Fermenting the biofuel revolution

Part 2 of my musings on bioenergy is now available. This ramble looks at a novel form of breeding yeast, persuading it to make many more errors as it copies its DNA, and thus throw up lots of mutants for engineers to select among. The result is a yeast of unparalleled potency that would have been all but impossible to produce by tinkering with one gene at a time. And that leads into a consideration of some of the policy aspects of biofuels, such as what poor people will eat when the bioenergy industry is paying more than double today’s price for food in order to turn that food into fuel.

Greetings from Nairobi

We arrived in Nairobi a couple of days back and are still jet-lagged and trying to settle in. I’m writing this in a back alley cybercafe as it will take some time to get online in the apartment we are renting, I suspect. Anyway, in the Daily Nation this morning there was an article on the possible establishment of a potato genebank and breeding programme by the Kenya Agricultural Research Institute. It doesn’t seem to be online yet, but I will link to it as soon as it appears in cyberspace, as there’s a lot of interesting information on the history of potatoes in Kenya.

New vegetables for Africa

The World Vegetable Center has announced a grant of US$ 12 million from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to produce new varieties of vegetable adapted to Africa and to boost the production of vegetable seed in the region. The release points out that vegetables represent a good route to better health, through better nutrition, and better incomes. It says that “African vegetable production continues to rely on old or imported European varieties which are often unsuited to the disease and climatic stresses encountered in Africa. The project will deliver 150 new vegetable varieties in cooperation with African seed companies.” My questions:

  • Will these new vegetable varieties be of the same old vegetables?
  • Will any of the “Lost Vegetables of Africa” be involved?
  • Will they be diverse enough to at least slow the evolution of pests and diseases?
  • Will the poorest farmers be able to afford seeds from commercial companies?

Unnecessary biodiversity?

315623761_ab637a8f53_m.jpg I realise this is a somewhat heretical point of view, but I truly believe that some sorts of biological diversity just aren’t needed. So my heart fell when I read a press release from the University of Illinois that “one day soon a uniquely marbled pink poinsettia will be available to consumers who like decorating for the holidays with a flare for the unusual”. This is not just a gripe against breeding ornamentals. That would be silly. Ornamentals are important and provide lots of people with a living. It is more a gripe against breeding utterly pointless ornamentals. I mean, poinsettias are red. They don’t need to be white, or pink, or marbled. Harrumph.

Flickr photograph by tsuntsun3, used under a Creative Commons License. And kudos for labelling it flowers; the big red things are the bracts.

Legume to remove nitrogen

Soybean field I’m still trying to get my head round this one. USDA scientists are developing a soybean variety (which they stress is not genetically modified) bred to remove nitrogen from the land.

The variety does not develop nodules, the little bumps on the root that house nitrogen-fixing bacteria. Now those nitrogen-fixing bacteria are one of the best reasons to plant legumes, because they boost soil fertility. Why would you want a legume that did not? So that animal producers could use it to solve their waste problem. I expect it makes sense in the hyper-specialized world that the USDA serves but, as I said, I’m having a little trouble with the idea.

Photo of soybean field courtesy of USDA.