Health and agriculture

To follow the last post, here’s a photo-essay from the BBC on another useful insect, the “desert shrimp,” better known as the locust. Useful? Well, that may be overstating the case, but they are widely eaten in the Sahara, deep fried in vegetable oil. I have tried them. Not as bad as one might think.

Anyway, what I really wanted to alert you all to is that the latest Spore and New Agriculturalist are out. There are lots of interesting pieces, both brief and longer, but is it a coincidence that both issues focus on aspects of agriculture and health? Spore has a feature on “functional foods” here, things that provide disease prevention as well as nutrition. New Agriculturalist has number of articles on various different aspects of the topic here, plus other sources of information.

Silk-making in Kenya

The Sunday Nation has a feature article in its Lifestyle section on silk making in the semi-arid district of Mwingi in Kenya. Apparently, the silk worm used is a hybrid of the wild species found in the area and the domestic strain. People collect eggs in the bush and rear them in mosquito net cages. When it comes time to harvest the cocoons, some of the pupae are allowed to mature and fly back to the acacia bushes. The Commercial Insect Programme of the International Centre for Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE) has helped a local womens’ group establish the first silk processing factory in the region. According to the article, a different race of the wild silk moth is being evaluated in Pokot and other highland areas for the production of tussar or kosa silk. This is a much prized form of naturally coloured silk produced from cocoons from which the moth has emerged naturally in the wild. Fascinating business.

Traditional herbal medicine in Kenya

A draft policy addressing how to use and conserve herbal medicine was launched in Kenya last November to stimulate public debate before being taken to Parliament. A long article in the Saturday Nation today discusses the policy, and in particular the possibility of public hospitals dispensing traditional herbal medicines. Here’s a quote from the policy (reproduced in the article: I haven’t been able to find a copy of the policy on the internet) to give you the flavour: “A choice of modern diagnostic techniques and option of treatment by either traditional medicine or conventional medicine within the health care system will be encouraged.” According to the article, other issues discussed by the policy include “conservation, production and domestication, safety and efficacy, and commercialisation.” As an example, there are information and photographs on the cultivation and commercialization of native medicinal plants in Kenya here.

Bats to the rescue

The other Economist article I wanted to mention deals with bats and how useful they are to agriculture, as pollinators (e.g. Agave) and – the main point of the piece – as predators of agricultural pests. Work in Texas is actually trying to quantify the benefit that bats bring to famers of cotton and other crops as they munch their way through moth populations in their millions. Always good to be able to put $ values on biodiversity.

Opium poppies

There are a couple of interesting articles in this week’s print issue of The Economist, but they are both premium content on the web, so I’ve dug a bit deeper for you and will post on them separately. One article contrasts the global shortage of opiates for medical use with the efforts being made to stop Afghani farmers growing the opium poppy for the heroin trade. A crazy situation. One possible solution is licensing farmers to grow the crop under strict controls, but that is not without difficulties, especially in a place like Afghanistan. However, there is a possible scientific solution. It turns out that Tasmania, of all places, is an important opium poppy producer, and researchers at “Tasmanian Alkaloids recognised that there was a possibility of breeding a poppy variety in which the biosynthetic pathway stopped at thebaine instead of going on to produce morphine.” That would make it ok for therapeutic opiate production but useless for the illicit drug trade. You can read all about it here. There’s a paper on poppy transformation here and one on poppy genetic diversity here.