Monday, August 25, 2014/ Lincoln (NE) Journal Star
[CAPE TOWN] Researchers in Zurich, Switzerland, have successfully developed a strain of virus-resistant cassava, and now hope to train scientists in Africa to develop the technology in laboratories on the continent.
The study, which demonstrated that researchers can now generate transgenic farmer- and industry-preferred cassava, was published in PLOS One last month (25 September).
Herve Vanderschuren, the study’s lead author, and head of the cassava research team at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Zurich, said the research team had developed a new cassava variety that is resistant to cassava mosaic disease and cassava brown streak virus, an infection that makes cassava roots unpalatable.
These two major viral diseases reduce cassava production in large areas of Sub-Saharan Africa.
According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, cassava is currently the third most important source of calories in the tropics, after rice and maize, and more than 800 million people use cassava as a source of food and income generation in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.
The new strain is drought tolerant and can grow in a range of agro-ecosystems — including less fertile soils — ensuring that when other crops fail, cassava can still be harvested.
“We are going to establish the technology in African laboratories, and have local scientists develop them there,” Vanderschuren told SciDev.Net.
Despite limited funding, the team were already transferring technology through funded trainings to laboratories in Kenya, Tanzania and South Africa, and were working to ensure that scientists in Africa were becoming adept at using it, Vanderschuren explained.
He said that empowering local laboratories could help change the views of some African governments on genetically-improved crops, as previously they had not been in a position to ‘own’ or monitor the technology, but now would be.
How soon the new cassava strain would be available to farmers was still not clear, Vanderschuren said, as key stages, including product development and local authority engagement, still needed to be undertaken.
On a wider level, Vanderschuren encouraged raising the level of debate to ensure improvements in the transfer of technology from North to South.
“If we are to guarantee that this technology spreads among scientists in Africa, researchers must share knowledge on genetically-modified cassava,” said Chrissie Rey, a professor of plant biotechnology at the University of the Witwatersrand, in Johannesburg, South Africa.
Rey said all intellectual property rights owners should be engaged before the technology is rolled out to the farmers. Policy issues must be addressed and GM laws developed to ensure technology can be transferred smoothly into African contexts, she told SciDev.Net.
If these laws were established, she added, they would allow more trials and enable more results from varied field conditions
More field trials were needed to ensure the technology was robust, Rey concluded.
Link to full article in PLoS ONE
Five years ago, diseases and storms during the monsoon season would wipe out the majority of Nepali tomato plantations. Discouraged, Nepali farmers slowly started abandoning tomato production. But the tomato is a big part of local cuisine, so Nepal had to import it from India.
Horticulturist Kedar Budhathoki, based in the Lalitpur district, understood Nepali farmers’ problems. He was already leading a team of scientists working to develop a tomato variety that was resistant to the disease wilt. A few years — and many experiments — later, a local hybrid variety, Shrijana, was born.
Demand grew as the fruit remained popular. And Nepali farmers knew they had found a way to flip the export-import equation. Today, 90 per cent of tomatoes in Nepal are Shrijana and Nepal not only produces all its own tomatoes, but it exports them to several neighbouring states in India.
[LAGOS] Nigerian farmers who tested new maize crops resistant to the widespread Striga plant parasite are so enthusiastic about their increased crop yields that they are selling more seeds than the official distribution channels.
The crops were developed in the Nigerian laboratories of the International Institute for Agricultural Research (IITA). They dramatically cut maize losses from the root-infecting Striga, or witchweed, during two years of trial cultivation by farmers in Borno State in northern Nigeria.
Nigeria’s Institute for Agricultural Research began distributing the new parasite-resistant maize seeds in December 2008.
Abebe Menkir, the lead scientist on the research project at IITA, told SciDev.Net that some farmers in Borno state were already producing large quantities of resistant seeds and selling them on to farmers in and outside the region. He was unable to say how many seeds are being — and will be — distributed through official channels.
“The farmers say they couldn’t wait for the official release of seedlings because the variety is successful, cutting losses,” says Menkir.
Menkir said the next step was to distribute the parasite-resistant maize in other countries in West and Central Africa.
The varieties, known as Sammaz 15 and 16 contain genes that diminish the growth of parasitic flowering plants such as Striga, which attaches to the maize root. Both Sammaz varieties tolerate heavy Striga infestations without suffering crop losses.
“A normal maize variety without resistance to Striga can sustain from 60 per cent to 100 per cent grain yield loss in farmers’ fields that are severely infested,” Menkir told SciDev.Net. Sammaz 16 loses just ten per cent of yield in an extreme invasion.
Sammaz 16 is a late-maturing variety requiring 110 to 120 days of growth, whereas Sammaz 15 can often be harvested at 100 days and is more suitable for regions with short growing periods or unpredictable water supplies.
Agronomy researcher Michael Aken’Ova from the faculty of agriculture at the University of Ibadan, said that producing resistant and tolerant cultivars such as Sammaz is the most economically feasible, easily accessible, safe and sustainable approach to combat losses due to Striga, particularly compared to labour-intensive methods such as weeding.
He added that he is sure that the resistant crops will soon make it to the farmers who need them, with the aid of leaflets, radio magazine programmes and messages in local languages.
Weeds are a major constraint on the quality of life of most women in developing countries but modern technology can help, says Jonathan Gressel from the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel.
Women do the majority of backbreaking weeding in the developing world. But although many speakers at this year’s World Food Symposium (October 2009) did highlight gender inequalities in agriculture, they focused on the need to improve women’s education and health.
Few spoke about the impact weeds have on women’s quality of life or about how biotechnology can help.
Engineers have designed more ergonomic hoes to aid weeding. And genetically engineered herbicide-resistant crops are already being used by women in South Africa to control weeds.
Gebisa Ejeta received the World Food Prize for his work in genetically engineering sorghum to resist attack by the parasitic weed Striga (see Ethiopia’s sorghum superhero).
Genetic engineering can also be used to design crops that produce chemicals to suppress weeds.
Such efforts show that modern biotechnology can be effectively used to control weeds and reduce the drudgery facing most women in the developing world.
Link to full article in Nature Biotechnology
[COTONOU, BENIN] Researchers have launched a free interactive tool that can be used to identify nearly 200 weeds that harm rice production in Africa.
The tool, which has been launched by agricultural research institutions AfricaRice and the Centre for International Cooperation in Agronomic Research for Development (CIRAD), can be accessed online and offline on laptops and CD-ROMs or as an application on smartphones and tablet computers.
People such as researchers, students and farmers can use the tool to identify weed species that affect the rice farming lowlands in East and West Africa.
“The tool works through a schematic image of a [weed] plant where, for different plant parts, you can select shape, colour and other characteristics,” according to AfricaRice weed scientist Jonne Rodenburg. “By selecting characteristics for different [weed] plant parts, the number of likely species gradually decreases.”
After identifying the specific weed, he said, users can use a database to select appropriate interventions. “The tool will guide the user to information on its biology, ecology and management,” he said. “The database contains species-specific weed management advice. In most cases, the advice is categorised according to weed categories. For instance, broad-leaved weeds, grasses, sedges, parasitic weeds, aquatic weeds, perennial weeds and annual weeds.”
People with specific questions, Rodenburg told SciDev.Net when journalists attending the First West Africa Science Journalists Conference last month (26-28 November) visited AfricaRice’s headquarters, can also access online weed science network Weedsbook for more documents and the possibility to interact with weeds scientists across the continent or even around the world.
The researchers, who worked in close collaboration on the project with the African Weeds of Rice project financed by the European Union and the Africa Caribbean Pacific Science and Technology Programme, took three years to produce the tool.
In Sub-Saharan Africa, weeds cause estimated annual rice production losses of at least 2.2 million tonnes and US$1.45 billion, equivalent to 10 million hectares of rice annually, said Rodenburg.
But Antoine Adidéhou, permanent secretary of the Council of Rice Farmers in Benin said that many rice that farmers lacked the computer skills or Internet access and so would find it hard to make use of this valuable resource.
“They will have some difficulties in trying to make good use of this tool,” he said.
Benin is now storing some 150,000 tonnes of rice on farms
But insect pests are taking a financial toll on the stores, destroying up to five per cent of rice
Regional variations could reveal more about the best ways to tackle the pests
[COTONOU, BENIN] Insect pests that attack stored rice are causing financial losses to farmers in Benin, researchers report in the first such study of the crop in the country. But they also found significant regional differences in damage.
According to their paper, published in the Journal of Applied Sciences earlier this year (21 February), rice production in the past was not high enough in Benin to justify long-term storage on farms so insect damage was less significant.
But since 2009, rice production has increased in many African countries and storage has become common practice. In 2012, Benin recorded 150,000 tonnes of stored paddy rice.
The researchers sampled 65 rice stores around the country and carried out a survey among farmers to determine their views on the economic importance of insect damage.
For a storage period of four to six months, they found financial losses were up to 21,315 Francs of the African Financial Community (around US$42) per tonne of stored rice in the south of the country and up to US$16 in the north.
By weight, they reported losses of about 5.5 per cent after six months of storage in the south, four per cent in the central region and 1.6 per cent in the north.
The damage caused by insect pests includes a reduction in nutritional value, grain discolouration, reduced germination, bad odour and taste, and the formation of mycotoxins that can cause serious illness in consumers, says lead author Abou Togola, an entomologist at the Africa Rice Centre (AfricaRice) in Benin.