What does Africa need (or want?)

On the one hand, you’ve got your Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation pumping money into two international agricultural research centres to improve the yield of drought-stressed maize. On the other, you’ve got your ungrateful African civil society organisations declaring that these efforts and others like them “under-represent the real achievements in productivity through traditional methods, and will fail to address the real causes of hunger in Africa”. The truth, obviously, lies somewhere in-between. Is it too sappy to expect the Gates money to flow at least partly into researching traditional methods and agricultural biodiversity? Is it too sappy to expect the civil society organisations to curb their knee-jerk reaction against all modern science and economics?

Still, at least the Gates Foundations isn’t DuPont, telling the World Economic forum of the importance of private-public partnerships (code, I think, for government-subsidized research) to promote hybrid seeds.

Boosting the Indian rice crop

A report in The Hindu says that scientists in the Indian state of Kerala want to increase the production of rice. Nothing special there. But the report does single out the need for “efforts on a fast track to survey, identify, catalogue and conserve all traditional plant varieties of rice as part of the measures to increase productivity”. Of course it does not say exactly how that knowledge will be used to breed better rice. But another paper at the Kerala Science Congress “Biodiversity of rice in Kerala” said that many of the traditional rice varieties offered a pool of resistant genes against insect pests. And a team of Kerala Agriculture University scientists, in its paper on the “Scope of crop diversification,” called for rice-based integrated farming system.

Sachs in Kenya

Professor Jeffrey Sachs, director of the UN Millennium Project, is in Nairobi, and The Nation reported yesterday that he “said … giving farmers high yield seeds, fertiliser and mosquito nets to prevent malaria infection would accelerate the country’s economic growth.” He quoted the experience of the Millennium Villages: at Sauri in Siaya District, for example, cases of malaria have dropped by half since the distribution of free mosquito nets and last year the harvest was four times bigger than two years ago. I have no issue with the malaria interventions, but does anyone really still think that “high yield seeds” and fertilizer are the sole answer to agricultural development in Africa? Couldn’t Prof. Sachs have said something about the importance of diversity too?

A tale of two genes

From FoodNavigator, two stories about cool genes: one from an orange cauliflower that could be used to increase beta-carotene in other crops, and one from coffee that could make for a better-tasting cup. It’s always fun to hear about such genes. Now comes the hard part, I guess.

How breeders use genome information

Everything you’ve always wanted to know about the use of genomic information in plant breeding but were afraid to ask is covered in a feature article from the US Department of Agriculture. Well, not quite everything, but Improving Crop Plants Through Genomics does offer a quick run down on some of the techniques and some of the projects, including one on nutritional quality and others on marginal environments and pests and diseases.