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.
Kennedy Omenda is a freelance journalist who has written a very interesting article over at The African Executive. Africaâ€™s Agriculture Can Adapt to Climate Change suggests that forecast changes to rainfall patterns, temperature and the like could actually offer Africa a chance for development. Omenda refers to farmers changing their crops and methods and people changing their diets, and benefits that will arise from increased trade and other structural improvements.
It is not a â€œbadâ€ change after all, but a good opportunity for farmers to embrace new technologies and researchers to brainstorm on products that will suit the various climate patterns. Adequate infrastructure, access to markets and credit will enhance agricultural development and food security while building resilience to future climate change.
I am not absolutely persuaded, I have to admit. Maybe necessity will drive the changes needed, but, to take one example, while farmers in currently wet regions will need to grow crops that can grow with less water, what will farmers in currently dry regions, some of which are going to dryer, grow?
Fascinating aside: Africa “has about 1,150 world weather watch stations. That is one per 26,000 square kilometersâ€”or eight times lower than the minimum density recommended by the World Meteorological Organization”. Maybe climate change will boost investment in weather forecasting that will be directed to farmers rather than pilots and soldiers.
On balance, I think the article is a sort of pro-business-as-usual, but I’d love to hear contrary views.
The 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.
There are about 300,000 American bison left. How many of them are genetically pure? I don’t know about you, but I would have guessed many more than the 10,000 quoted in this article. The vast majority have some cattle genes, it turns out, due to past hybridization efforts by ranchers. The largest “un-contaminated” herd is in the Yellowstone National Park. Scientists are doing DNA studies across the range of the species to develop a management strategy. There are plans to reconstitute large tracts of the prairies, and pure bison are needed to roam them. But my question is: how many cattle herds have buffalo genes?
The work at UV Irvine summarized here on the genetic effects of climate change on different kinds of plants is interesting enough. But what particularly intrigued me was the reference to a Project Baseline, “a national effort to collect and preserve seeds from contemporary plant populations.” Unfortunately I was not able to find anything more about this on the internet. Anyway, sounds like they need something similar in Armenia.