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Plant Science for Global Challenges

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An economist’s perspective on plant sciences: Under-appreciated, over-regulated and under-funded

David Zilberman

By David Zilberman, Professor and Robinson Chair, Agriculture and Resource Economics, UC Berkeley

When I started working on agronomical issues in the 1970s, the most exciting technologies were related to water, machinery, and harvesting. Plant genetics seemed to be quite a boring enterprise. But as I became familiar with the Green Revolution, I realized the importance of plant research, and that the golden rule in agriculture is to find the optimal mixture between biotic and abiotic technologies. As an economist working on technology, I started to realize that the past fifty years have drastically changed the way plant sciences are done, and the potential and value of their product.

The discovery of the innerworkings of a cell, combined with the power of computers and precision tools, has changed medicine, but it has perhaps the potential to make an even bigger impact on plant sciences and agriculture. I have been working on the economics and policy aspects of agricultural biotechnology (see also Journal of Economic Perspectives).  Despite the restrictions on genetically modified varieties, they increase yields and make food more affordable for the poor. They also reduce greenhouse gas emissions and actually improved human health (by reducing exposure to chemicals and aflatoxin). But biotechnologies have had limited impact because of regulations that limit their use mostly to feed and fiber crops, and the practical ban on use of GMOs in Europe and parts of Africa.

It’s clear that developing countries can be the major beneficiaries of these technologies. They can save billions of dollars and address severe health and malnourishment problems. Furthermore, applications of biotechnology on food crops can reduce food security problems and increase access to valuable fresh produce throughout the world. Modern biotechnology can provide tools to accelerate adaptation to climate change, and I am surprised that some of the organizations most aware of climate change don’t recognize the value of biotechnology to address it.

Modified crops such as Golden Rice could have major benefits for people in developing nations. Image credit: IRRI. Licensed under CC BY 2.0

 

Plant science research has already made major achievements using traditional and advanced tools to provide better varieties and improve the global food situation in a world with a fast growing population. There is a large body of literature documenting the rate of return of research, and much of the achievements have been the development of new varieties. The literature suggests that public research that provided much of the benefit has been underfunded, and its funding is declining. Thus, plant research hasn’t reached its potential.

Thus far, applied research in plant sciences at many universities concentrate on grasses, like corn and wheat, but underemphasize trees and algae. One explanation to the emphasis on grasses is the immediate economic benefits they seem to provide. With all the modern tools of biology, the big challenges and some of the most radical and relevant knowledge can come from the study of trees and algae within the context of forest and oceans. Studies of these specimens will enhance our understanding of living systems, is crucially important from a macro-ecological perspective, and from a practical perspective of finding new materials, new foods and efficient sources of energy.

Poplar is one of the most commonly used trees in plant science research. Image credit: Walter Siegmund. Licensed under: CC BY-SA 3.0.

 

I believe that society tends to underinvest in plant sciences, both because science is underfunded in general and because of the regulations of biotechnology that limit their use, as mentioned above. The contribution of plant scientists to address problems of climate change, deforestation, food security, and environmental quality are under-emphasized and under-recognized. This leads to less investment in this area, less contribution, and less student interest. But more investment in plant sciences may provide better understanding of their impact and how to regulate them, and provide more promising applications. So we are in a vicious cycle of over-regulation and under-funding that mostly hurt regions and populations that are vulnerable, and reduce our capabilities to deal with global changes.

To move forward, we need to have more enlightened regulations that will allow us to take advantage of this incredible science and big jolts in terms of support for research in plant sciences. Enlightened regulations would balance benefits and risks, reduce the cost of access to modern biotechnologies. They also would allow efficient and mutually beneficial transfer of knowledge and genetic materials across locations. Plant sciences is one discipline where the distribution of efforts across locations globally can be especially beneficial as we can learn about the performance of plant systems throughout the world. Therefore, investments in plant sciences should be distributed globally. For example, a major effort to raise funding for 100 Chairs of Plant Sciences around the world, especially in developing countries, will be a good start. It should be associated with support for student research, as well as forums the exchange of new ideas. And finally, new investments in arboretums and greenhouses.

Plant sciences have been providing humanity essential knowledge that enabled the growth and evolution of human civilization without much fanfare. New tools increase its potential and the excitement and value of research in these areas. Society needs to expand their support to plant sciences to enable it to flourish around the world, as well as enlightened regulation to gain benefits from the fruits of this research.

 

Reflections from the “Feed the Future” conference in Burkina Faso

By Atsuko Kanazawa, Igor Houwat, Cynthia Donovan

This article is reposted with permission from the Michigan State University team. You can find the original post here: MSU-DOE Plant Research Laboratory

By Atsuko Kanazawa

Atsuko Kanazawa is a plant scientist in the lab of David Kramer. Her main focus is on understanding the basics of photosynthesis, the process by which plants capture solar energy to generate our planet’s food supply.

This type of research has implications beyond academia, however, and the Kramer lab is using their knowledge, in addition to new technologies developed in their labs, to help farmers improve land management practices.

One component of the lab’s outreach efforts is its participation in the Legume Innovation Lab (LIL) at Michigan State University, a program which contributes to food security and economic growth in developing countries in Sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America.

Atsuko recently joined a contingent that attended a LIL conference in Burkina Faso to discuss legume management with scientists from West Africa, Central America, Haiti, and the US. The experience was an eye opener, to say the least.

To understand some of the challenges faced by farmers in Africa, take a look at this picture, Atsuko says.

Rows of corn crops in Burkina Faso

Corn crops in Burkina Faso. By Atsuko Kanazawa

“When we look at corn fields in the Midwest, the corn stalks grow uniformly and are usually about the same height,” Atsuko says. “As you can see in this photo from Burkina Faso, their growth is not even.”

“Soil scientists tell us that much farmland in Africa suffers from poor nutrient content. In fact, farmers sometimes rely on finding a spot of good growth where animals have happened to fertilize the soil.”

Even if local farmers understand their problems, they often find that the appropriate solutions are beyond their reach. For example, items like fertilizer and pesticides are very expensive to buy.

That is where USAID’s Feed the Future and LIL step in, bringing economists, educators, nutritionists, and scientists to work with local universities, institutions, and private organizations towards designing best practices that improve farming and nutrition.

Atsuko says, “LIL works with local populations to select the most suitable crops for local conditions, improve soil quality, and manage pests and diseases in financially and environmentally sustainable ways.”

Unearthing sources of protein

At the Burkina Faso conference, the Kramer lab reported how a team of US and Zambian researchers are mapping bean genes and identifying varieties that can sustainably grow in hot and drought conditions.

The team is relying on a new technology platform, called PhotosynQ, which has been designed and developed in the Kramer labs in Michigan.

A user testing a plant leaf with the MultispeQ

PhotosynQ in action: the device collects data. A mobile app  uploads it to an online platform for further analysis. By Harley J Seeley Photography

PhotosynQ includes a hand-held instrument that can measure plant, soil, water, and environmental parameters. The device is relatively inexpensive and easy to use, which solves accessibility issues for communities with weak purchasing power.

The heart of PhotosynQ, however, is its open-source online platform, where users upload collected data so that it can be collaboratively analyzed among a community of 2400+ researchers, educators, and farmers from over 18 countries. The idea is to solve local problems through global collaboration.

Atsuko notes that the Zambia project’s focus on beans is part of the larger context under which USAID and LIL are functioning.

“From what I was told by other scientists, protein availability in diets tends to be a problem in developing countries, and that particularly affects children’s development,” Atsuko says. “Beans are cheaper than meat, and they are a good source of protein. Introducing high quality beans aims to improve nutrition quality.”

Science alone is sometimes not enough

But, as LIL has found, good science and relationships don’t necessarily translate into new crops being embraced by local communities.

Farmers might be reluctant to try a new variety, because they don’t know how well it will perform or if it will cook well or taste good. They also worry that if a new crop is popular, they won’t have ready access to seed quantities that meet demand.

Sometimes, as Atsuko learned at the conference, the issue goes beyond farming or nutrition considerations. In one instance, local West African communities were reluctant to try out a bean variety suggested by LIL and its partners.

The issue was its color.

“One scientist reported that during a recent famine, West African countries imported cowpeas from their neighbors, and those beans had a similar color to the variety LIL was suggesting. So the reluctance was related to a memory from a bad time.”

This particular story does have a happy ending. LIL and the Burkina Faso governmental research agency, INERA, eventually suggested two varieties of cowpeas that were embraced by farmers. Their given names best translate as, “Hope,” and “Money,” perhaps as anticipation of the good life to come.

A gathering at a women's experimental farm.

Visiting the women-run farms. By Atsuko Kanazawa

 

Another fruitful, perhaps more direct, approach of working with local communities has been supporting women-run cowpea seed and grain farms. These ventures are partnerships between LIL, the national research institute, private institutions, and Burkina Faso’s state and local governments.

Atsuko and other conference attendees visited two of these farms in person. The Women’s Association Yiye in Lago is a particularly impressive success story. Operating since 2009, it now includes 360 associated producing and processing groups, involving 5642 women and 40 men.

“They have been very active,” Atsuko remarks. “You name it: soil management, bean quality management, pest and disease control, and overall economic management, all these have been implemented by this consortium in a methodical fashion.”

“One of the local farm managers told our visiting group that their crop is wonderful, with high yield and good nutrition quality. Children are growing well, and their families can send them to good schools.”

As the numbers indicate, women are the main force behind the success. The reason is that, usually, men don’t do the fieldwork on cowpeas. “But that local farm manager said that now the farm is very successful, men were going to have to work harder and pitch in!”

Back in Michigan, Atsuko is back to the lab bench to continue her photosynthesis research. She still thinks about her Burkina Faso trip, especially how her participation in LIL’s collaborative framework facilitates the work she and her colleagues pursue in West Africa and other parts of the continent.

“We are very lucky to have technologies and knowledge that can be adapted by working with local populations. We ask them to tell us what they need, because they know what the real problems are, and then we jointly try to come up with tailored solutions.”

“It is a successful model, and I feel we are very privileged to be a part of our collaborators’ lives.”

This article is reposted with permission from the Michigan State University team. You can find the original post here: MSU-DOE Plant Research Laboratory

The Regulator’s perspective: Why some gene-edited plants are not GM-regulated in Sweden

Staffan Eklof

Dr. Staffan Eklöf, Swedish Board of Agriculture

At July’s New Breeding Technologies workshop held in Gothenburg, Sweden, Dr. Staffan Eklöf, Swedish Board of Agriculture, gave us an insight into their analysis of European Union (EU) regulations, which led to their interpretation that some gene-edited plants are not regulated as genetically modified organisms. We speak to him here on the blog to share the story with you.

 

Could you begin with a brief explanation of your job, and the role of the Competent Authority for GM Plants / Swedish Board of Agriculture?

I am an administrative officer at the Swedish Board of Agriculture (SBA). The SBA is the Swedish Competent authority for most GM plants and ensures that EU regulations and national laws regarding these plants are followed. This includes issuing permits.

 

You reached a key decision on the regulation of some types of CRISPR-Cas9 gene-edited plants. Before we get to that, could you start by explaining what led your team to start working on this issue?

It started when we received questions from two universities about whether they needed to apply for permission to undertake field trials with some plant lines modified using CRISPR/Cas9. The underlying question was whether these plants are included in the gene technology directive or not. According to the Swedish service obligation for authorities, the SBA had to deliver an answer, and thus had to interpret the directive on this point.

 

Arabidopsis thaliana

Image credit: INRA, Jean Weber. Used under license: CC BY 2.0.

 

Could you give a brief overview of Sweden’s analysis of the current EU regulations that led to your interpretation that some CRISPR-Cas9 gene-edited plants are not covered by this legislation?

The following simplification describes our interpretation pretty well; if there is foreign DNA in the plants in question, they are regulated. If not, they are not regulated.

Our interpretation touches on issues such as what is a mutation and what is a hybrid nucleic acid. The first issue is currently under analysis in the European Court of Justice. Other ongoing initiatives in the EU may also change the interpretations we made in the future, as the directive is common for all member states in the EU.

 

CRISPR-Cas9 is a powerful tool that can result in plants with no trace of transgenic material, so it is impossible to tell whether a particular mutation is natural. How did this influence your interpretation?

We based our interpretation on the legal text. The fact that one cannot tell if a plant without foreign DNA is the progeny of a plant that carried foreign DNA or the result of natural mutation strengthened the position that foreign DNA in previous generations should not be an issue. It is the plant in question that should be the matter for analysis.

Arabidopsis thaliana

Image credit: Frost Museum. Used under license: CC BY 2.0.

Does your interpretation apply to all plants generated using CRISPR-Cas9, or a subset of them?

It applies to a subset of these gene-edited plants. CRISPR/Cas9 is a tool that can be used in many different ways. Plants carrying foreign DNA are still regulated, according to our interpretation.

 

What does your interpretation mean for researchers working on CRISPR-Cas9, or farmers who would like to grow gene-edited crops in Sweden?

It is important to note that, with this interpretation, we don’t remove the responsibility of Swedish users to assess whether or not their specific plants are included in the EU directive. We can only tell them how we interpret the directive and what we request from the users in Sweden. Eventually I think there will be EU-wide guidelines on this matter. I should add that our interpretation is also limited to the types of CRISPR-modified plants described in the letters from the two universities.

 

Crops

Will gene-edited crops be grown in Europe in the future? Image credit: Richard Beatson. Used under license: CC BY 2.0.

We are currently waiting for the EU to declare whether CRISPR-Cas9 gene-edited plants will be regulated in Europe. Have policymakers in other European countries been in contact with you regarding Sweden’s decision process?

Yes, there is a clear interest; for example, Finland handled a very similar case. Other European colleagues have also shown an interest.

 

What message would you like plant scientists to take away from this interview? If you could help them to better understand one aspect of policymaking, what would it be?

Our interpretation is just an interpretation and as such, it is limited and can change as a result of what happens; for example, what does not require permission today may do tomorrow. Bear this in mind when planning your research and if you are unsure, it is better to ask. Moreover, even if the SBA (or your country’s equivalent) can’t request any information about the cultivation of plants that are not regulated, it is good to keep us informed.

I think it is vital that legislation meets reality for any subject. It is therefore good that pioneers drive us to deal with difficult questions.

Climate change to push Ethiopian coffee farming uphill

This article was republished from SciDev.Net.

By Baraka Rateng’

Relocating coffee areas, along with forestation and forest conservation, to higher altitudes to cope with climate change could increase Ethiopia‘s coffee farming area fourfold, a study predicts.

The study, published in Nature last month (19 June), suggests that moving Ethiopian coffee fields to higher ground because of climate change could increase resilience by substantially increasing the country’s suitable production area.

Justin Moat, spatial analyst at the UK’s Royal Botanic Gardens Kew, and lead author of the study, says that currently coffee farming is mainly confined to altitudes between 1200 and 2200 metres.

“A critical factor in the suitability of coffee farming is the interaction between rainfall and temperature.”

Justin Moat

“In general, coffee’s niche will move uphill to keep to optimal temperature,“ he tells SciDev.Net. “Much work would be needed to achieve this if planning starts now.”

According to Moat, up to 60 per cent of the country‘s current production area could become unsuitable before the end of the century.

Ethiopia, he says, is the world’s 5th largest coffee producer. The crop provides a quarter of export earnings, and approximately 15 million Ethiopians engage in coffee farming and production.

The study‘s results were based on computer modelling and simulations. “We determined coffee-preferred climate (niche) using a huge amount of data collected on the ground, including historic observations, overlaid on climate maps,” explains Moat.

They projected this niche into the future using climate models and scenarios, which revealed that all the models were in general agreement. They then combined this with satellite imagery to come up with the present-day forest coffee area, and the area projected in the future.

Higher altitudes are forecast to become more suitable for coffee while lower altitudes are projected to become less suitable, according to the study.

“A critical factor in the suitability of coffee farming is the interaction between rainfall and temperature; higher temperatures could be tolerated if there was an increase in rainfall,” Moat notes.

He adds that regardless of interventions, one of the country‘s best known coffee-growing regions — Harar, in eastern Ethiopia — is likely to disappear before the end of the century.

Shem Wandiga, a professor of chemistry at the University of Nairobi’s Institute for Climate Change Adaptation, Kenya, says that although the study cannot predict with full certainty, it holds important messages for policymakers.

“Start planning to expand coffee growing areas to higher elevation, he suggests. “The expansion should be coupled with forestation of the areas.“

Copyright: Panos

Researchers and policymakers should also map out the human, social and ecological conditions that may allow such expansion, according to Wandiga. Also, farmers should slowly substitute coffee with other plants that may bring income.

William Ndegwa, Kitui County director at the Kenya Meteorological Department, says the model used in the research is a powerful tool for linking climate variables with biological parameters.

“This is a very interesting [study] with deep insights into the characteristics of the impacts of climate change on crop production,” he notes.

This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Sub-Saharan Africa-English desk.

 

This article was originally published on SciDev.Net. Read the original article.

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