Speaking up about the seed needs of Africa and exploring consumer perceptions of GMO labelling.

StatusAfrica

The Alliance for Commodity Trade in East and Southern Africa (ACTESA), a specialised agency of the Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA), says the region needs more than two million tonnes of various seed, with 70 per cent being maize, annually, to effectively produce good crops. Currently, the region is producing less than 500,000 tonnes annually, which has negatively affected the productivity of farmers.

John Mukuka, ACTESA seed development officer, said yields in COMESA countries are very low at about 1.5 tonnes per hectare compared with Asia, America and Europe, which are at more than five tonnes. When he led a delegation of farmers from East Africa on a visit to the Seed Control and Certification Institute in Chilanga, Mukuka said the difference in yields has affected food security in the region, which has a population of about 620 million people, and, of this, 130 million people face challenges of access to food, and are hungry.

‘The whole region produces less than half a million tonnes of various seeds, but COMESA needs over two million tonnes, which comprise rice, maize, wheat, groundnuts, beans and soya beans, among others, to be food secure’, he said. Mukuka also said the seed development department has embarked on a programme of translating farming brochures into local languages in all COMESA member states to allow farmers to have more information which distinguishes fake seed from genuine ones. He said if farmers are able to distinguish between fake and genuine seed, it will help boost the productivity of farmers. ACTESA’s objective is to integrate smallholder farmers into national, regional and international markets under COMESA.

– Source: ACTESA

StatusBangladesh

Teams of scientists are turning to the combined knowledge of the global scientific community to address an emerging threat to Asian agriculture. The target is the fearsome fungal disease wheat blast. The pathogen was spotted in Bangladesh in February this year—its first report in Asia. Wheat is the second major food source in Bangladesh, after rice. The blast disease has, so far, caused up to 90 per cent yield losses in more than 15,000 hectares. Scientists fear that the pathogen could spread further to other wheat growing areas in South Asia.

The UK and Bangladeshi teams are making raw genetic data for the wheat blast pathogen available on a new website—http://www.wheatblast.net—and inviting others to do the same. Sophien Kamoun, of the Sainsbury Laboratory in Norwich, England, who is leading the project, said a wide cultural change is needed for scientists to optimally address new threats to food security. ‘I have a beef with the way that research is typically done. We need a fundamentally new approach to sharing genetic data for emerging plant diseases’, he said. ‘We need to generate and make data public more rapidly, and seek input from a larger crowd because, collectively, we are better able to answer questions’.

Kamoun, with colleagues at the Genome Analysis Centre and John Innes Centre in Norwich, in addition to Tofazzal Islam’s team at Bangabndhu Sheikh Mujubur Rahman Agricultural University (BSMRAU) in Bangladesh, are hoping the wheat blast website, together with an accompanying Facebook page, will be a hub of information, collaboration and comment. They are basing the site on their successful Open Ash Dieback website, which brought scientists together in the fight against ash dieback disease.

The blast fungus normally infects rice and more than 50 types of grasses. Occasionally, a blast fungus strain would jump from one host to another, resulting in a new disease. Such a ‘host jump’ to wheat happened in Brazil in the 1980s. The wheat blast pathogen is now rife in South America, where it has infected up to 3 million hectares, causing serious crop losses. The teams of Kamoun and Islam hope the genetic data will help determine whether the Bangladeshi wheat-infecting strain has evolved independently from local grass-infecting fungi, or was somehow introduced into the country.

– Source: www.wheatblast.com

StatusUnited States

A revolutionary new agricultural robotics system has been installed on 1.5 acres of cultivated land at the University of Arizona’s Maricopa Agricultural Center, as part of the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E) Transportation Energy Resources from Renewable Agriculture (or TERRA) programme. The ARPA-E TERRA programme is facilitating the improvement of advanced biofuel crops, specifically energy sorghum. The scanalyzer to be demonstrated is the largest field crop analytics robot in the world, incorporating cameras and sensors that measure and record crop growth and development with unprecedented resolution. The U of A’s role is to generate and channel extremely large data sets that capture the dynamics of plant growth and response to ambient conditions in the low desert under their natural environment.

While consumers are aware of genetically modified crops and food, their knowledge is limited and often at odds with the facts, according to a newly published study by a University of Florida researcher. Last year, Brandon McFadden, an assistant professor of food and resource economics at the U of F’s Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences, published a study that showed scientific facts scarcely change consumers’ impressions of genetically modified food and other organisms. Consumer polls are often cited in policy debates about genetically modified food labelling. This is especially true when discussing whether food that is genetically modified should carry mandatory labels, McFadden said. In conducting their current study, McFadden and his colleague, Jayson Lusk, an agricultural economics professor at Oklahoma State University, wanted to know what data supported consumers’ beliefs about genetically modified food, and gain a better understanding of preferences for a mandatory label.

The survey was conducted to better understand what consumers know about biotechnology, breeding techniques and label preferences for GM foods. Researchers used an online survey of 1,004 participants with questions to measure consumers’ knowledge of genetically modified food and organisms. Some of those questions tried to determine objective knowledge of genetically modified organisms, while others aimed to find out consumers’ beliefs about genetically modified foods and crops. The results led McFadden to conclude consumers do not know as much about the facts of genetically modified food and crops as they think they do. Of those sampled, 84 per cent supported a mandatory label for food containing genetically modified ingredients. However, 80 per cent also supported a mandatory label for food containing DNA, which would result in labelling almost all food. ‘Our research indicates that the term “GM” may imply to consumers that genetic modification alters the genetic structure of an organism, while other breeding techniques do not’, McFadden said. As participants answered questions designed to measure their knowledge of scientific data on genetic modification, respondents seemed to change their statements about the safety of genetically modified foods, McFadden said.

– Source: University of Florida

StatusCanada

An almost entirely accidental discovery by University of Guelph researchers could transform food and biofuel production and increase carbon capture on farmland. By tweaking a plant’s genetic profile, the researchers doubled the plant’s growth and increased seed production by more than 400 per cent. The findings were published in the March 2016 issue of Plant Biotechnology Journal.

The team studied Arabidopsis, a small flowering plant often used in lab studies because of its ease of use and its similarity to some common farm crops. They found that inserting a particular corn enzyme caused the plant’s growth rate to skyrocket. ‘Even if the effects in a field-grown crop were less, such as only a tenth of what we’ve seen in the lab, that would still represent an increase in yield of 40 to 50 per cent, compared with the average one to two per cent a year that most breeding programs deliver’, said Michael Emes of the Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology.

He said the team’s finding could boost yields of important oilseed crops such as canola and soybean, as well as crops such as camelina, increasingly grown for biofuels. Larger plants would capture more atmospheric carbon dioxide without increasing the amount of farmland, said Emes. ‘Farmers and consumers would benefit significantly in terms of food production, green energy and the environment. The ramifications are enormous’.

The finding came almost by chance: studying the enzyme’s effect on starch, the researchers noticed their genetically engineered plants looked different and much larger in photos taken by lead author, Fushan Liu, a former post-doctoral U of G molecular and cellular biology researcher. ‘That’s when we realised that we were looking at something potentially much more important’, said Ian Tetlow, a U of G professor of molecular and cellular biology, and study co-author.

Although genetic engineering led to more flowers and pods containing seeds, it left the seed composition unchanged. ‘The seeds are where we would get the oil from, and consistent composition is important so that the function and use of the oil isn’t changed’, said Tetlow. The researchers plan to test canola and other crops. Field tests and analysis with industry and government will likely take several years. ‘This could have enormous implications for agriculture, carbon capture, food production, animal feedstocks and biodiesel’, said Emes. ‘These findings are without parallel, and we came to them almost by accident. The reason we started the work was to test some ideas in basic science. It just goes to show that you never know where that science will take you.’

– Source: University of Guelph

StatusJapan

A research team, led by Miyake Chikahiro, an associate professor, and Takagi Daisuke, a student, from the Kobe University Graduate School of Agricultural Science in Japan, have reproduced the reaction in which harmful reactive oxygen species are created during plant photosynthesis, and clarified a mechanism behind plant withering. This discovery could help to ensure stable food supplies by cultivating plants that can withstand environmental stresses such as global warming.

The majority of plants depend on photosynthesis as an essential energy source. However, when the light energy necessary for photosynthesis is absorbed in excess, harmful reactive oxygen species (ROS) are produced. In most cases, plants use enzymes to deal with these reactive oxygen species. If plants are exposed to environmental stresses such as lack of water or excess minerals, their ability to photosynthesise is reduced, the ROS removal mechanism cannot keep up with the ROS produced from excess light energy, and plants wither and die.

Researchers already knew that ROS are produced within chloroplasts in plant cells, but the exact location and the mechanism behind this were unclear. ‘By revealing the mechanism for the production of ROS and part of its regulatory mechanism, there are future possibilities for ensuring a stable food supply despite global warming’, said Miyake. ‘The next step is to reveal the regulatory mechanism for ROS on a molecular level’.

– Source: Kobe University

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