What’s new at ICARDA Issue 19, September 2014

Bhoussini blog-3-19-sep-2014







Dr. Mustapha El Bouhssini, principle entomologist at ICARDA

ICARDA scientist wins prestigious international award An ICARDA scientist has been awarded a prestigious international award from the International Branch of the Entomological Society of America (ESA), the largest organization in the world that serves the professional and scientific needs of entomologists and individuals in related disciplines. Dr. Mustapha El Bouhssini, principle entomologist at ICARDA, has received the ‘Distinguished Scientist Award’ in recognition of his significant contributions to entomological research and a career devoted to sustainable agricultural research for development. He is a specialist in integrated pest management, applying cultural practices, biological control, botanical insecticides, and host plant resistance to boost the production of wheat, barley, chickpea, lentil, and fava bean.  This is the latest in a series of awards over the past decade. This year Dr. El Bouhssini received an Award of Merit for his research in Morocco on Hessian Fly resistance in wheat from the International Plant Resistance to Insects Working Group. He has also been selected to receive the 2014 Distinguished Alum from the Department of Entomology at Kansas State University (KSU) this Fall. These follow an International Plant Protection Award of Distinction from the International Association for Plant Protection Sciences (IAPPS) in 2007 and a CGIAR Award in 2006 that recognized Dr. Bouhssini’s efforts to apply integrated pest management techniques in the fight against Sunn Pest. In addition to his research at ICARDA, Dr. Bouhssini is an adjunct Associate Professor at KSU in the United States where he received both his Masters and PhD degrees. This position has helped initiate a number of important collaborative projects between KSU and ICARDA: one on Hessian Fly genetics, and the other on resistance in barley to Russian wheat aphid. During the course of his career, Dr. El Bouhssini has trained over 200 scientists and technicians from North Africa, and West and Central Area in the area of integrated pest management. Speaking of the Award, Dr. Mahmoud Solh, ICARDA’s Director General commented: “This prestigious recognition is due to Dr. El Bouhssini’s professional dedication, commitment and remarkable contributions to agricultural research for development. ICARDA is certainly very proud of this recognition.” – See more at: http://icarda.org/blog/%5Bnode%3ABlog%20type%5Dicarda-scientist-wins-prestigious-international-award#sthash.0yORHKVo.dpuf



By Nathanael Johnson
1 Sep 2014 8:08 AM



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Crystal-ball gazers looking for the future of food often start with this question: How the heck are humans going to grow enough food to feed our teaming masses without wrecking the planet?

There are two assumptions embedded in that question: first, that we’re going to have trouble growing enough food; and second, that we must race to keep food production up to speed with population growth, rather than reining in population growth. In questioning those assumptions over the last two weeks, my focus has shifted. If we want to prevent famine and ecological collapse, we should be thinking primarily about poverty, not food.

However, looking for ways to deal with poverty takes us right back around to increasing food production. If we fail to deal with poverty and hunger, Joel Cohen told me, we are (counter intuitively) consigning ourselves to explosive population growth. To make sure everyone gets a healthy portion of the world’s pie, he said, we’ll need a bigger pie (more food), fewer forks (level off population growth), and better manners (share more equitably). And while each of these approaches has its partisans, Cohen thinks we’ll almost certainly need all three.

As I found previously, if you can help small farmers grow more food, it’s a double whammy: It helps lift them out of poverty (better sharing) and gives us more food (bigger pie).

That means that we really do need to ask, how the heck we are going to feed ourselves? It’s not the main issue (poverty), but it’s an effective lever to work on that main issue. So we still need a contingent of farmers and scientists working on increasing yields. And that’s a problem, because for years countries around the world have been pulling money out of agricultural research.

“For almost thirty years, since the early 1980s, neither the private sector nor governments were interested in investing in agriculture,” wrote Olivier De Schutter, who recently concluded his stint as the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food.

The amount of money that we invested in farming R&D has actually risen a tiny bit every year, but it’s so tiny that the amount has shrunk relative to the size of the farm economy — that is, the size of the investment wasn’t keeping up with the size of the job. Between 1990 and 2000, the world increased agricultural research investment by 1.9 percent a year. That’s about what you’d want for a cost of living increase — it doesn’t leave room for breaking new ground.

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BIC = Brazil, India, China – click figure above to embiggen (increase size)
Agricultural Science and Technology Indicators – Global Assessment of Agricultural R&D Spending
BIC = Brazil, India, China –

“You need a certain minimum investment in agricultural science that continues year after year, because you don’t answer all the questions the first time, it’s a moving target,” said Melinda Smale, a professor of international development at Michigan State. “You need to invest in scientists, invest in institutions. Things like salaries have a recurring cost.”

When I suggested to Smale that some argue for spending money on one transformative technology that could be used everywhere, rather than pouring money into local institutions every year, she scoffed: “We should dispel this myth of the silver bullet. That’s just bullshit. What works in one place will not work in another. You cannot export a single uniform model.”

The Green Revolution — the modernization of agriculture that occurred between the ’40s and ’60s — is often the poster child for the single uniform model. After all, Norman Borlaug, the father of the Green Revolution, was able to rapidly spread improved seeds around the world, instead of breeding strains to be adapted to local conditions. But the seeds were only part of the Green Revolution, Smale said. It also relied on tremendous investments from governments around the world to pay for wells, canals, and transportation systems to move harvests and fertilizers.

To build agricultural systems that are truly adapted to local environmental conditions, we’d need enough investment in agriculture to sustain various types of research, and farmer training institutions in each of those environments. The question of what that money should pay for (agroecology research? fertilizer?) is a contentious one, and I’ll get to that soon. But first: there was an increase in agricultural R&D after 2008, when food price spikes scared a modest amount of money out of leaders around the globe.

Were those price spikes a sign that we really we’re closer to running out of food than I’ve suggested here so far? I’ll try to answer that next.

More in the Hungry, hungry humans series



Monday, August 25, 2014/ Lincoln (NE) Journal Star

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[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

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lalitpur_fileminimizer_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.

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[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.

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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



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