Released: 24-Nov-2014 11:00 AM EST
Source Newsroom: Kansas State University

Mike Smith image (1)

C. Michael Smith, professor of entomology at Kansas State University.


Newswise — MANHATTAN, Kansas — Two Kansas State University faculty members have been named 2014 fellows of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, or AAAS, the world’s largest scientific society.
The following Kansas State University faculty members were selected as fellows:
• C. Michael Smith, professor of entomology, for distinguished contributions to entomological sciences, particularly in the fields of plant-insect interactions and plant resistance to insects.
• Christopher Sorensen, Cortelyou-Rust university distinguished professor of physics and university distinguished teaching scholar, for pioneering contributions in soft matter physics, disperse particulate systems and light scattering; teaching curriculum development and outreach; and service to the scientific community.
Smith and Sorensen are among 401 fellows chosen this year. Their selection follows a vote by their peers in the association, who looked at potential fellow’s distinguished efforts to advance science.
The professors will be recognized at a certificate and pinning ceremony at the association’s annual meeting Feb. 14, 2015, in San Jose, California.
“We’re proud of our newest fellows in the AAAS and congratulate them on this well-deserved recognition,” said Kirk Schulz, university president. “Dr. Smith and Dr. Sorensen have repeatedly demonstrated their dedication to the advancement of science, research and education. Our distinguished researchers and their recognitions will help Kansas State University become a Top 50 public research university by 2025.”
The 2014 fellows will be announced in the AAAS News and Notes section of the journal Science on Nov. 28.
Smith has spent more than 30 years conducting research on plant resistance to arthropods. Before joining Kansas State University, he studied the allelochemical basis of resistance in soybean and rice as well as cereal gene expression in response to aphids and mites. He has helped characterize a gene cluster in wheat responsible for creating resistance to the Russian wheat aphid as well as identified factors affecting the expression of R genes in this cluster.
As a 2002 Fulbright scholar, he collaborated with European and African scientists to identify the first Russian wheat aphid biotypes in North Africa and South America. He is currently developing biotype-sensitive molecular markers. Additionally, collaborations with entomology, plant pathology and agronomy researchers have identified wheat genotypes with multiple resistances to wheat curl mite and several viruses transmitted by the mite.
Smith’s research has been supported by more than $4.7 million in funding, and he has published three books, 17 book chapters and more than 103 refereed journal articles. He has mentored 20 graduate-level students. He also was named a fellow of the Entomological Society of America in 2006.
Sorensen devotes his time to both teaching and research. His research interests are diverse. He performs experimental and theoretical studies of light scattering by particles of arbitrary shape, which is related to how aerosol particles affect global warming. He uses chemical methods to synthesize nanoparticles and then studies their solution and self-assembly behavior. He has developed a novel method for the large-scale production of graphene, and he studies gelation and aggregation kinetics in aerosols and colloids. His service to science includes a term as president of the American Association for Aerosol Research. Sorensen has authored more than 280 technical publications and holds six patents, with three more pending.
His teaching interests are equally diverse as he has taught at all levels. He conceived and developed hands-on studio instruction in physics, applying it broadly. He has won multiple teaching awards, including being named the 2007 CASE/Carnegie U.S. Professor of the Year.
He has given more than 100 invited lectures in the U.S. and abroad, including five lectures on a Scientific American Bright Horizons cruise around Cape Horn.
Kansas State University currently has 20 faculty members who are AAAS fellows.

The Secret of Dragonflies’ Flight
By controlling each of their four wings individually, dragonflies can manipulate fluid dynamics to execute a wide range of aerial maneuvers

Released: 14-Nov-2014 8:00 AM EST
Embargo expired: 23-Nov-2014 9:00 PM EST
Source Newsroom: American Physical Society’s Division of Fluid Dynamics


dragonflies image (1)

Jane Wang research group, Cornell University
A collage of dragonflies during recovery flight. Yellow arrows indicate the body orientation, and the circles on the wings are tracked points, overlaid on top of the image.





Newswise — WASHINGTON, D.C., November 23, 2014 — Dragonflies can easily right themselves and maneuver tight turns while flying. Each of their four wings is controlled by separate muscles, giving them exquisite control over their flight.
Researchers from Cornell University are investigating the physics behind this ability by recording high-speed video footage of dragonflies in flight and integrating the data into computer models, and they will present their findings at the 67th annual meeting of the American Physical Society (APS) Division of Fluid Dynamics, held Nov. 23-25 in San Francisco.
“Dragonflies tend to have unpredictable flight — that’s what makes them fascinating. They hover for a bit, and every so often they’ll make a quick, sharp turn. They rarely stay right in front of your camera for us to contemplate on,” explained lead researcher Jane Wang.
In collaboration with Anthony Leonardo at Janelia Farm, the research campus of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, Wang devised a unique experimental method to make dragonflies perform repeatable aerial maneuvers: to attach a tiny magnet to the underside of each insect that allowed them to hang upside down from a metal rod. When the magnet is released, said Wang, “Dragonflies somehow understand the orientation and they do a stereotypical maneuver: they roll their body to make a 180-degree turn.”
By tracking the body and wing orientations using high-speed video recording of this rapid roll in high resolutions, the team uncovered how dragonflies were altering the aerodynamics on their wings to execute the turn.
“The wings on an airplane are oriented at some fixed angle. But insects have freedom to rotate their wings,” explained Wang. By adjusting the wing orientation, dragonflies can change the aerodynamic forces acting on each of their four wings.
The iridescent insects can also change the direction in which they flap their wings — known technically as their “stroke plane.” The new data showed that dragonflies can adjust the stroke plane orientation of each wing independently.
With so many different variables, understanding how dragonflies control their flight is a complicated task. “Our job is to try to find out the key strategies that dragonflies use to turn,” explained Wang. She and her graduate student James Melfi Jr. are incorporating their data into a computer simulation of insects in free flight, which allows them to examine the separate effect of each kinematic change.
Wang described her group’s work as “using physical principles to explain animal behavior.”
“Even though biological organisms are complex, they still obey some basic laws — in this case, fluid dynamics. … I’m hoping to understand how these basic laws influence evolution of insects and the wiring of their neural circuitry.”
The presentation, “Roll Dynamics in a Free Flying Dragonfly,” was presented at 6:15 p.m. PT on Sunday, Nov. 23, 2014 in the Moscone West Convention Center, 2nd Floor Lobby. ABSTRACT: http://meetings.aps.org/Mehttp://meetings.aps.org/Meeting/DFD14/Session/F1.16eting/DFD14/Session/F1.16







By Nathanael Johnson on 24 Nov 2014 8:08 am




Why aren’t agroecological techniques farming spreading faster among poor farmers? If you are a farmer in the rural part of an undeveloped country, where it’s hard to get synthetic fertilizer, pesticides, and genetically modified seeds, it only makes sense to turn to a form of agriculture that eschews those things. Instead of requiring technological inputs, agroecology and organic farming require skills — which are free and non-proprietary. Organic farming also builds up the organic matter in the soil, which helps it catch and hold moisture; that’s especially important in semi-arid lands without irrigation infrastructure.

So why don’t we see organic production raising developing rural areas out of poverty? I’ve seen two possible explanations: Big Agribusiness is sabotaging the nascent growth, or farmers aren’t getting the training they need.

I see the first explanation all the time, but I don’t see evidence. It’s easy to pin the blame on some bogeyman, but doing so is almost always the product of sloppy thinking. Cirocco Dunlap parodied this ploy perfectly in an ode to the too-good-to-be-true effects of coconut oil:

After saving my own life, I wanted to save someone else’s. So I stopped at a nearby children’s hospital and cured every child with a dropperful of coconut oil. It was so nice and so easy; I’m confused why people don’t do this more often. Probably because of Monsanto.

The second explanation, that there’s not enough education, seems more likely. Farming knowledge is location-dependent, and it takes time to pass it on. With a salable product, by contrast, the profit motive alone can drive adoption around the world. You can buy a Coke, for instance, just about anywhere in the world that a few people live together.

The combination of these two explanations is also plausible: It’s not that agribusiness is out there setting fire to organic crops, but Big Ag corporations are actively working with charities and aid organizations. That means they can influence the direction that education, and each nation’s agricultural policy, takes.

Of course, there’s one other possibility: It could be that organic methods just aren’t working for poor farmers.

A pragmatic take from Tanzania
It’s been hard for me to figure out exactly what’s going on here, so I was intensely intrigued by a paper titled “Facing food insecurity in Africa: Why, after 30 years of work in organic agriculture, I am promoting the use of synthetic fertilizers and herbicides in small-scale crop production.”

The paper is by Don Lotter, a strong critic of genetic engineering with a PhD in agroecology who teaches conservation agriculture at St. John’s University of Tanzania. It’s a nuanced and valuable piece from someone driven by the facts on the ground rather than by ideology.

The problem, Lotter wrote, cannot be pinned on lack of education alone:

[A]n organic version of CA [conservation ag] (no herbicide or synthetic fertilizers) has failed to be adopted by the majority of African farmers subject to years of promotion and trials … The most recent report from Tanzania showed only 13 percent of targeted farmers adopting the practice after several years of promotion.

This squares with something I learned from talking with Keira Butler about 4-H in Ghana. 4-H teaches kids all kinds of exciting agroecological techniques, but the adults don’t use those techniques — they use chemicals. I asked:

Is that because they don’t have access to those natural techniques, or they are benighted? Or is it because they are like, this just doesn’t work, if I want to make a decent living?

A. They are like, this just doesn’t work.

It’s simply more time- and cost-effective to use herbicide, for example, she said.

There’s a hint of frustration in Lotter’s writing when he touches on the continued emphasis on techniques that don’t work for farmers in Africa, especially when it is justified with pseudoscience. For a while he managed an organic farm in a part of northern Tanzania that attracted lots of foreign volunteers. Corn in the area suffered nitrogen deficiency because farmers refused synthetic fertilizer.

These farmers had been told by foreign volunteers, nearly all of them untrained in agriculture, that fertilizers “poison” the soil—despite the fact that it is very likely that 99% of the calories that these amply-fed volunteers had consumed in their lives were from crops amply fed with synthetic fertilizers, grown in fields that are to this day still highly productive.

Lotter says that soils fertilized with synthetic nitrogen aren’t as healthy and microbially rich as those fertilized with compost and manure, but they are by no means toxic. The same goes for the herbicide glyphosate (the main ingredient in Monsanto’s Roundup — though Monsanto’s patent expired in 2000, and now many companies produce the weedkiller). Some people are worried about the potential health effects of glyphosate, but these concerns are tiny compared to the real and undisputed dangers of soil loss and hunger.

Life expectancy here in the central region is about 45 years — these people hardly get the opportunity to get cancer, largely because of food insecurity.

Lotter works in the Dodoma region of Tanzania, where population has quadrupled since the 1960s. People there are farming more land, in marginal areas like mountainsides. Instead of allowing fields to lie fallow, farmers must plant every year, which means plowing every year. All this has led to massive erosion, which makes the land less productive and speeds the cycle. Lotter warns that Africa in the next few decades could go the erosion-crippled way of Haiti.

Using a herbicide allows farmers to vastly reduce the amount they plow. This allows the root-structures to remain in the ground, holding the soil and preventing erosion. Eventually the plant residues rot, turning into organic matter, which increases the fertility and water-holding capacity of the fields.

The scarce rainfall here commonly comes in intense events, often with just a few rainstorms providing most of the water for the entire season. Anchored plant residues on the soil surface and a higher soil OM [organic matter] content are crucial to capturing and holding this water.

Farmers using zero-tillage techniques (i.e. without plowing) in Malawi quickly tripled their profits, Lotter wrote.

Corn and fertilizer
Millet and sorghum are the traditional African grain staples. But, Lotter says, there’s a reason the vast majority of farmers in central Tanzania grow corn instead. New research suggests that farmers get a lot more food from corn (maize):

The research showed that even in drought years, with or without fertilizer, maize substantially outyields millet and sorghum, by an average of about 50 percent, even when bird damage is controlled in the latter two. Adding to this is the problem of Quelea birds (Quelea quelea L.) which can devour entire millet and sorghum crops but cannot touch maize.

Corn is incredibly responsive to fertilizer; it’s hard to grow corn to its optimum without bringing in some form of nitrogen. It’s possible to nearly satisfy corn with agroforestry — growing rows of nitrogen-fixing trees in the fields, and using their leaves as green manure. The problem is that farmers have to water and tend the trees for five years before they start to see real benefits.

Farmers can see an immediate benefit from synthetic fertilizer, but it has problems, too. Even if farmers have the money or credit to buy fertilizer, it’s often simply unavailable in their area. Agroforestry poses similar challenges: Farmers need access to the tree seedlings, and have to pay for them.

The takeaway
Lotter winds up with a frank but grim assessment. He notes that aid agencies have failed for the past 50 years to enrich subsistence farmers in Africa.

I’m not sure what will work. Social unrest and religious-political extremism are ominous possibilities.

There are hurdles no matter which way you turn, but the option to use synthetic fertilizer and herbicide could allow some farmers to shift from a destructive cycle, and into a virtuous cycle, enriching themselves and the land.

The only route I see out of African food insecurity in the next decade is via sustainable intensification — the use of both agrichemicals and organic methods together. My change from working exclusively with organic methods to the inclusion of conventional agrichemicals in Africa is, I believe, not a change in my values. The well-being of people and the environment are still at the center of my ethos, with the proviso that the long-term care of the environment enhances human well-being.

There are no easy answers here. Of course, it’s not like this is the only paper ever published on small farmers in Africa. There’s a study showing the success of just about anything, from cover crops to GM seeds, and oftentimes there’s another study showing its failure. But there’s special value in a paper like this from someone like Lotter — someone familiar with this entire literature, someone ground-truthing the claims every day. That makes his case against an all-organic program for small farmers in Africa all the more persuasive.



By Tim McDonnell on 20 Nov 2014


You probably know Monsanto as the world’s leading producer of genetically engineered seeds – a global agribusiness giant whose critics accuse it of everything from boosting our reliance on pesticides to driving Indian farmers to suicide.

But that’s actually just the latest in a long series of evolving corporate identities. When the company was founded in 1901 by a St. Louis pharmacist, its initial product was artificial sweetener. Over the next few decades Monsanto expanded into industrial chemicals, releasing its first agricultural herbicide, 2,4-D, in 1945. In the ’50s, it produced laundry detergent, the infamous insecticide DDT, and chemical components for nuclear bombs. In the ’60s, it churned out Agent Orange for the Vietnam War. In the ’70s, it became one of the largest producers of LED lights.

It was around this time that Robb Fraley, now Monsanto’s chief technology officer, joined the company as a mid-level biotechnology scientist. Back then, he recalls, the company had its hand in oil wells, plastics, carpets – you name it. It wasn’t until the early ’80s that Monsanto began to shift its focus to biotechnology, conducting the first U.S. field trials of bioengineered plants in 1987. By the end of the ’90s, it was a full-fledged biotech company. And over the last 10 years, after a series of seed company acquisitions, it has become the company we all know and love — or hate — today.

Now, there’s a new evolution on the horizon: “I could easily see us in the next five or 10 years being an information technology company,” says Fraley.

That’s right: Monsanto is making a big move into big data. At stake is an opportunity to adapt to climate change by using computer science alongside the controversial genetic science that has been the company’s signature for a generation. Data stands to benefit Monsanto’s bottom line, too: In its 2013 annual report, the company blamed lost profits on knowledge gaps about both the climate and its customers’ farming practices. And information services could even help Monsanto get its foot (and its seeds) in the door of untapped global markets from Africa to South America.

Seeds of a data company

Whatever your feelings about Monsanto, it’s hard to argue that the company isn’t paying attention to climate change. When I met Fraley in New York in September, he explained that since he joined the company in 1981, Monsanto scientists have observed corn production belts migrate northward by about 200 miles. That means traditional strongholds like Kansas are becoming less productive, while new markets for Monsanto products are opening in places like North Dakota and southern Canada. But for Fraley, who has spent his career digging through the minutiae of microscopic nucleotides, the most interesting trends are emerging on a much smaller scale.

“Just a couple degrees difference changes when insects will hatch, or when diseases will break out,” he says. “So that puts a real premium on modeling microclimatic conditions, so you can become predictive on not only which field, but which part of a field should someone be looking at.”

Last year, Monsanto made a major investment in big data analytics when it paid $930 million to acquire Climate Corporation, a San Francisco tech firm whose original business was selling crop insurance to farmers with rates set by some of the most detailed weather data available anywhere. These days, Climate Corp’s flagship product is a smartphone app called Climate Basic. The screenshot to the left — from my iPhone, taken back in early October – shows my family’s corn and soy farm in Iowa. You can see each of five individual fields highlighted. There are 30 million agricultural fields in America, and the app has all of them, mapped with soil and climate data to a 10-meter-by-10-meter resolution.

The app knows our fields’ real-time temperature, weather, and soil moisture, and what we can expect on those metrics for the coming week. The green tractor tells me Saturday is the best day to work the fields. If I were to input data about what kinds of seeds I planted and when, it could tell me when to harvest them and how much yield to expect. A premium, paid version of the app includes other detailed recommendations – for example, how much water and fertilizer to use.

That advice, says Climate Corp. CEO Dave Friedberg, represents a fundamental shift “from intuition-based decision-making to analytical decision-making,” combining real-time climate data with records from Monsanto’s trove of field trials.

“Ultimately all of this is the digitization of physical phenomena, and using that to better predict the future,” he says.

Sprawling databases have long been an essential item in the Monsanto toolkit. Locating the genes for favorable traits in plants – drought or insect resistance, for instance — so they can be bred into new seed varieties requires sifting through the billions of base pairs in a genome, which is one reason why biotechnology has grown in tandem with computer processing power over the last two decades. Since the ’80s, Monsanto has amassed one of the world’s largest agricultural databases, gleaned from the results of countless field tests of countless seed varieties under countless experimental conditions. That’s what made Climate Corp. such an attractive investment: The opportunity to integrate that company’s climate database with Monsanto’s seed data.

With Monsanto now at the helm, a team of a dozen Climate Corp. researchers are working full-time to pull climate data from government satellites and weather stations, university research sensors, and any other source they can find. This gets fed through a pipeline of data analysts and software engineers and emerges at the other end as Climate Basic.

The payoff for growers can be huge: Monsanto estimates that farmers typically make 40 key choices in the course of a growing season—what seed to plant, when to plant it, and so on. For each decision, there’s an opportunity to save money on “inputs”: water, fuel, seeds, custom chemical treatments, etc. Those savings can come with a parallel environmental benefit (less pollution from fertilizer and insecticides). These decisions can also help farmers make money by squeezing more yield from the same acreage. This year, as my colleague Tom Philpott reported, high input costs and low commodity crop prices have led Midwestern farmers to lose $225 per acre of corn and $100 per acre of soybeans. Big data, Friedberg says, reveals how seemingly small choices – a four- or five-day difference in planting time, for instance — can have a significant impact on the final harvest and on farmers’ bottom lines.

A new tool for climate adaptation

Precision agriculture is also an essential climate adaptation strategy. Monsanto’s data tools could become invaluable for farmers struggling to cope with changing conditions, says Rebecca Shaw, a scientist at the Environmental Defense Fund who studies the link between agriculture and ecosystems. With less water available, “we can’t afford to be wasteful,” she says. “It’s really important that we get better at understanding what the crop needs and when, and apply only that.”

The promise of data-driven farming, Shaw says, is to streamline the whole process and get the same or better output while cutting back on inputs.

Of course, data is a two-way street: Every new user of Climate Corp. software is a new source of real-time information for Monsanto about its customers – what kinds of products they’re using and how much they’re producing (i.e., how much money they’re making). Matt Erickson, an economist with the American Farm Bureau Federation, says farmers need to proceed with caution when they sign on to share proprietary data about their business operations with an outside party like Monsanto. The key, Erickson says, is for farmers and Monsanto to be on the same page when it comes to deciding if and how that data will be shared with third parties — other retailers, for example, or crop insurance companies. It’s just like how we all want to be kept apprised of the ways Google or Facebook use our data.

“The big thing we’re striving for is transparency,” Erickson says. “Making sure farmers are aware of any secondary or tertiary uses.”

Climate Corp.’s privacy policy dictates that farmers continue to own their data after it is shared, and that data won’t be used for purposes not explicitly approved by the farmer. Still, Fraley says he envisions using data to market custom products and services to farmers; a farmer whose crops are suffering from a disease or insect infestation might get an ad for appropriate chemical treatments, for example.

“There’s a huge opportunity on the marketing side,” he says. “We’re just exploring it.”

Privacy concerns aside, American farmers seem to be buying in. According to Friedberg, prior to the Monsanto acquisition, less than 10 million of the 161 million acres of U.S. farmland were being farmed with help from Climate Corp. software. Today, that number has grown to over 60 million. In other words, more than a third of U.S. farmland is now cultivated with the guidance of Monsanto climate data. And it’s continuing to grow rapidly: According to Climate Corp., the number of Climate Basic accounts has grown from 30,000 to over 70,000 just since the spring of this year.

“The information itself becomes the business”

For Monsanto’s data push, the U.S. market is only the beginning.

Efforts to increase crop yields are especially important in the developing world. The global population is projected to swell to more than 9 billion people by 2050 — with over half of that growth in Africa. The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that as a result, food production will have to increase by 70 percent. But according to the U.N.’s latest climate change report, South Asia and sub-Saharan African – the two regions with the most food insecurity – are actually expected to see an 8 percent drop in crop yields by 2050, thanks to rising temperatures and increasingly sporadic rainfall.

Fraley estimates that in central Africa, a typical corn farm produces less than a 10th of what the same-sized plot would yield in the U.S., despite having roughly equivalent soil and weather quality. Poorly bred seeds are part of the problem, he says, but biotechnology can’t fill the gap by itself. That’s because African countries also suffer from a chronic lack of basic weather data that U.S. farmers take for granted. Sub-Saharan Africa (excluding South Africa) has roughly one weather station per 239,000 square miles; the U.S. has one station per 14,000 square miles.

The need for better data is becoming even greater as climate change alters rainfall patterns that have informed farming practices for generations. A 2012 U.N. study found, for example, that between the 1970s and the 2000s, precipitation during Tanzania’s main rainy season fell by nearly 30 percent. The rainy season now starts a month earlier, as well.

What farmers in the developing world do have, though, is cellphones. And that’s where Monsanto sees an opportunity to distribute its data. “There will be value in information on crops and geographies where we currently don’t do business, so it’s a great opportunity to expand our footprint and get us into new spaces,” Fraley says. “Where the information itself becomes the business, we see a lot of opportunity.”

Beyond weather predictions, mobile data services could help African farmers identify pests and diseases – text in a photo of a mysterious bug, and get advice on how to get rid of it. They could also help connect farmers in remote villages to urban markets for their crops, says Andrew Mattick, a former World Bank agricultural consultant who is currently based in Mozambique. Rural farmers are often so isolated from markets, he says, that it’s impossible to know whether they are getting a fair price for their produce.

“When you’re not linked to markets,” he says, “you have no idea how much a cabbage costs in Maputo [the capital].” Mobile data could help bridge that gap.

Monsanto is already active with data services in India, where according to Friedberg some 3 million smallholder farmers have signed up for text message updates that are essentially a simplified version of the Climate Basic app. Field-by-field mapping efforts are underway in South America, Fraley told me, and SMS services are being developed for Africa, where the company’s reach is currently relatively small.

Data tools “are going to transform agriculture for smallholders across Africa,” Fraley says. “Even farmers who cannot read or write can intuitively digest the information on a cellphone.”

Of course, data products are only part of the business model. There are strict limitations on GMO crops in India and in all but four African nations, as Michael Specter recently reported in The New Yorker. But Fraley envisions that as African farmers begin to share data about their farms, the company “will initially use that approach to support our seed business. There’s a huge opportunity to provide African growers with better seeds.”

In other words, free data services provided in Africa could eventually feed back information about growing practices, disease and insect problems, and climate conditions. That information could be converted into seeds developed specifically for African fields and sold to African farmers. The ball is already rolling: In May, the company announced the results of the first harvest in Kenya of a new variety of drought-resistant corn that had been in the works since 2008. Yields from the new seeds were twice the national average, the company reported.

The real test for Monsanto’s data push will be closer to home. For farmers who have already signed on to the company’s services, the next few years’ worth of harvests will show whether a smartphone app really can pull extra corn from their ground — and put extra cash in their pockets. Friedberg is confident that it will.

“As you start to realize that the upside is there,” he says, “everything starts to change.”

This story was produced as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.












The Christian Science Monitor

It started with a simple move to change the tax code so that farmers could keep more of the value of their cocoa crop.
By Chris Arsenault, Thomson Reuters Foundation

NOVEMBER 17, 2014

ROME — As India starts its version of Brazil’s famous zero hunger campaign, the world’s most populous democracy could take some inspiration from Ghana.

The West African country “has met zero hunger,” Jose Graziano da Silva, head of the Food and Agriculture Organization said last month.

Former Ghanaian president John Kufuor can take at least some of the credit for this.

It started with a simple move to change the tax code when Kufuor’s government first took office in 2001.

Taxes on cocoa, a key export crop, stood at 60 percent of the market price, so growers could keep only 40 percent of the value of their production.

“We reversed this, giving the farmers 60 percent of the profits,” Kufuor said in an interview with the Thomson Reuters Foundation. “The state had been over-taxing the farmer.

“Farmers needed chemicals for fighting pests and fertilizers, the government paid for this.”

The investment paid off, and cocoa production doubled within four years, sending more money into state coffers for infrastructure investment.

The government then turned its attention to trying to mitigate deforestation. In 1960, more than 60 percent of the country was covered in forest but deforestation has decreased coverage to 21.7 percent today.

The state allowed landless families and unemployed people to use land where the forests had been cut, to plant crops interspersed with new trees in what became known as the Modified Taunga System.

After getting training from the state, local residents were able to earn an income when the trees were harvested, preventing additional land from being logged and improving food security for some of Ghana’s most vulnerable citizens.

Finally, the country tried to move up the value chain for its cocoa production.

“Chocolate, which is loved internationally, especially by the ladies, wasn’t part of our traditional diet,” Kufuor said. “The beans were exported.

“We saw the need to attract top quality processors to Ghana.”

Some large multinational confectionery companies moved in and set up factories, though the country still exports more raw beans than refined chocolate.

“The objective is to add value locally so 70 percent of the cocoa is processed and only 30 percent is exported [raw]. We are moving towards this,” Kufuor said.

Ghana’s per capita GDP shot up to $1,300 in 2007 from $400 in 2001, thanks largely to growth in the agriculture sector, high commodity prices, and the discovery of oil, which allowed it to reach lower middle income status and meet the Millennium Development Goals on poverty reduction ahead of schedule.

“One of the key factors [in Ghana’s success] has been strong political commitment at the highest level,” FAO Ghana representative Lamourdia Thiombiano said in an interview with the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“They subsidized production, put resources into boosting capacity, and invested in providing services to farmers.”

“More production led to relatively better access to food,” Thiombiano said.

Significant development challenges remain, despite the improvements in agriculture, and Ghana ranked 138 out of 187 countries surveyed in the U.N. 2014 Human Development Report.

Today Kufuor, who gives speeches on the U.N. circuit and runs his own foundation, is optimistic that “rays of hope” and good policies will continue to improve food security in a world where 1 in 8 people still suffer from chronic malnutrition.

• This article originally appeared at Thomson Reuters Foundation, a source of news, information, and connections for action. It provides programs that trigger change, empower people, and offer concrete solutions.

The  New York Times

Nov. 18 2014


By  Mark Bittman


It’s hard to imagine maintaining the current food system without Iowa. Yet that state — symbolic of both the unparalleled richness of our continent’s agricultural potential and the mess we’ve made of it — has undergone a transformation almost as profound as the land on which cities have been built. A state that was once 85 percent prairie is now 85 percent cultivated, most of that in row crops of corn and soybeans. And that isn’t sustainable, no matter how you define that divisive word.

It’s easy enough to argue that one of the most productive agricultural regions in the world could be better used than to cover it with just two crops — the two crops that contribute most to the sad state of our dietary affairs, and that are used primarily for animal food, junk food and thermodynamically questionable biofuels. Anything that further entrenches that system — propped up by generous public support — should be questioned. On the other hand, if there are ways to make that core of industrial agriculture less destructive of land and water, that is at least moving in the right direction.

For now, many Midwestern farmers believe they are maximizing income by growing row crops in what is best called industrial fashion. (Many prefer the word “conventional,” but as common as it is we do not want chemical farming to be the convention.) This near monoculture, for the most part, fails to replenish soil, poisons water, increases flooding and erosion, spills carbon, robs indigenous species of habitat and uses fossil fuel resources at unnecessarily high rates. Despite this, for the last several years the economic pressure has been on farmers to plant more and more, even in marginally productive areas, land that requires more work and greater applications of chemicals for fewer benefits.

Incredibly, there is a scientifically informed, direct and effective planting tactic that can mitigate much of this. Called STRIPS, for (ready?) “science-based trials of row crops integrated with prairie strips,” it means just that: Take around 10 percent of your farmland (in most cases, the least productive part), and replant it with a mix of indigenous prairie plants. Then sit back and watch the results, which are, according to researchers and even some farmers, spectacular.

Lisa Schulte Moore, a researcher at Iowa State University, has been working on the principles behind STRIPS for more than 10 years. (In 2003, she worked with Matt Liebman and Matt Helmers, two other pioneers in making contemporary American agriculture more sensible; I wrote about Liebman’s work a couple of years ago.) “It’s well-known that perennials provide a broader sweep of ecological function than annuals,” she told me last week, “so our hypothesis was that if you put a little bit of perennials — a little bit of prairie — in the right place, you get these disproportionate benefits. That is, without taking much land out of production, you get a lot of environmental benefit.”

The research has produced impressive numbers: If you convert 10 percent of a field of row crops to prairie, soil loss can be reduced by up to 95 percent, nutrient loss by 80 to 90 percent, and water runoff by 44 percent. Biodiversity nearly quadruples, and some of those species are pollinators, predators of pests, or both. And, unlike some ecological management techniques, the process is not expensive.

In general, reports Moore, seven years into this process, “Though science is messy, it’s amazing how clear our results are.”

By the end of the year, there will be 17 commercial farms integrating prairie strips in Iowa and Missouri — a mere 1,000 acres or so (the corn/soy belt is about 170 million acres this year), although the program is increasing rapidly. And because it’s difficult to find fault with it, the approach has the potential to unite farmers and environmentalists in a way that few other things do.

Among the first adopters was Seth Watkins, a “conventional” (his description) farmer of corn and soybeans who uses his crops to feed his cattle near the southwestern Iowa town of Clarinda. His explanation of the system is eye-opening: “There’s a lot of land we’ve been farming that was never intended to be farmed, and those areas of poor production are perfect for prairie strips. You do that, and it doesn’t reduce overall production, and it increases environmental benefit.” (He also loves the way it looks.) Watkins claims that his profit has gone up “because there’s land where you can lose a dollar an acre on corn.”

In recent years, many Iowa farmers have believed that if they weren’t 100 percent “in” corn, they weren’t doing a good job. Because of the pressure to plant, many of them have expanded their cultivated areas beyond where it makes sense, creating erosion and runoff problems. Iowa is among the major contributors to the Gulf of Mexico’s “dead zone,” a direct result of fertilizer runoff into the Mississippi water system, and half of Iowa’s topsoil has been lost.

Some common solutions to these problems — like terracing, or simply patching areas where runoff is extreme — are expensive and/or temporary. But the STRIPS experiment seems to demonstrate that being 90 percent “in” results in unheard of environmental benefits with little or no sacrifice to the bottom line. And, says Watkins, “I’ve felt for years that environmentalists and farmers should be friends, and we are starting to see that in Iowa.”

Prairie strips are both cheap and permanent, and they come with little opportunity cost. There does not seem to be an argument against them, other than that they make an imperfect — or even destructive — system less so. But while we’re figuring out a better way to do things on a big scale in the Midwest, this is a sensible interim step.



korsten, lise 2010b

Prof Lisa Korsten is a professor in the Department of Microbiology and Plant Pathology at the University of Pretoria, South Africa. Her research has been published in 77 international peer-reviewed, 2 patents and 110 industry publications. The latter journals are widely circulated in the international fruit sector and have thus contributed to Prof Korsten’s local and international standing in this field of science. Thus far 45 Masters’ and PhD students have completed their studies under her guidance. She has also been actively involved in presenting research work at local (237) and international congresses (85) and has offered several specialists short courses for the industry in Good Agricultural Practices, Food Safety, Globalgap, Hazard Analysis Critical Control Point (HACCP) and risk assessment. Prof Korsten is currently a technical assessor for the South African National Accreditation Systems for Globalgap, ISO 22000, British Retail Consortium (BRC) certification bodies. Six of her laboratories have been ISO 17025 accredited between 2002 – 2008 for several test methods that include microbiological testing for water, foodborne pathogens in packhouses and on fruit or vegetable products, identification of bacteria, total viable counts and PCR for Phytosanitary purposes for detecting fungal or bacterial plant pathogens. Prof Korsten is currently head of the thematic focus area Food Safety, Biosecurity, Public Health and Regulatory Control within the University of Pretoria, Institute of Food, Nutrition and Well-Being. She is also a board member of the National Laboratory Association of South Africa and the Postharvest Innovation programme of the Department of Science and Technology and the Fresh Produce Exporters Forum.


Dr Bhagirath Singh Chauhan leads research in the fields of weed ecology, herbicide resistance, and integrated weed management for the grain and cotton farming systems of the subtropical cropping region of Australia. Prior to his current role as Principal Research Fellow in The Queensland Alliance for Agriculture and Food Innovation (QAAFI), University of Queensland, Dr Chauhan led weed science research at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), Philippines. He has collaboration with researchers from several countries. He holds a BS (Hons.) in agriculture, MS in agronomy (CCS Haryana Agricultural University, Hisar, India), and PhD in weed science (University of Adelaide, Australia).
Dr Chauhan has more than 10 years of research experience in conducting trials on integrated weed management options and improved agronomy of new production systems in several countries, including Australia, India, Philippines, Sri Lanka, and Vietnam. Dr Chauhan has published >100 articles in referred journals (Crop Protection, Advances in Agronomy, PLoS ONE, Field Crops Research, Weed Science, Weed Technology, Weed Research, Annals of Applied Biology, etc.) and >50 articles in national journals, conference proceedings, and magazines. The publications in the diverse set of journals reflect a focused approach on making an impact in the weed science area. He is the Editor-in-Chief of a recently published book, Recent Advances in Weed Management. New York: Springer Science+Business Media. 411 pp.

On behalf of the entire IAPPS family, I would like to extend a warm welcome to Lisa and Bhagirath as our new Crop Protection Editors in Chief.

Prof. E. A. “Short” Heinrichs
Secretary General, IAPPS
E-mail: eheinrichs2@unl.edu


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