Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Feeding the World - Agricultural Development BACK on the Agenda

Addressing the world's food problems should be the Obama administration's topmost aid priority, according to Catherine Bertini and Dan Glickman. Both are co-chairs of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs' Global Agricultural Development Project. Bertini was executive director of the World Food Program from 1992 to 2002, while Glickman was the U.S. agriculture secretary from 1995 to 2001.

This article puts agricultural aid firmly back on the high priority list in the US foreign policy agenda, previously dominated by defence - spending and military activity. They argue that in simple terms, people with full bellies do not want military activity nearby, and that the US could do a lot to redress the view of them that the rest of the world has, by forging a new agricultural revolution in the areas most desperate for agricultural productivity. Real agricultural productivity gains. Sadly, not a lot said about the agricultural trade issues though - maybe that might get back on the agenda too.

The media coverage has been extensive, but getting the full article is a bit tricky as Foreign Affairs magazine, where it appeared in the May / June 2009 edition, pp93-105, restricts access.

However, some excerpts have been published in various formats. It was a full article in The Australian Financial Review last Friday, July 17, 2009 and excerpts are available if you search around on line.

This link takes you to the extensive executive summary [23 pp] of the main report that formed the basis of the article in Foreign Affairs Magazine.

The activity in this area has big implications for the foreign aid operations of not only the USA but Australia too. Like them, 20 -25 years ago Australia and Australians were very active and prominent in agricultural research and development world wide, in major R and D organisations and in real, on the ground rural development activities. Much of that has been degraded.......but it might be about to get a new lease of life.

A strongly commended article to read for all those interested in real agricultural development. It links well with a previous post on using GM technology in rural development areas too. There is technology around, useful technology [ salt tolerance in cereals too] but it needs harnessing for those really needing a boost in food production.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Salt Tolerant GM Wheat - Paddock Trials in 2010

Researchers expect to have genetically modified salt tolerant cereal lines in the paddock for trials next year, in a big boost for the 70pc of Australian farmers affected by salinity.

A project into salt tolerance, conducted jointly by the University of Adelaide and the Australian Centre for Plant Functional Genomics (ACPFG) has had some promising results.

"I'm excited by what is happening – the preliminary results are looking good, we are confident we will be able to reduce the amount of salt that gets into the plant, which then limits the yield," project leader Professor Mark Tester said. He said there was huge application within the Australian grains industry for salt tolerant lines, with research out of the University of Adelaide showing that 70pc of the nation's grain belt was in some way affected by excess salinity. "We estimate that salinity could be costing up to $200 million annually, working on yield limitations of 10pc across 70pc of the cropping area."

This is a rapid update on the work reported here a few days ago, which really was a scientific report in a world leading journal. This now is real 'on the ground" progress.

While salt trolerance development is somewhat easier in speices such as rice and barley, and excellent progress is already occurring in these species, getting salt tolerance into wheat will be a major achievement.

Somehow I do not expect that the plants will be torn out of the ground. This type of development using GM technology can make a very big difference into crop yields - not by removing all of the 10% yield gap now existing, but maybe around half of that gap.

That will be a big payoff if true!!

media release here - http://www.adelaide.edu.au/lumen/issues/18921/news18944.html

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Biofuel from Algae - Exxon Invests Big

The oil giant Exxon Mobil, whose chief executive once mocked alternative energy by referring to ethanol as “moonshine,” is about to venture into biofuels.

On Tuesday, Exxon plans to announce an investment of $600 million in producing liquid transportation fuels from algae — organisms in water that range from pond scum to seaweed. The biofuel effort involves a partnership with Synthetic Genomics, a biotechnology company founded by the genomics pioneer J. Craig Venter.

The agreement could plug a major gap in the strategy of Exxon, the world’s largest and richest publicly traded oil company, which has been criticized by environmental groups for dismissing concerns about global warming in the past and its reluctance to develop renewable fuels.

This was reported today in the NY Times [July 14 2009]


While many organisations around the world are researching this topic, and making biodiesel or similar products on a small scale has already been done, scaling up to the size required, and having repeatability of algae production on a large scale are all a lot more difficult.

No one suggests this will happen tomorrow, but the fact that Exxon has invested, and at a considerable amount of $$, might seem to indicate that the algae to biodiesel pathway may be one of the favoured methods that could replace out of the ground oil especially for transport fuels.

Algae to biodiesel and then use would appear to offer a reasonably low carbon impact pathway, potentially less than fossil fuel burning.

We are looking at a 5-10 year timeline probably, unless someone else gazumps them..........and that could happen given the effort now going into algae to fuel research and development programs in both industry and academia.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Can GM Crops Feed the World?

This was the title of a recent documentary on SBS television in Australia. It covered the "adventures" of a young university agriculturally trained farmer, who was farming in a very traditional way in the UK, across several continents to examine for himself the issues around GM technology in modern agriculture.

Definitely worth watching or seeing on a DVD if you are interested.

From GM Roundup Ready soybeans in Argentina to the use or otherwise and its labelling of GM oils in food stuffs, in both Europe and North America to Uganda where GM technology was being used to develop black sigatoka resistant bananas.

GM technology is now quite common in plant genetics, of some use in animal production and likely to be more widely used. For example, GM technology has been used in cotton to reduce pesticide use in growing the crop, very successfully.

He really does not come up with a single answer..........but it does seem that big steps can be taken to enhance food security in many lesser developed areas through insect and disease resistance especially in the vegetatively propagated crops, with bananas a great example.

While not discussed on the tv program, Panama disease of bananas in the Asian region [which can be devastating] is also seen as a very suitable candidate for control via GM developed new banana varieties, and this issue is being researched already.

Maybe there is no single answer to the use of GM technology. But remember, similar heated debate also occurred about 70 - 80 years ago when hybrid corn and sorghum was developed. It was unnatural, the ruination of the world was imminent! But hybridisation of plants is now very much mainstream.

Will GM technology eventually go the same way??? To be well accepted as another tool in developing higher yielding and disease resistant crops and plants of all sorts.........it is even now being used on turfgrass.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Salt Tolerant Cereals Getting Closer

The efforts to develop salt tolerance in the world's major cereal crops has been one of the great needs in modern agriculture. Many areas of the world's farmlands are salt affected, and there are alos many millions of hectares that are naturally unusable because of salt issues. Mark Testor and his now quite large team in Adelaide have been carefully working through some of these processes for a few years now, and are now starting to capitalise on the work with a few positive announcements. Professor Testor is a very well renowned academic, and is impressive to meet or hear speak at conferences. Good luck to them as they push forward with the work. The following is a media release from the University.

And yes...........it uses GM approaches to achieve the results.

An international team of scientists has developed salt-tolerant plants using a new type of genetic modification (GM), bringing salt-tolerant cereal crops a step closer to reality.

The research team - based at the University of Adelaide's Waite Campus - has used a new GM technique to contain salt in parts of the plant where it does less damage.

Salinity affects agriculture worldwide, which means the results of this research could impact on world food production and security.

The work has been led by researchers from the Australian Centre for Plant Functional Genomics and the University of Adelaide's School of Agriculture, Food and Wine, in collaboration with scientists from the Department of Plant Sciences at the University of Cambridge, UK. The results of their work are published today in the top international plant science journal, The Plant Cell. "Salinity affects the growth of plants worldwide, particularly in irrigated land where one third of the world's food is produced. And it is a problem that is only going to get worse, as pressure to use less water increases and quality of water decreases," says the team's leader, Professor Mark Tester, from the School of Agriculture, Food and Wine at the University of Adelaide and the Australian Centre for Plant Functional Genomics (ACPFG).

"Helping plants to withstand this salty onslaught will have a significant impact on world food production."

Professor Tester says his team used the technique to keep salt - as sodium ions (Na+) - out of the leaves of a model plant species. The researchers modified genes specifically around the plant's water conducting pipes (xylem) so that salt is removed from the transpiration stream before it gets to the shoot. "This reduces the amount of toxic Na+ building up in the shoot and so increases the plant's tolerance to salinity," Professor Tester says. "In doing this, we've enhanced a process used naturally by plants to minimise the movement of Na+ to the shoot. We've used genetic modification to amplify the process, helping plants to do what they already do - but to do it much better."

The team is now in the process of transferring this technology to crops such as rice, wheat and barley. "Our results in rice already look very promising," Professor Tester says.