yam bean is an orphan highly nutritious crop that is undervalued by policy makers. Plant breeders at the Department of Agricultural Production of Makerere University, are breeding yam beans to develop palatable varieties that are free of poisonous substances and adapted to tall grass savannah agro- ecological zones. 31 new accessions have been included in the CGIAR's Potato Center (CIP) gene bank, and about 60 farmer varieties of yam beans are now maintained at CIP. Makerere University and NARO researchers are optimistic that the yam bean will contribute significantly to food security because it is rich in protein, carbohydrates, zinc and iron and also improves soil fertility.   (FarmBizAfrica, 11/10/2014)


Natural gene selection can produce orange corn rich in provitamin A

Researchers have identified a set of genes that can be used to naturally boost the provitamin A content of corn kernels, a finding that could help combat vitamin A deficiency in developing countries and macular degeneration in the elderly. Professor of agronomy Torbert Rocheford and fellow researchers of Purdue University, USA, found gene variations that can be selected to change nutritionally poor white corn into bio-fortified orange corn with high levels of provitamin A carotenoids. Their study provides the genetic blueprint to quickly and cost-effectively convert white or yellow corn to orange corn that is rich in carotenoids, by using natural plant breeding methods, not transgenics.   (Purdue University, 06/10/2014)


Global database: Cattle genome cracked in detail

The detailed knowledge of the variation in the cattle genome has been increased by several orders of magnitude by the creation of a global database containing data from the breeds Angus, Holstein, Jersey and Fleckvieh and the genomes of more than 1,200 animals. The first generation of the new data resource, which will be open access, consists of sequenced genomes for a number of bulls and are based on new sequencing techniques. The research was published in Nature Genetics and led by Hans D Daetwyler of the Department of Environment and Primary Industries, Australia. Scientists from other countries are encouraged to join the project, to ensure a continual inflow of data. Key ancestor bulls have daughters all around the world, so it is a considerable strength of the project that such data are connected into one database.   (ScienceDaily, 03/10/2014)


Consensus documents on safety assessments of transgenic cassava

The Organisation for Economic Co‑operation and Development (OECD) has recently released a consensus document on the biology of cassava to facilitate regulatory assessment of transgenic varieties. This is intended to encourage information sharing, promote harmonised practices, and prevent duplication of effort among countries. From time to time the OECD develops consensus documents which are used to identify elements of scientific information in the environmental safety and risk assessment of transgenic organisms common to OECD member countries and some non-members.   (OECD, 09/2014)


Genome-wide patterns of adaptation to climate-mediated selective pressures in sheep

Unlike numerous studies that have looked for evidence of selection using only population genetic data, Feng-Hua Lv, Chinese Academy of Sciences, China, with an international team of researchers scanned the sheep genome for selection signals by integrating genetic and climatic data. They found that adaptations to local climates have shaped the spatial distribution of particular genetic variants and, thus, such loci are likely involved in sheep adaptation to environmental challenges. Further molecular and functional studies of candidate genes close to significant markers will help to elucidate the genetic architecture of climate-mediated adaptive traits in sheep and other farm animals.   (École Polytechnique Fédérale du Lausanne, 01/08/2014)


Cross-bred crops get fit faster

Nature’s Natasha Gilberts argues that genetic engineering lags behind conventional breeding in a race to develop new drought-resistant maize varieties that can withstand drought and poor soils. She refers to the Drought Tolerant Maize for Africa (DTMA) project led by the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) that since 2006, developed 153 new maize varieties that perform well under dry weather conditions. The Improved Maize for African Soils (IMAS) project - a collaboration between CIMMYT, the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute, the South African Agricultural Research Council, and the multinational corporation DuPont Pioneer has, since 2010, developed 21 conventionally bred varieties that in field tests yielded up to 1 t/ha more in nitrogen-poor soils than did commercially available varieties. Researchers say that they are at least 10 years from developing a comparable GM variety.   (Nature News, 16/09/2014)


Wheat gene discovery clears way for non-GMO breeding

The gene that prevents wheat from breeding with related ancestors was discovered by Washington State University researcher Kulvinder Gill and colleagues. The genes from related ancestors contain a vast array of traits preferred by growers. Using conventional genetic manipulations, the discovery will permit innovation in wheat variety development unhampered by the cost, regulatory hurdles and controversy of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Silencing the gene would permit breeders to successfully pair chromosomes of related ancestors and develop wheat varieties with the disease- and pest-resistance traits of other grasses.   (WSU, 15/09/2014)


GM agricultural technologies for Africa: A state of affairs

This IFPRI report is a comprehensive, evidenced-based review of agricultural biotechnology – its current status, issues, constraints and opportunities for Africa. Agricultural biotechnology comprises several scientific techniques (genetic engineering, molecular marker-assisted breeding, the use of molecular diagnostics and vaccines, and tissue culture) that are used to improve plants, animals and microorganisms. However, in preparing this desktop analysis of peer-reviewed evidence and documented examples, IFPRI has focused on genetic modification (GM) technologies and on the agricultural contexts in which they are applied. The focus was chosen because GM technologies are at the centre of controversies about biotechnology’s role in Africa.   (IFPRI/African Development Bank, 16/07/2014)


Tissue culture, conservation biotechnology, virus indexing and seed systems of vegetative crops: A training manual

ASARECA has recently compiled a training manual with information on tissue culture, conservation biotechnology, virus indexing and seed systems for vegetative crops such as case cassava and sweet potato and associated techniques. This manual brings together knowledge in these fields that is currently scattered over a large numbers of research institutes and is not readily available for use by practitioners. The manual is meant for research scientists and technicians and students, who are encouraged to adapt the references to their own working conditions and to add more materials as they deem fit.   (ASARECA, 17/07/2014) 


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.    


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)


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) 


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)


Understanding disease resistance genes in crops to secure future food production

Dr Henrik Stotz from the School of Life and Medical Sciences at the University of Hertfordshire, UK and Pierre de Wit from Wageningen UR in The Netherlands have proposed a new concept called effector-triggered defence or ETD that explains how plants protect themselves against the pathogens that grow in the space outside plant cells (the apoplast).This new insight could help scientists breed new, more successful disease-resistant agricultural crops. By exploiting new molecular and genetic insights, their research has provided a better understanding of the defence system of crop plants against the damaging pathogens that grow in the spaces between plant cells.    (AlphaGalileo, 27/05/2014)