A pig-borne bacterial disease is continuing to cause alarm in China after the first outbreak occurred in Sichuan province in June. More than 200 people infected with the disease are thought to have contracted Streptococcus suis, a form of swine flu, after slaughtering, handling or eating infected meat. Almost 40 cases have proved fatal. Concern has been raised over fears that poor farmers have reportedly been ignoring orders to dispose of sick and infected animals, and slaughtering and selling of meat has continued. Despite central government assurances that the pig disease is under control in Sichuan province, the far south of the country (Shenzen and Hong Kong) is now on high alert after the first fatality was reported with a further three people having contracted the disease. It is feared that infected meat is being traded across the country. Streptoccocus suis is endemic in most pig-rearing countries, although human infections are rare. No human to-human infections have been found in Sichuan, but the death toll from the disease has been considered unusually high.
Foot and Mouth continues to spread in Far East Russia. Despite control measures, further suspected cases are being reported in districts close to the Chinese border. The foot-and-mouth strain has been confirmed as Asia-1, the same strain that was the cause of the 2001 epidemic in the UK. A vaccination program to control the spread of the disease is to be widened to include districts reporting new cases of the disease.
With the arrival of seasonal rains, Niger hopes that the forthcoming harvest may ease the on-going crisis. But, despite predictions of good harvests, NGOs are warning that yields will be insufficient to meet farmers' needs as many have been forced to mortgage crops against immediate food needs. Pastoralists continue to be severely affected as many animals have died through lack of fodder or have been sold to buy food. The onset of rains is also raising concerns over increased fatalities as a result of diarrhoea, respiratory diseases and malaria, which will continue to disproportionately affect the poorest and those already weakened by famine. It is estimated that a third of the population of 11 million people in Niger have been suffering from severe food shortages. Aid agencies are appealing for donors to continue their support and to commit to long-term rehabilitation to assist Niger in mitigating the impact of natural disasters like the drought and locust invasions that severely affected subsistence farmers and nomadic herders across the Sahel in 2004. Mali, Mauritania and Burkina Faso have also been affected.
Seven years of international collaboration have resulted in the recent publication in Nature of the DNA sequence of rice. The research conducted by the International Rice Genome Sequencing Project, that has led to deciphering the genetic code for rice (for both japonica and indica subspecies of Oryza sativa), has implications not only for further rice research but also for other important grains, including maize, wheat, barley, rye and sorghum. The researchers, from over thirty institutions in ten countries, compared rice to the only other plant to be currently sequenced Arabidopsis thaliana (see News 01-1) and discovered that while 90% of thale cress proteins also occur in rice, only 71% of rice proteins occur in thale cress. These results suggest that rice may have genes particular to rice itself, or perhaps other cereals. As the first food crop to be sequenced, the research paves the way to breeding and biotechnological advances to improve rice yields and combat attack from pests and disease. Rice's similarity to barley has already helped researchers identify genes responsible for resistance to barley powdery mildew and stem rust, two major crop diseases.
Large-scale trials of the biopesticide Green Muscle® against the
desert locust in Algeria have recently been announced as a success by
FAO. A total of 1400 hectares infested with young locust hoppers were
sprayed with the fungal suspension. Within four days, effects of the biological
fungicide were evident in the weakening of the insects making them more
susceptible to predators. This is the first time that Green Muscle®
has been applied on anything larger than small field plots. Although further
trials are required under less favourable conditions, researchers are
confident that this biological control is a realistic alternative to conventional
pesticides. Scientists at the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture
(IITA) and CAB International, who developed Green Muscle® over ten
years ago, were optimistic that this environmentally-friendly product
could prevent the next local invasion. But their hopes have not been realised
as commercial production has not yet been achieved in West Africa. A South
African company is currently producing the product on a limited scale
but costs remain high. In contrast, Christiaan Kooyman an IPM expert at
IITA points out that Australia now has a similar biopesticide in operational
use. Production was supported by Australia's Plague Locust Commission,
which agreed to purchase the product, guaranteeing a market for the manufacturer.
In the 2004-5 locust outbreak, chemical pesticides were used to treat
12.8 million hectares across northwest Africa.
An Indian fish scientist, Modadugu V. Gupta, has been awarded the 2005 World Food Prize for over 30 years of dedicated research to "providing enhanced nutrition to millions of the poor around the globe". Recently retired from the WorldFish Centre, Dr Gupta's work has included the development of unique low-cost methods of environmentally sustainable fish farming. As a result of this work, landless farmers across Asia, particularly poor women, have been able to convert abandoned pools, roadside ditches, seasonally flooded fields and other bodies of water into productive units generating both food and income. As a result, fish production has risen by up to three to five times in many countries, including Bangladesh and Laos. Similar initiatives have now been implemented in Africa.
A four-day summit on the future of fisheries in Africa has ended with the adoption of a plan to boost the fishing and aquaculture industries. The Abuja Declaration on Sustainable Fisheries and Aquaculture endorses an Action Plan drafted by more than 100 experts from across the continent, which calls for increased production, environmental protection and trade liberalisation. Fish provides nearly a quarter of the protein in Africa's diet but only 2% is provided by aquaculture. A report launched by the WorldFish Centre on the eve of the Summit, concluded that production could be scaled up considerably, but would need to increase by 267% by the year 2020 in order to meet the projected shortfall in production from natural fisheries. For further information see www.fishforall.org
Scientists from India's Central Institute for Cotton Research have found
significant variations of toxicity in eight Bt cotton hybrids currently
being marketed in India, lending support to the claims by some farmers
that the GM varieties offer poor control over their target pest, cotton
bollworm (Helicoverpa armigera) - (see In Print: Bt
cotton in Andhra Pradesh). As well as noting that some of the
varieties produced up to seven times more toxin than others, the research
team found that levels of toxic gene expression in parts of the cotton
plant most susceptible to bollworm attack - the flowers and the green
boll rinds - were lower than in other parts of the plant. In addition,
levels of toxicity were observed to decrease over the lifetime of the
plant, falling below effective levels for control after 100 days post-planting.
Medium-to-long duration Bt cotton varieties, favoured by farmers in South
and Central India for their large bolls and better fibre quality, were
found to lose their toxicity most quickly, making late season use of other
pest control measures essential. While supporting the use of Bt cotton
as an environmentally friendly pest control method, the scientists urge
that tissue-specific promoters be used to enhance the expression of toxic
genes in the fruiting parts of cotton plants.
The creation of a nutritionally enhanced cassava is the aim of a multi-disciplinary project, which is to be led by the Ohio State University. The $7.5 million project "BioCassava Plus" will involve scientists from nine organizations, including African institutes, and will make use of modern biotechnology to enhance levels of zinc, iron, protein and vitamins A and E. Cyanide, which occurs naturally in cassava and can compromise the health of consumers if not processed correctly, will also be decreased and improved storage and resistance to geminivirus (cassava mosaic) will also be addressed.
Cassava, the most important food crop in Africa is the primary food source
for more than 250 million Africans - about 40 per cent of the population.
It also provides a substantial portion of the diet of nearly 700 million
people worldwide. But cassava products provide little protein and contribute
only low levels of important micronutrients. Once nutritionally enhanced
varieties have been developed, they will be grown and tested for production
and nutrient content under field conditions in Africa. If successful,
the breeding material will be released to national programmes. The five-year
cassava study is partially funded by a grant from The
Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation's "Grand Challenges in Global Health",
which supports the quest for innovative solutions to global nutrition
issues. This is just one of over forty research projects to be selected
Lessons learnt from an innovative approach to client-oriented agricultural
research in Uganda are now available, as the five-year project has been
completed. Implemented by the National Agricultural Research Organisation
(NARO), with assistance from the UK Department of International Development
(DFID), the project piloted competitive agricultural technology funds
managed by a multi-stakeholder local organising committee in Soroti, eastern
Uganda. The new Agriculture Bill in Uganda incorporates many of the ideas
and concepts promoted by COARD. Although COARD was only one influence
to the edicts set out in the Bill, it is hoped that the lessons learnt
from the project will help NARO as they move towards competitive funding
and increased client-orientated research. Further information is available
from NARO and COARD
websites, including the proceedings of a conference hosted by NARO and
organised with assistance from the COARD project on Integrated Agricultural
Research for International Development (IAR4D) held in September, 2004.
Themes covered in the proceedings include enhancing innovation process
and partnerships, technological options that respond to demands and market
opportunities, and enabling policies and linking producers to markets.
A new report launched at the World Water Week 2005 in Stockholm concludes that trees planted in arid or semi-arid areas may impact on dry season water flows and thereby aggravate the living conditions of marginalised people. The study summarises the results of five research projects for upper watershed management funded by the Forestry Research Programme of the UK Department for International Development (DFID) and reflects findings from Costa Rica, South Africa, Tanzania, Grenada and India.
study calls water managers and policymakers to plan tree planting schemes
that are in line with scientific evidence for the site, as the research
dispels several myths including popular thinking that trees increase rainfall,
prevent erosion and catch sediment and nutrients. Based on the latest
hydrological measurements, the findings contradict the premise on which
many tree-planting policies are based. Ten policy lessons are put forward
by the report including: limiting forest plantations, particularly fast-growing
conifers in dry countries suffering water shortages; providing farmers
with guidelines on good agricultural practice if upland areas are to be
cleared for cultivation; and urging improvements to rain-fed farming in
preference to further investments in rural smallscale irrigation schemes.
Researchers from the University of Zambia's schools of Engineering and Agricultural Sciences have developed a lead-free fuel by blending petrol with ethanol extracted from sorghum. With leaded petrol due to be phased out in Zambia later this year, large-scale production of a blended fuel based on locally grown sorghum would be good news both for Zambia's farmers and fuel users. The researchers have found sorghum to be a cheaper source of ethanol than alternatives such as sugarcane, and the blend, which contains 10% ethanol, would be less costly than leaded petrol. Currently sorghum is not widely grown in Zambia, but could become a useful source of additional income for thousands of farmers if it were to be adopted for fuel blending on a large scale. The researchers estimate that up to 2000 litres of ethanol could be extracted from a hectare of sorghum. They stress, however, that investment will be needed to make the new fuel a reality, in particular the establishment of a large-scale blending plant.
A survey conducted in Cameroon over a ten-year period by UK botanical scientists has uncovered over 200 plants previously unknown to science. The survey, conducted by scientists from the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, the National Herbarium of Cameroon and assisted by many Earthwatch volunteers in the Kupe-Bokossi area, has unearthed unique plant diversity, and their findings suggest that this unique area is now the primary centre for documented plant diversity in Africa. Unknown and unnamed relatives of the fig and a newly discovered shrimp plant, Justicia leucoxiphus are included in the collection, which will be shortly arriving in the UK from Yaounde. The new discoveries will be added to the Royal Botanic Gardens' comprehensive database of information on plants in the area, and will play an integral part in the training of young Cameroonian botanists to do their own surveys and conservation assessments.
The Kupe-Bokossi region of Cameroon is an extremely diverse environment including two extinct volcanoes, miles of open grassland and some of Africa's wettest forests. But the rare discoveries are under threat due to encroaching urbanisation in southern and eastern areas of Kupe-Bokossi. This is not the only threat, stresses Ben Pollard, Project Co-ordinator at Kew: there have been reports of illegal logging, and the presence of large banana and rubber plantations raises concerns over possible erosion and pollution, which could impact on the forest. However, large tracts remain unexplored and the Kew team intends to continue its research for further undiscovered species.
A short feature on ecological management of rats has been judged as the most entertaining, interesting and informative article by a team of young students from Rochester Grammar School in Kent, UK. Included as part of a publication Did you know...?, the article highlights the impact of recent research conducted in Bangladesh and South Africa by Steve Belmain and fellow scientists from the UK Natural Resources Institute (NRI). As a result of the research, farmers and village communities in Bangladesh are changing methods of storing livestock fodder to reduce rat numbers. And communities in South Africa have stopped using dangerous and illegal poisons in preference to using improved traps that are manufactured locally (see also Rising above the rat trap). In total, seventeen articles are included in the publication highlighting crop, livestock and livelihoods research in Africa, Asia, the Caribbean and South America. The book also includes a CD featuring videos produced by local teams with limited resources. Further information and a pdf version of the book can be accessed on the NR International website.
1st September 2005