Rotting in cassava database hell

When one is seeking statistical information about a crop like, say, cassava, it is so rewarding to see a notice like this:

Statistics for cassava are extremely important for a variety of scientists, developers, economists, bankers, investors, policy makers and more.

Alas, like cassava itself, which starts to decompose almost as soon as it has been harvested, becoming unusable within 72 hours, the site that offers this validation appears to be suffering its own special form of post harvest physiological deterioration.

Go to the Cassava Statistics page of the grandiose Global Cassava Partnership for the 21st Century and you will discover that there is absolutely nothing of value there. Things that look like maybe, just perhaps, they could be links are not even broken links, although the site promises that they are:

For the convenience of the users we provide excel sheets and ppt presentations that have been organized in different ways (see above), to generate information that can be used readily.

Of course the actual statistics are from elsewhere, the FAO, no less. But FAOstat has been missing in action for as long as I can remember.

My point, though, is not just to hurl brickbats at the Global Cassava Partnership for the 21st Century,1 not even for raising false hopes in me. It is to make the larger point that whenever these time-limited projects end, the online presence that they are so keen to launch at the start, slowly rots away. Very seldom is any thought (or support) given to maintaining their value. Maybe that’s because they have no value, but in that case, why not just give them a decent burial and be done with it?

I believe they may well have value, as an historical record if nothing else, as a source of lessons to be learned, perhaps, from mistakes made.

Now, in the specific case of GCP21 I combed through the website and didn’t actually find anything worth putting on life support, but it doesn’t look as if that was ever any part of a strategic decision, and it could have been. The Generation Challenge Programme, a similar beast, thoughtfully preserved most of its achievements in a website that, as far as I can tell, still works very well.

Every time-based project should plan for its end; kill it, or preserve it, but please don’t just let it rot away.

  1. Which, last time I looked, was less than one-fifth finished. []

Not that kind of flesh

Oh, Twitter, you’re such a tease.

Knowing that I am currently working on orange-fleshed sweetpotatoes, Luigi kindly sent me a link to a tweet. This one:

Tweet about orange-fleshed sweetpotato

That red ellipse? I’m drawing your attention to Twitter’s warning that seeing the images might bring on an attack of the vapours in highly-attuned personalities.

Is it just the word “fleshed”? I had to know.

Tweet about orange-fleshed sweetpotato with images

I dunno. “Filth,” they say, “is in the mind of the beholder” and I have to say, I’m not seeing it.

Orange-flesh, though. Where else have I seen that? Maybe that’s what Twitter is trying to warn me against.

No matter. Congratulations to @CIPotato and @RTB_CGIAR.

Coffee to fight hidden hunger

Micronutrient deficiencies continue to take a toll on global health. Deficiencies of the minerals calcium, iron and zinc impact vital bodily functions including bone strength, oxygen transport and the immune system. At the same time coffee, which is not known for its content of important micronutrients, is “the most consumed food product worldwide”. How can it have taken so long to create fortified coffee?

Scientists in Brazil (where they have an awful lot of coffee) recently announced the results of fortifying ground, roasted coffee with calcium, iron and zinc. Ten trained coffee tasters evaluated a series of mineral salts and chose the two best-tasting salts for each mineral. Despite a slight metallic aftertaste for even the best salts, and a greenish colour for the iron-fortified coffee, the tasters found the fortified coffee acceptable.

Inductively Coupled Plasma Optical Emission Spectrometry revealed that each fortified brew, based on both Coffea arabica and C. canephora, contained greater amounts of the minerals than unfortified brews. Espresso consistently contained higher concentrations than drip coffee made with either a paper filter or a nylon filter.

The average Brazilian woman would obtain 7.4% of the USDA recommended daily intake of iron from fortified coffee. Men would get 16.7% of the RDI for iron. Equivalent figures for zinc are 4.6% of the RDI for women and 3.3% for men. Calcium is harder to assess, because “acute consumption of caffeine can increase the urinary excretion of this mineral and reduce bone formation”.

Having established that they can fortify coffee with important micronutrient minerals, the researchers now plan to investigate the use of nanoparticles, rather than soluble salts, and to examine “consumer acceptance, stability during storage, and microbiological safety”.

Not so plain vanilla

Speaking of vanilla, as I was elsewhere … A very odd story caught my eye.

Bronze Age people in Israel were the first known vanilla users

Obvious clickbait, right. I mean, vanilla came originally from Mexico, as any fule kno. The photo, of highly ordinary vanilla pods in a very modern plastic basket confirmed my suspicions. The caption:

Although long considered a product that originated in ancient Mexico, vanilla — which is extracted from beans such as these — was used by Middle Easterners around 3,600 years ago, a new study finds.

Well dodgy, but not exactly wrong. Not exactly.

My first thought was that maybe the archaeologists had fooled themselves. After all, pure vanillin is a byproduct of the degeneration of lignin. Maybe a bit of decomposing wood contaminated the juglets in which the stuff was found. But no. The truth is even more interesting, and hidden deep in Science News’ account.

For a start, the juglets also contained traces of olive oil. And while plain vanilla usually signifies the species Vanilla planifolia, there are, in fact more than 100 different species around the world. Vanessa Linares, the archaeologist who identified the compounds, refers to “the vanilla orchid” in an abstract of her research. In fact, she compared the compounds she found with those produced by other species of Vanilla, and suggests that it could have come from one of three different species.

After a close study of vanilla orchid plants, three different species were identified as possible sources for vanilla exploitation in antiquity: V. polylepsis [sic] Summerh (central east Africa), V. albidia Blume (India), and V. abundiflora J.J. Sm. (southeast Asia).

I think, under the circumstances, I might have written “a vanilla orchid”.

Anyway, parsimony suggests (to me) it was V. polylepis from east Africa which, although apparently showy and widespread, was not described formally until 1951. If it did travel from east Africa to the Levant, that is impressive enough. Even more so is that the people who traded it 4000 years ago knew how to undertake the painstaking fermentation that is the secret to the odour and flavour of natural vanilla. The pods barely smell, and certainly not of vanilla.

So yes, not quite what Science News was trying to sell, but pretty interesting all the same. And a project for some enterprising breeder in east Africa: Domesticate your local vanilla.

Duty Calls: Forgotten Root Vegetables Edition

It’s a sickness, I know, but when I read the Grauniad article Luigi just nibbled — Salsify: Waitrose brings back ‘forgotten’ Victorian vegetable — I knew I couldn’t rest or, indeed, eat lunch, until I’d set matters straight.

The article says:

The vegetable will be available at Waitrose in the black variety, grown in Cambridgeshire and Norfolk, as well as a small amount of white salsify, which is grown in the sandy soils of Ayrshire in Scotland.

A reasonable person might imagine that there are indeed two varieties of a single crop. An unreasonable one, me, would take to his keyboard in a huff, explaining that the vegetable occasionally known as black salsify, is also known as scorzonera, and is botanically Scorzonera hispanica, while salsify is Tragopogon porrifolius. Admittedly both are in the same family (Asteraceae) but they are not varieties of a single crop, unless that crop is forgotten Victorian root vegetables.

Adding insult to injury, the Guardian’s photograph of Tragopogon porrifolius is captioned “Scorzonera hispanica (salsify) roots with tendrils. Photograph: Dorling Kindersley/Getty Images/Dorling Kindersley”. Right common name, wrong Latin name.

I traced it back to the original. The page itself has vanished, but thanks to the Internet Archive a version has been captured, and though it lacks the image, it does state clearly that it is Tragopogon porrifolius.

Somewhere along the line, probably when Getty Images acquired it from Dorling Kindersley, things got messed up. Certainly Getty’s gallery of salsify images is a jumble of the two species, with Scorzonera predominant.

I’ll go and get my lunch now.