The diversity of leafy vegetables is being explored in a European-funded project that aims to make better use of existing germplasm. The project, worth 1.2 million euros, covers lettuce, spinach, chicory and “minor leafy vegetables” such as rocket and lamb’s lettuce. Almost 40% of the budget will be spent on characterizing and regenerating the roughly 12,000 accessions of the target leafy vegetables in European genebanks. A further 28% will go to evaluating the diversity and how it might be used to improve production. On that score, it is interesting that three of the 14 project participants are what one might call Agricultural biodiversity advocates: Arche Noah, Pro Specie Rara and Henry Doubleday Research Association. So I’m wondering whether any of the diversity that emerges from these investigations of genebank accessions will actually be registered on the EU Catalogue and of interest to those organisations’ members.
Of course it is rude to poke fun at other people’s names, but who can resist when the European Union’s â‚¬2.11 million aid package for bananas in Belize is received by Said Musa, that country’s aptly named Prime Minister? The aid will help banana growers in Belize to develop integrated pest management strategies against nematode worms and will deliver tissue-culture plants and the capacity to grow them, making plantations healthier and less in need of sprays. Half the budget is earmarked for projects designed to boost rural incomes and improve community services. All in all, despite the focus on Musa, a package that should be good for biodiversity.
Here’s one that squeaked under the radar a while back. The US is investing US$1.8 million to continue sequencing the tomato and other related plants of the Solanacae family. According to a press release, the work will form part of the “comprehensive International Solanaceae Genomics Project (SOL) Genomics Network database. This will tie together maps and genomes of all plants in the Solanaceae family, also called nightshades, which includes the potato, eggplant, pepper and petunia and is closely related to coffee from the Rubiaceae family.” The data will be fully public.
Just to bring the tomato back down to earth, genius writer Harold McGee points to a scientific paper that could help growers produce tastier tomatoes with absolutely no genomic knowledge. Water them with a dilute salt solution. A solution of 0.1% sodium chloride results in tomatoes with “significantly higher levels of flavorful organic acids and sugars, and as much as a third more vitamin C and beta-carotene (the precursor to vitamin A) and the antioxidant red pigment lycopene,” McGee says. The tomatoes are smaller, but who cares?
According to this article in the Harare Herald, the Kellogg Foundation will be supporting research by University of Zimbabwe scientists into “wild and famine plant foods, their preparation and preservation (and) nutrient analysis … to enhance livelihood security.”
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.