Feeding Africa: Why Biotechnology Sceptics are Wrong to Dismiss GM

“Genetically-modified (GM) crops or any other breeding methods on their own cannot solve the challenges related to food quality, access to food, nutrition or stability of food systems. But their role cannot be dismissed for ideological reasons.”

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Technological Leapfrogging in Agriculture


“To harness the globally available technologies, African leaders will need to take into account the multisectoral dimension of African agriculture and pay particular attention to the urgency of investing in rural infrastructure, higher agricultural training and creation of regional markets.”

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Innovation Capabilities for Sustainable Development in Africa

A sustainable pathway for Africa in the twenty-first century is laid out in the setting of the development of innovation capabilities and the capture of latecomer advantages. Africa has missed out on these possibilities in the twentieth century while seeing the East Asian countries advance. There are now abundant examples and cases to draw on, in the new setting where industrial development has to have green tinges to be effective.

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Nanotechnology in agriculture: prospects and constraints.

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Nanotechnology in agriculture: prospects and constraints.

Nanotechnol Sci Appl. 2014;7:63-71

Authors: Mukhopadhyay SS


Attempts to apply nanotechnology in agriculture began with the growing realization that conventional farming technologies would neither be able to increase productivity any further nor restore ecosystems damaged by existing technologies back to their pristine state; in particular because the long-term effects of farming with “miracle seeds”, in conjunction with irrigation, fertilizers, and pesticides, have been questioned both at the scientific and policy levels, and must be gradually phased out. Nanotechnology in agriculture has gained momentum in the last decade with an abundance of public funding, but the pace of development is modest, even though many disciplines come under the umbrella of agriculture. This could be attributed to: a unique nature of farm production, which functions as an open system whereby energy and matter are exchanged freely; the scale of demand of input materials always being gigantic in contrast with industrial nanoproducts; an absence of control over the input nanomaterials in contrast with industrial nanoproducts (eg, the cell phone) and because their fate has to be conceived on the geosphere (pedosphere)-biosphere-hydrosphere-atmosphere continuum; the time lag of emerging technologies reaching the farmers’ field, especially given that many emerging economies are unwilling to spend on innovation; and the lack of foresight resulting from agricultural education not having attracted a sufficient number of brilliant minds the world over, while personnel from kindred disciplines might lack an understanding of agricultural production systems. If these issues are taken care of, nanotechnologic intervention in farming has bright prospects for improving the efficiency of nutrient use through nanoformulations of fertilizers, breaking yield barriers through bionanotechnology, surveillance and control of pests and diseases, understanding mechanisms of host-parasite interactions at the molecular level, development of new-generation pesticides and their carriers, preservation and packaging of food and food additives, strengthening of natural fibers, removal of contaminants from soil and water, improving the shelf-life of vegetables and flowers, clay-based nanoresources for precision water management, reclamation of salt-affected soils, and stabilization of erosion-prone surfaces, to name a few.

PMID: 25187699 [PubMed]

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Coffee genome sheds light on the evolution of caffeine

Enzymes that help produce caffeine evolved independently in coffee, tea and chocolate, say scientists who have newly sequenced the coffee plant genome

BUFFALO, N.Y. — The newly sequenced genome of the coffee plant reveals secrets about the evolution of man’s best chemical friend: caffeine.

The scientists who completed the project say the sequences and positions of genes in the coffee plant show that they evolved independently from genes with similar functions in tea and chocolate, which also make caffeine.

In other words, coffee did not inherit caffeine-linked genes from a common ancestor, but instead developed the genes on its own.

The findings will appear on Sept. 5 in the journal Science. Read more

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Rising risk of failed seasons as climate change puts pressure on Africa’s farmers

With countries pushing agriculture to center stage, comprehensive report seeks ‘climate-smart’ approaches for vulnerable small-scale farms that produce most of Africa’s food

ADDIS ABABA, Ethiopia (2 September 2014)—Small-scale family farmers across Africa— already struggling to adapt to rapidly rising temperatures and more erratic rains—risk being overwhelmed by the pace and severity of climate change, according to the 2014 African Agriculture Status Report (AASR).The analysis, prepared by the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA), with contributions from several African scholars, provides the most comprehensive review to date of how climate change will affect Africa’s smallholder farmers and highlights the most promising paths to producing more food, even in the midst of very challenging growing environments.

“Smallholder farmers are the mainstay of food production across sub-Saharan Africa,” said Ms. Jane Karuku, president of AGRA. “As climate change turns up the heat, the continent’s food security and its ability to generate economic growth that benefits poor Africans—most of whom are farmers—depends on our ability to adapt to more stressful conditions.” Read more

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Finger millet genomics project to provide researchers with better tools for variety production

Finger millet is a staple food for South Asia and East Africa where it has been grown widely for thousands of years. The importance of finger millet as one of the solutions to food security cannot be underestimated considering the many uses of the crop in a farmer’s household. It is a source of food for many households across eastern Africa and beyond, used in brewing traditional beer and the straw as animal fodder. Such versatility makes finger millet an ideal food security crop.

Benta Auma Ochola from Siaya County, Gem District, Sagam area is a farmer who has embraced modern finger millet farming practices as well as improved finger millet varieties. On her four-acre piece of land at Marenyu sub-location, Benta farms maize, sweet potatoes among other food crops and keeps animals.

In 2012, Prof Matthew Dida a researcher on the sorghum and finger millet project from Maseno University in Kenya introduced her to finger millet farming and she has not looked back. That year she harvested 67 gorogoros (two kilogram tin farmers use when measuring grain) equivalent to 134 kilograms, on a quarter of five-acre shamba (land). In 2013 she increased land under finger millet to half an acre buoyed by the good yields from the previous year and harvested 80 gorogoros.

This year she wants plans on increasing acreage under finger millet as her yields gets better and better. “By selling one gorogoro at Kshs. 150 (Kshs. 75 per kilo equivalent to $0.87), I am making more money from finger millet than I used to do from maize,” Benta beamed enthusiastically.

Prof Dida who has been implementing this project has been educating farmers about modern farming technologies whilst providing them with high yielding finger millet varieties.

Benta has been planting Maseno 60D and P224 improved varieties. These varieties are superior over the traditional varieties as they flower in 60 days and are ready to harvest in 80 days compared to other commercial varieties, which take up to 120 days.

“Maseno 60D passed the National Performance trials in 2012/2013 and is currently undergoing DUS testing by the Kenya Plant Health Inspectorate Services (KEPHIS) before being released officially as a finger millet variety,” Prof Dida explained. “We plan on disseminating these varieties to as many as 10,000 farmers in Kenya and across the region.”

Benta’s story is one that can be scaled out to a wider community with significant impact. However, it has taken the researchers many years to develop these varieties, a situation that needs to change if we are to bring these agricultural innovations quicker to the marketplace to address farmers’ productivity challenges. The conventional breeding methods although effective tend to take a long time because they are not very precise. Modern tools including genomics would augment and hasten varietal development process.

In March 2014, Bio-Innovate Program initiated a finger millet genome sequencing project to complement the work on the identifying, developing and delivering millet varieties to smallholder farmers in the eastern Africa region project that has been on-going for the past three years funded by the Program.

Sequencing a genome in layman’s language is “decoding” a genome to understand what each gene does. This will be the first ever of such work ever done on finger millet. Genome sequencing will give finger millet breeders a map that can be used to easily locate and identify genes responsible for progressive traits in finger millet varieties to assist the breeding process.

Bio-Innovate has partnered with the African Orphan Crop Consortium to initiative the sequencing of finger millet genome. This initiative is being coordinated by The International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid-Tropics (ICRISAT) regional team based in Nairobi in partnership with Biosciences eastern and central Africa (BecA) Hub, University of California, University of Georgia (UGA) and the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU).

The knowledge gained and molecular tools developed in this work will be transferred to breeders in the eastern Africa region to be routinely used in their breeding program. Finger millet has had low research investments and the genetic potential of this crop has not been fully exploited to address the productivity constraints affecting the smallholder farmers – especially drought and diseases, with productivity averaging 0.4 – 2 tons/ha against a potential of 5 – 6 tons/ha from research done in Kenya.

“The sequencing of the finger millet genome is important because it allows for the development of molecular tools to complement the conventional breeding currently used by the breeders.” Dr Allan Liavoga stated.

The combination of conventional and advanced technologies will lead to more efficient breeding process that deliver far superior varieties to the smallholder farmers in a comparatively shorter period of time. This is expected to significantly improve the productivity of finger millet and mitigate climate change, consequently enhance the competitiveness of this orphan crop – contributing to food security and improved livelihoods in East Africa with potential spillover effect in sub-Saharan Africa.

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