Singular stories

We get used to reading about massive great projects involving loads of stakeholders with mountains of milestones. And we get jaded. But sometimes solutions are much smaller and with them comes a sense of uplift and possibilities. I got that when I found a post from a woman called Juliana, who is a Peace Corps volunteer in Mali. Her big push is for a millet grinding machine. Here’s why:

This machine grounds the millet the women spend so long to pound everyday. It can also ground peanuts into peanut butter and shea nuts to extract their oil. Mali is one of the leading producers of Shea butter so I’d like to help contribute to it’s production in my village.

If I get this machine it will allow the women much needed free time to do other things during the day. Plus one part of getting the machine is the ‘alphabetisation’ of the women. They need to learn how to read and write so that they can keep proper records for the machine. An NGO will take part in helping to provide the education for the women and the training for record keeping. It’s a good way of introducing literacy into a small village.

And she writes about trialling different kinds of millet in the village.

Bioversity International (my day job) has helped to introduce millet mini-mills in India, and the positive repercussions have been phenomenal. Not to blow my own horn too loudly, but you can hear about the mini-mill here, and there’s an accompanying article in New Agriculturalist.

So, Juliana, if you’re reading this, go for it, and let us know how you get on.

US$14 million for genome studies

plant1_f.jpgThe National Science Foundation in the US has announced grants totaling US$14 million for genome studies of “economically important plants”. Among the many projects will be one on red rice (seen left, photo courtesy of Washington University St Louis), a weedy variant that contaminates rice fields in the US. It reduces yields by up to 80% and researchers hope to discover whether it originated from cultivated rice or was imported, possibly accidentally, as a weed from Asia. A similar study will focus on weedy versions of radish. This could lead to a deeper understanding of just what makes some populations weedy and invasiveness, and hence to better control. One the other hand, maybe they should just develop a local market for red rice.

Other studies will look at genetic variation within cultivars of maize and pine trees and at the evolution of Brassicas, a highly diverse group. One can only hope that the information gathered will also help farmers and scientists to produce better adapted varieties for their own conditions, even if those conditions are far removed from the intensive agricultural fields of the US.

Borlaug Fellowships announced

Hurry on over to the USDA’s web site to see whether you qualify for one of the Norman E. Borlaug Fellowships, which “help developing countries strengthen sustainable agricultural practices by providing short-term scientific training and collaborative research opportunities to visiting researchers, policymakers and university faculty while they work with a mentor”. thn, let us know when you get one.

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?

Oil palms and diversity

It is an article of faith that intensive monocultures of genetically uniform plants are bad for biodiversity, wild and agricultural. So news that Malaysia is putting some money into a “Palm Oil Wildlife Conservation Fund to promote ideas and proposals to enhance biodiversity linked to palm oil production worldwide” is welcome. The fund will seek to promote sustainable practices and to make more use of the production of palm oil plantations, in addition to boosting biodiversity in and around plantations. There’s also talk of using palm oil to produce biofuels, a hot topic at the CGIAR Annual General Meeting.