Biomass and bio-energy

We alluded last week to a new paper showing that prairie grasses are a far better source of biomass for energy than anything else currently around. There’s obviously a lot to be said, but rather than clutter up the pages here (our goal is two longer articles a month) I decided to use my own blog to publish a slightly closer look at bio-energy and to link from here to there. So what are you waiting for, go on over and read it. I’ll add links to the other parts as I publish them there.

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?

Biodiverse biofuels

Research at the University of Minnesota suggests that growing diverse mixtures of perennials on relatively poor land in a way that mimics natural grasslands is – surprise! – a better way of producing biofuels than intensive monocultures of maize or soybeans. This will run and run. I bet tinkering with the species composition and perhaps breeding some of the component species will be next, and lead to significant improvements in the system. While we wait for that though, here’s what Grist calls a two-week crash course on biofuels.

India protects breeders’ and farmers’ rights

The first registrations are under way in India under the 2001 Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers Rights Act. The Act is India’s sui generis system for the protection of plant varieties as required under the Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights Agreement (TRIPs). As the name implies, however, the law also provides for the granting of Farmers’ Rights, following a vocal campaign by NGOs. There’s a good summary of the provisions here.

The Garden of Eden revisited

The Iraqi wetlands made famous by Wilfred Thesiger as the home of the Marsh Arabs and devastated by Saddam Hussein are apparently making a comeback, thanks to a UNEP “project to restore the network of watercourses which provided inhabitants with water for drinking and farming, and supported the region’s unique ecology.” I’m intrigued by that reference to agriculture. What did (do?) the Marsh Arabs farm? Rice, wheat, barley and millet, as it turns out, although there is apparently another group which specializes in raising the buffalo. But do they still have their traditional crop varieties and livestock breeds? If not, will it be possible to recover at least some of them from genebanks around the world? I hope someone is looking into this.

Coincidentally, from half a world away, comes an example of a genebank helping to restore an indigenous community’s crop genetic resources.