News in April 2012
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Global - General

How to create resilient agriculture
By Gordon Conway,, March 21, 2012

Durable food security and agricultural growth depend on development strategies with resilience built in from the start.

Economic growth with resilience to environmental threats will be central to the agenda of the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) in June this year, which aims to map out a pathway of sustainable development for the planet.

The ‘zero draft’, the document that will form the basis of conference negotiations, states a resolve to fight hunger, eradicate poverty and work towards just and economically stable societies.

Food security is critical to this mission. The threats are numerous: repeated food price spikes; shortages of good-quality land and water; rising energy and fertiliser prices; and the consequences of climate change.

Already, somewhere between 900 million and a billion people are chronically hungry, and by 2050 agriculture will have to cope with these threats while feeding a growing population with changing dietary demands. This will require doubling food production, especially if we are to build up reserves for climatic extremes.

To do this requires sustainable intensification — getting more from less — on a durable basis.

Combining traditional and technological

Farmers around the world will need to produce more food and other agricultural products on less land, with fewer pesticides and fertilisers, less water and lower outputs of greenhouse gases. This must be done on a large scale, more cheaply than current farming methods allow. And it will have to be sustainable — that is, it must last. For this to happen, the intensification will have to be resilient.

The latest report of the expert Montpellier Panel [1], which I chair, lays out a vision of agricultural growth for Sub-Saharan Africa that is resilient — able to withstand or recover from stresses and shocks. The report makes specific recommendations around resilient agriculture, resilient people and resilient markets.

Developing resilient agriculture will require technologies and practices that build on agro-ecological knowledge and enable smallholder farmers to counter environmental degradation and climate change in ways that maintain sustainable agricultural growth.

Examples include various forms of mixed cropping that enable more efficient use and cycling of soil nutrients, conservation farming, microdosing of fertilisers and herbicides, and integrated pest management.

These are proven technologies that draw on ecological principles. Some build on traditional practices, with numerous examples working on a small scale. In Zambia, conservation farming, a system of minimum or no-till agriculture with crop rotations, has reduced water requirements by up to 30 per cent and used new drought-tolerant hybrids to produce up to five tons of maize per hectare — five times the average yield for Sub-Saharan Africa. The imperative now is scaling up such systems to reach more farmers.

Another solution is to increase the use of modern plant and animal breeding methods, including biotechnology. These have been successful in providing resistance to various pests of maize, sorghum, cowpeas, groundnuts and cotton; to diseases of maize and bananas; and to livestock diseases.

These methods can help build resilience rapidly. We need to combine them with biotechnology-based improvements in yield through improved photosynthesis, nitrogen uptake, resistance to drought and other impacts of climate change.
Agro-ecology and modern breeding methods are not mutually exclusive. Building appropriate, improved crop varieties into ecological agricultural systems can boost both productivity and resilience.

Enabling environments

The Montpellier Panel report recommends that governments, the private sector and nongovernmental organisations work together to help develop resilient and sustainable intensification; combat land and water degradation; and build climate-smart agriculture, such as conservation farming.

These partnerships can also build the resilience of people by increasing the reach of successful nutrition interventions and building diverse livelihoods, especially by focusing on rural women and young people. The report particularly recommends taking part in the Scaling Up Nutrition (SUN) framework that aims to greatly reduce the number of stunted children, which stands at roughly 50 million in Sub-Saharan Africa.

The report also describes how to achieve resilient markets that enable farmers to increase production, take risks and generate income through innovation while ensuring food is available at an affordable price.

Creating grain stores and opening up trade across Africa can reduce food price volatility. The continent also needs more private investments and public–private partnerships that will encourage increased production.

Developing agriculture with resilience depends on science, technology and innovation; but there are no magic bullets. We need strong political leadership.

An excellent example is Ghana, where agricultural gross domestic product has risen by five per cent each year for the past decade and the millennium development goal of halving hunger by 2015 has already been achieved. This was largely due to the leadership of former president John Kufuor who gave agricultural development a high priority and created an enabling environment for the adoption of new technologies and other innovations.

This is a crucial year. The sequence of G8, G20 and Rio+20 summit meetings provides a ready platform for the international community to coordinate policies and intensify investments. I am optimistic that agricultural development and food security will be priorities, and an agenda based on agricultural growth with resilience will be a key outcome.

Gordon Conway is professor of international development at the Agriculture for Impact programme at Imperial College London, United Kingdom. He is former president of The Rockefeller Foundation, United States, and the UK Royal Geographical Society.

Books & Articles

The Next Phase of Life-Sciences Spaceflight Research: Harnessing the Power of Functional Genomics

This article discusses potential applications of RNAi and GFP in spaceflight studies and the ramifications of these experiments for the future of space life-sciences research.


European Algae Biomass 2012
25 - 26 April 2012, London, UK
You can listen in on informative and insightful presentations by the leading figures in the algae industry and maximise your contacts and build strong relationships to open up new and exciting business ventures
World Gene Therapy Congress 2012
21 - 23 May 2012, London, UK
The senior director-level conference that tackles all the key scientific and technical issues facing the gene therapy industry and where decision-makers from the complete Gene Therapy value chain meet to learn and plan for the future.
The EMBO Meeting 2012
22 - 25 September 2012, Nice, France
1st World Genetics & Genomics Online Conference
17 - 19 May 2012, Online

The World Genetics & Genomics Online Conference will be held on May 17-19, 2011. It is totally free, without travel, and in real time. Do not need specialized equipment or software.

Nuclear energy and environment
Public discussion on June 17, Novotneho lavka, Prague.
2012 Global Farmer Roundtable - Online Nominations Open

Nominations to attend this year's Global Farmer Roundtable are open. The deadline is Friday, June 29. However, space is limited and is filling fast, so nominations should be submitted as soon as possible. Farmers from around the world invited to participate will be officially contacted after the deadline.

Europe - EU

Poland to ban MON810 maize
16.04.2012 - The Polish government is to ban Monsanto's MON810 maize making it the seventh in the club of EU countries to stop cultivation of the GM crop.

Warsaw – The move follows protests in Warsaw last month by around 1,500 beekeepers and anti-GM protesters who dumped thousands of dead bees on the steps of the Ministry of Agriculture. Agriculture Minister Marek Sawicki has announced that the government would implement a ban on the cultivation of the genetically modified MON 810 maize. The minister claimed the pollen might be responsible for a host of health problems and may even be the cause of the dwindling bee population. The government now wants to pass a law that circumvents the need to obtain EU approval for a ban on any GMO crops. Revised Polish regulations would stipulate that the ban may be implemented and that it will suffice simply to notify the European Commission of the matter. “We are pleasantly surprised that the government is looking for a way of actually implementing the ban,” said Greenpeace spokesman Jacek Winiarski after having a discussion with governmental representatives. If Poland implements the ban, it will follow in the footsteps of Austria, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary and Luxembourg which have all banned the cultivation of MON 810 at different stages, saying it threatens biodiversity.

InfoDay on FP7 Environment Research - 7 June 2012, Albert Borschette Conference Centre, Rue Froissart 36, Brussels
Save the date: The European Commission (Research & Innovation DG - Directorate Environment) is organising an InfoDay on FP7 Envrionment Research. The event aims to highlight the novelties of the 2013 Work Programme due to be published in July. It will provide guidance on the preparation and submission of proposals.
Investing in European Success - Euro-Mediterranean Cooperation
in Research and Innovation

The European Union (EU) is supporting the historical changes taking place in the Southern Mediterranean region with a focused, innovative and ambitious response. The European Commission sees the Neighbourhood Countries of the European Union as a key priority, and in 2011 presented a new strategy for a changing Neighbourhood, together with the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy.

International Cooperation with Mediterranean Partner Countries in FP7

This publication has been prepared on the occasion of the "Euro-Mediterranean Conference for Research and Innovation: An agenda for a renewed partnership" organised by the European Commission, Directorate General for Research and Innovation, in Barcelona on 2 and 3 April 2012. It includes all the projects with participation of at least one partner from the Mediterranean Partner Countries1 (MPCs) which have been supported under the Seventh Framework Programme (FP7). The projects are organised in eleven thematic chapters which include collaborative research, networking, competence building, infrastructure and mobility projects. A short description and a list of all participating organisations and contact persons are provided for each project. As a result of the long-standing scientific collaboration between the European Union and the Mediterranean Partner Countries, 168 FP7 projects are presently in place with an EU contribution close to EUR 430 million. There are 373 MPC participants in these projects.

This publication should facilitate networking and increase the dissemination of information concerning research and innovation activities between the European Union and the Mediterranean Partner Countries.

Agriculture coalition calls for US-EU free trade
Western Farm Press, National Pork Producers Council, March 23, 2012

An ad hoc coalition of 40 food and agricultural organizations led by the National Pork Producers Council in a letter sent to the Obama administration and Congress expressed concern that a proposed free trade agreement between the United States and the European Union might fall short of long-established U.S. objectives for trade pacts.

“Some non-agricultural members of the business community have suggested that a U.S.-EU FTA negotiation should not be pursued as a ‘single undertaking’ with success in one area dependent on success in all the others,” said NPPC President R.C. Hunt, a pork producer from Wilson, N.C. “The agriculture community, however, believes that, rather than creating a high-standard 21st century trade agreement that is central to the administration’s trade policy efforts, approaches other than a single undertaking would assure the perpetuation of trade barriers to many U.S. products and sectors, including agriculture.”

“The EU’s free trade deals with other countries do not meet the high standards of U.S. trade agreements,” added Nicholas Giordano, NPPC’s vice president and counsel for international affairs, “and we doubt that the EU would ever agree to open its market to agricultural commodities unless it was obliged to do so as part of a comprehensive trade agreement.”

New field trials

B/ES/12/33 - Field trial of new maize events genetically modified to tolerate glyphosate.
B/ES/12/38 - Amplification of a transgenic corn line with biofortified endosperm with three vitamins.
B/DK/12/01 - Field trial og PAPhy07-Cisgenic barley with improved phytase activity.
B/SE/12/2015 - Arabidsopsis as model system

Final report for the following notifications (Plants) have been published



Blight-resistant potato
By Eoin Lettice, The Guardian ,March 23, 2012

A major new European Union study is set to examine the effects of growing genetically modified, blight-resistant potato plants on biodiversity and the environment in agricultural ecosystems. It will also see the first GM crops being grown in Ireland since the late 1990s.

In a statement issued last month, Teagasc (the Irish agricultural development agency) announced it is seeking a licence to carry out field trials of GM potatoes as part of the AMIGA consortium – a group including representatives of research bodies from 15 EU countries.

Late blight, caused by the fungus-like organism Phytophthora infestans, decimated the Irish potato crop in the 1840s, leading to the Great Famine. Since then, the disease has remained a problem for Irish farmers, who have had to use chemical fungicides to maintain potato yields. Genetic modification has the potential to protect the potato plant from late blight attack without the need for large amounts of fungicide.

The potato variety Desiree has been transformed with the Rpi-vnt1.1 gene, which confers resistance to P. infestans. The gene was taken from the wild potato species Solanum venturii and inserted into the cultivated potato.

While there are indications that public concern over GM crops has declined in the UK, the news that field experiments will be carried out in Ireland for the first time since the late 1990s has drawn some criticism here. In a statement released last week, the Irish Organic Farmers and Growers Association (IOFGA) – which certifies organic produce in Ireland – claimed the experiments would be a waste of taxpayers money. “In light of the fact that Teagasc has lodged an application with the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] for a licence to grow GM potatoes at its headquarters in Oakpark, IOFGA are demanding that Teagasc be held accountable for their decision to waste taxpayers money on this project.”

Grace Maher, IOFGA’s development officer, said growing GM in Ireland would be “economic suicide” and that the move would put at risk an export market worth €9.1bn (£7.6bn): “Ireland has an excellent reputation internationally as a clean green island that is also a GM-free region, and we need to build on this reputation not destroy it.”

The statement ends by accusing Teagasc of pedalling an “unwanted technology”: “In this austere economic climate we need to end wasteful public spending immediately and enforce accountability on those who continue to do so.”


Rebuild the African Breadbasket with the Power of Fertilizer and Promise of Biotechnology
Truth about Trade & Technology, Editorials, Guest Commentary — By Gilbert Arap Bor (Kapseret, Kenya) on April 12, 2012

The population of our continent continues to grow, but our ability to produce food remains stuck in the past. Experts say that global food production has to double by 2050 in order to meet demand–yet here in Africa, the average yield of grain crops hasn’t increased since the 1960s.

There’s no simple solution to Africa’s problems, and the root causes involve everything from political instability to unrelenting poverty. These challenges won’t vanish soon. Yet a few simple steps would make them appear less daunting: The nations of Africa should embrace agricultural biotechnology and also make sure farmers have ready access to fertilizer.

GM crops will guard against one of the most significant threats to farming in Africa: crop failure. Pest outbreaks can turn an excellent harvest into a rotten one, almost overnight. Biotechnology, however, offers seeds that will grow into healthy plants that naturally fight off insect predators. These tools also can help farmers survive severe weather, by making crops more resistant to heat, frost, and droughts.

The genetic modification of fruits and vegetables can prevent spoilage on the way to market. Success in this area could reduce wastage and expand trade opportunities. Farmers around the world rely on exports–and there’s no reason why Africa can’t improve its export opportunities through better science.

Biotechnology affords environmental benefits as well. Because GM crops boost yield, we’ll produce more food from less land. Farmers will preserve African wilderness, rather than turn forests and wetlands into acreage for crops.

We can even put damaged land back into circulation. Unsustainable irrigation practices have injected too much salinity into much of the African soil. Biotechnology holds the key to growing salt-resistant crops–advances won’t come soon, but they’ll be essential for my continent’s long-term food security.

Biotech crops also may contribute to bioremediation–the restoration of nutrients and soil structure. Throughout much of Africa, the soil has been severely depleted. Fertilizers that would begin to restore them are prohibitively expensive. It costs a farmer in sub-Saharan Africa about twice as much as a farmer in Europe to buy a bag of fertilizer.

Editorials, Trade Policy Analysis — By Ross Korves on April 26, 2012 9:19 am

Chinese grain companies have purchased over 4.0 million metric tons (MMT) of corn from the U.S. this marketing year (September 1, 2011 to August 31, 2012) and the U.S. corn industry is expecting more activity yet this year and for the 2012/13 year starting on September 1, 2012. This comes after a record large harvest in China in 2011 and record high internal prices close to $400 per metric ton (MT).

According to estimates by the Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS) of USDA, China is the world’s second largest producer and consumer of corn in 2011/12, with production of 191.8 MMT and consumption of 188.0 MMT. The U.S. is the largest producer and consumer at 313.9 MMT and 279.5 MMT, respectively. The EU-27 is the third largest in both categories with production of 64.5 MMT and consumption of 65.9 MMT. Brazil was a close fourth with production of 62.0 MMT and consumption of 52.0 MMT. The U.S. is the largest corn exporter this year at 43.5 MMT followed by Argentina and Ukraine each at 14.0 MMT and Brazil at 9.5 MMT.

China was an importer of corn in the mid-1990s taking 4.3 MMT in 1994/95 and 1.5 MMT in 1995/96. They returned for 0.3 MMT in 1997/98 and again in 1998/1999. They were expected to be major buyers in following years, particularly after joining the WTO in 2001. Rather than importing, China was a corn exporter topping out at 15.2 MMT in 2002/03. The last significant year of exports was 5.3 MMT in 2006/07. They did not buy significant amounts of corn again until 2009/10 when they purchased 1.3 MMT, followed by 1.0 MMT in 2010/11.

The biggest change in recent years has been in consumption. Since the last year of significant exports in 2006/07, yearly consumption according to FAS estimates has increased from 145.0 MMT to 188.0 MMT this year, a 29.7 percent increase in five years. Corn consumption increased to 153.0 MMT in 2008/09, 165.0 MMT in 2009/10 and 180.0 MMT in 2010/11. Corn for livestock and poultry feed increased from 104.0 MMT in 2006/07 to 131.0 MMT in 2011/12, a 26.0 percent increase. Non-feed uses grew by 39.0 percent.

Corn production in China has been increasing, but there are uncertainties about by how much. Area harvested was estimated at 33.4 million hectares for 2011, increasing recently about 1.0 million hectares per year. Yields had held constant for three years at an average of 5.4 MT per hectare before increasing to 5.7 MT last year and producing a crop of 191.8 MMT, up 26.5 percent from production of 151.6 MMT in 2006/07. As in most countries, there is considerable dispute about yield in China and high prices for corn are seen as an indicator that yields has been overstated for at least last year and maybe for several years.

News in Science

To squeeze more from an ancient resource - olives

The idea is to shock the olives with an electrical pulse before squeezing them.
The brief pulses of a strong electrical field enlarge the pores in the cellular membranes, simplifying the extraction of oil.

Arturo Portugal told us: “The electric pulses, generated by this machine, are directed to this electric box where they pass through the olive paste, pumped through the pipes.”

The result is more oil from the same amount of raw material. What is more, punching open the pores of the fruit with an electric pulse makes it simpler to get the best oil from unripe olives.

Scientists identify gene behind blood orange pigmentation

Researchers in China, Italy and the United Kingdom have discovered what gene is responsible for blood orange pigmentation, and how it is controlled. The results, presented in the journal The Plant Cell, could help improve the growth of health-promoting blood oranges and lead to novel solutions for patients suffering from cardiovascular disease, obesity and diabetes. The study was partially supported by two EU-funded projects: FLORA and ATHENA. FLORA ('Flavonoids and related phenolics for healthy living using orally recommended antioxidants') received EUR 3.3 million under the 'Food quality and safety' Thematic area of the EU's Sixth Framework Programme (FP6). ATHENA ('Anthocyanin and polyphenol bioactives for health enhancement through nutritional advancement') has received almost EUR 3 million under the 'Food, agriculture and fisheries, and biotechnology' Theme of the EU's Seventh Framework Programme (FP7).

Innovative pellets to benefit organic farmers

Researchers in Germany and Hungary have engineered novel pellets that are able to repel pests in a way that does not harm the environment and that could fertilise the plants. These pellets are made of cyanobacteria and fermentation residues from biogas facilities. The organic farming industry could stand to benefit from this innovative development since organic farmers stand to lose entire crops when pests, such as cabbage root flies, lay their eggs on freshly planted vegetables.

Study probes genetics and chimp populations

Scientists in Cameroon, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom and the United States have discovered that chimpanzee populations living in pretty close proximity are considerably more different genetically than are humans living on different continents. The study shows that genomics can play a key role in chimpanzee conservation. Presented in the journal PLoS Genetics, it was funded in part by the EUPRIM-NET ('European primate network: specialised infrastructures and procedures for biological and biomedical research') project, which clinched more than EUR 4.7 million under the Infrastructures Thematic area of the FP6.

Expecting baby? Eat salmon!

Pregnant women can eat two servings of fish-farmed salmon each week, as it is beneficial to them and their children, according to a new study from Spain. The fish should be enriched with omega-3 fatty acids. Presented in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, the study was funded in part by the SIPS ('Salmon in pregnancy study)'.

Researchers from the University of Granada in Spain observed that the consumption of salmon boosts omega-3 fatty acid levels in both the mother and child, and fuels their antioxidant defences. What triggers this increase in their fatty acid levels and defences? Selenium and retinol concentrations in salmon are responsible for the boost. They also found that salmon does not modify oxidative stress levels, inflammatory response or vascular homeostasis.

The researchers assessed subjects split into two groups: the 'salmon group' consumed 2 servings of 'treated' salmon from 20 weeks of gestation until term, and the control group maintained a regular diet.

The team provided the subjects with farmed fish, under a controlled diet that consisted of special ingredients like vegetable oils and food as algae and zooplankton. Thanks to this special diet, increased levels of omega-3 fatty acids along with high concentrations of antioxidant vitamins, such as vitamins A and E, and selenium, were found in the salmon. According to the researchers, the fish also contained very low contaminant levels.

The team also obtained blood and urine samples from both groups. All subjects completed a questionnaire of food habits at weeks 20 and 34 of gestation. The generated data would provide information about food intake during the previous 12 weeks. They took blood and urine samples again at week 38 of gestation, and at labour. The researchers also obtained cord blood samples once the babies were born.

Their findings show that omega-3 fatty acid concentrations improved when pregnant women ate two servings of salmon each week when they normally did not. They obtained similar results for the newborns. The end result is that two servings of salmon per week give mothers and babies the means to secure the minimum recommended omega-3 fatty acid intake.

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