What we’ve been reading this week

This week’s summary on the news stories, reports and blogs that have grabbed our attention. We welcome your thoughts and comments on these articles.

Agriculture ‘neglected’ at UN climate talks – again, Thomson Reuters Foundation

Why Have Farmers Yet Again Been Forgotten at the UN Climate Talks?, Huffington Post

The adaptation advantage: the economic benefits of preparing small-scale farmers for climate change, IFAD

Ensuring food security for the future, SciDev.Net

Mega farms create mega problems, The Guardian

Bill Gates: Here’s My Plan to Improve Our World — And How You Can Help, Wired

Purdue researcher: Income to become dominant driver of global food system, Purdue University

Farmer’s Diary: How science is vital for future farmers, Daily Monitor

China and US can use biotechnology to end scourge of global hunger, Global Times

Climate-smart agriculture success stories, CGIAR

Playing the field: Corn likes to sleep around — and that makes it hard to control GMOs, Grist

Apprehension over GM crops misleading – African scientists, Nigerian Pilot

Researchers develop new approach to identify possible ecological effects of releasing genetically engineered insects, University of Minnesota

Not too late to get agriculture into 2015 climate deal – World Bank expert, Thomson Reuters Foundation

Biotechnologies for smallholders: new publications

i3403e00The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation recently released a new publication, Biotechnologies at Work for Smallholders: Case Studies from Developing Countries in Crops, Livestock and Fish, which details how biotechnologies can help smallholders improve their livelihoods and food security. The report urges governments and stakeholders to take greater steps to bring agricultural biotechnologies to smallholder producers in developing countries.

Through 19 case studies in crops, livestock and fisheries, authors explore real experiences of smallholders using biotechnology in the production of a variety of crops, for example, bananas, cassava, rice, livestock and shrimp. The cases also cover a range of biotechnologies such as artificial insemination, fermentation and more sophisticated DNA-based methodologies, although not genetic modification.

The case studies have been selected from India, China, Argentina, Bangladesh, Brazil, Cameroon, Colombia, Cuba, Ghana, Nigeria, South Africa, Sri Lanka, Tanzania and Thailand. In India, as an example, DNA markers have been used to develop a flood-tolerant rice variety with a potential yield increase of 1 to 3 tons per hectare compared to other varieties, under flood conditions. As of 2012, the new variety, Swarna-Sub1, was being used by three million farmers.

In Cameroon, DNA-based diagnostic tools have allowed for the quick detection and diagnosis of Peste des Petits Ruminants outbreaks, a virus which can rapidly spread amongst goats and sheep. This biotechnology has enabled authorities to control the disease, thus preventing an outbreak.

Biotechnologies, as seen from the case studies, can boost yields, improve quality and market opportunities, reduce costs and thus improve agricultural livelihoods for smallholders. As the report emphasises, however, biotechnologies will only work for smallholder farmers if smallholders participate in the design, research and dissemination processes. [Read more…]

Four ways with pesticides

Pesticides graphic-1Pesticides, substances designed to prevent, destroy or mitigate any pest, are beneficial in many ways. They protect crops from infestation, allowing for higher and more stable yields, and they protect humans from insect attack, crucial in the fight against insect-transmitted diseases such as malaria. But they also pose serious threats to the environment and to human health. In response to the concerns over the impact of pesticides on bee populations, for example, the European Union, earlier this year, issued a partial ban on neonicotinoids.

A new special issue of Science, The Pesticide Paradox, through a series of papers, explores the benefits and impacts of pesticides and discusses what more can be done to track pesticide use, reduce our reliance and its impact, and find alternatives.

Track their use and evaluate their impacts

Understanding how and where pesticides are used and what hazards they pose is the first step to minimising their impact. For example, pesticide degradation and its effect on the landscape is little understood, as are the impacts of pesticides on non-target organisms and communities, and on human health and development. One paper shows the alarming impact exposure to pesticides in early life can have on brain development – reducing IQ and causing ADHD-like behavioural problems.

Verger and Boobis in their article, Reevaluate Pesticides for Food Security and Safety, discuss the use and sale of generic versions of pesticides, which account for some 30% of total pesticide sales. As the original producer has little impetus to assess the usage and hazards, these pesticides, despite being more affordable to farmers in developing countries, may not meet internationally accepted criteria. Authors describe how these generic pesticides can be monitored.

Reduce their use

The next obvious step is to minimise their use. For some farmers, prudent use of pesticides can boost crop production but for others, particularly under intensive farming, pesticides are over-used, sometimes creating new pest problems or pest resistance. For example, in Indonesia where the Brown Panthopper became a serious pest of rice, pesticides were found to be ineffective because they also killed parasites and wolf spiders, natural enemies of the Brown Planthopper. Use of Integrated Pest Management, a combination of pest control techniques, reduced the use of pesticides while at the same time raising rice yields. More holistic methods of pest control, however, can be knowledge-intensive. In Vietnam, large-scale experiments and use of radio have shown farmers how to use pesticides more judiciously to increase their profits. [Read more…]

Can biotechnology transform African agriculture: an interview with Professor Calestous Juma

calestous_jumaAn interview with Calestous Juma, Professor of the Practice of International Development at Harvard Kennedy Business School, aired recently as part of CNN’s African Voices series.  In it he discussed the potential of biotechnology to transform African agriculture.

Juma, coming from a conservation background, explained how he first became interested in biotechnology while talking with fruit farmers on the slopes of Mount Elgon in Kenya. They told him that they were saving the seeds of fruit crops that no longer grew on the mountain due to drought and they wanted to know if scientists could help these seeds grow with less water, a task that couldn’t be achieved with conventional breeding.

In response, Juma authored a pioneering book, Gene Hunters, in 1989 that discussed the potential of biotechnology to resurrect crops and adapt traditional crops to new conditions. African agriculture, Juma explained, has stagnated because of pests, droughts, floods and declining soil nutrients, challenges growing in their significance. In the 1990s the designing and modifying of organisms to overcome these challenges grew as a new industry, one that could be highly transformative to African agriculture.

A key concern amongst many is that biotechnology is purely for large farmers but Juma disagrees stating that it is ‘scale neutral’. 80 to 90% of GM farming is small-scale as can be seen of GM cotton farmers of India and China. Another criticism of biotechnology is the cost to buy seeds. Juma agreed that GM seeds do cost more but that these costs must be balanced against savings made from reducing pesticide costs and greater income from bumper harvests. He also pointed out that many of the original patents owned by large corporations have now expired and this knowledge is in the public domain. Africa, as a latecomer, can harness this technology, while avoiding the mistakes of others. [Read more…]

Agricultural Innovation to Protect the Environment

ID-10032276 (2)Food security, poverty reduction, environmental protection: increasingly the links between these three global challenges are being recognised. And a recent special feature of PNAS, Agricultural Innovation to Protect the Environment, explored this topic.

As the introductory paper by Sayer and Cassman explains, agriculture is increasingly being required to consider its environmental impact along with ways it can increase natural capital. In part this is because an unhealthy environment can limit our ability to produce food but also because the intensification of food production we require to meet future food needs could have irreversible impacts on water resources, the climate and human health.

Innovation and innovativeness are needed if we are to tackle these interacting challenges. In the past the Green Revolution allowed food production to keep pace with population growth and is estimated to have saved 17.9 and 26.7 million hectares of land but it failed to address issues of sustainability and equitability, and the problems we face now are more complex.

New concepts such as eco-efficiency and green growth, and new methods for dealing with uncertainty are being adopted. New technologies such as mobile phones, biotechnology and methane recovery can be both effective and profitable. Advanced technologies in China, for example, could cut N fertilizer-related emissions by 20–63%, amounting to a reduction in China’s total Greenhouse Gas emissions by 2–6%. The challenge is to enhance the process of innovating and ensure existing innovations are accessible to and have impact for those who need them most. [Read more…]

What we’ve been reading this week

This week’s summary on the news stories, reports and blogs that have grabbed our attention. We welcome your thoughts and comments on these articles.

Can family farming make poverty history?, CNN

Calling All Global Citizens: Small Actions to Create Big Impact Against Global Poverty, Huffington Post

Solving malnutrition through business and science?, Progressive Development Forum

Realizing Africa’s Rice Promise, Wopereis, et al.

The genetically modified food debate: Where do we begin?, Grist

Sustainable Intensification in Agriculture: Premises and Policies, Science

Africa: The Fuss Over Intensified Farming, All Africa

Agricultural researchers must back local climate innovation, Thomson Reuters Foundation

As Biotech Seed Falters, Insecticide Use Surges In Corn Belt, The Salt

Biofuels: have we lost the plot?, The Guardian

China and Nigeria sign $1.1bn deal, BBC

Food Insecurity Threatens 1.2 Million in Uganda’s Northeast, All Africa

Africa-wide “Great Green Wall” to Halt Sahara’s Spread?, National Geographic

What we’ve been reading this week

This week’s summary on the news stories, reports and blogs that have grabbed our attention. We welcome your thoughts and comments on these articles.

New Report Urges a U.S. Global Food Security Focus on Science, Trade and Business, The Chicago Council on Global Affairs

Pesticides Make a Comeback, The Wall Street Journal

The biodiversity challenge in Europe, Thinking Country

Q+A: Committee on World Food Security chair urges use of forest foods in diets, Thomson Reuters Foundation

Ghana hosts 6th Africa Agriculture Science Week, Joy Online

Trees on farms: challenging conventional agricultural practice, The Guardian

Disasters displaced over 32 mln people in 2012, rising trend forecast, Thomson Reuters Foundation

Feature: Curbing hunger, Ghana must go biotech, Ghana Business News

G8 under pressure to rethink biofuel mandates, EurActiv.com