UK Needs Increase In Agriculture Graduates To Tackle Global Food Security

Giving children the opportunity to learn more about insects at a young age may create the interest and enthusiasm required for a subsequent career in entomology. Photo taken at Penn State's Great Insect Fair, 2012 hosted by Penn State's College of Agricultural Sciences' Entomology Department © Penn State (CC-BY-NC 2.0)

Giving children the opportunity to learn more about insects at a young age may create the interest and enthusiasm required for a subsequent career in entomology. Photo taken at Penn State’s Great Insect Fair, 2012 hosted by Penn State’s College of Agricultural Sciences’ Entomology Department © Penn State (CC-BY-NC 2.0)

Increasing the production of food in an environmentally sustainable way is a major global issue. A report produced by the UK Cabinet Office in 2008 predicted that the global population will rise to 9 billion by 2050 from a current 6.8 billion. This increase in population will substantially increase demand for food, with food production needing to increase by 70% in the next 40 years whilst using the same agricultural footprint and without depleting natural resources. This challenge will require collaboration between universities, research institutes and industry in order to make the considerable advances in technology required to feed a growing population. There is now increasing concern that there are too few specialist graduates in the UK with the expert knowledge and skills required to tackle the issues surrounding global food security.

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New strategy required for delaying insect resistance to Bt crops

Kenyan farmer Mary Ngare in her maize field damaged by stem borers © CIMMYT (CC BY-NC-SA)

Kenyan farmer Mary Ngare in her maize field damaged by stem borers © CIMMYT (CC BY-NC-SA)

Transgenic Bt crops have been grown around the world since the 1990s and have contributed to increased yields by controlling agricultural pests. Due to the importance of this technology, there has been continuous study into the development of resistance to Bt crops and how best to avoid this happening. A recent investigation into the rapid spread of Bt resistance in South Africa has revealed one of the more surprising discoveries to date, that the maize stalk borer (Busseola fusca) has evolved Bt maize resistance inherited as a dominant trait for the first time. This has significant impacts on the management of Bt crops, as current methods for sustaining susceptibility rely on the recessive inheritance of Bt resistance.

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Monitoring and Management of Desert Locusts in Africa

An adult Desert Locust © AtelierMonpli via Wikimedia Commons (License CC-BY-SA-3.0)

An adult Desert Locust © AtelierMonpli via Wikimedia Commons (License CC-BY-SA-3.0)

The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has this month warned that Desert Locust (Schistocerca gregaria) swarms are invading cropping areas of northern Sudan. The swarms originated from winter breeding areas on the Red Sea coastal plains and subcoastal areas in northeast Sudan and southeast Egypt. The situation requires close monitoring as more swarms are expected to form in the coming weeks that could move into parts of  Sudan and southern Egypt. If no further rains fall and the vegetation dries out, some of these swarms could move into the interior of both countries and also cross the Red Sea to the coast of Saudi Arabia.

Locusts belong to the Acrididae family (in the order Orthoptera which includes grasshoppers and crickets) and when triggered by certain cues such as increased crowding with other locusts have the ability to change their morphology, behaviour and physiology over several generations. This phase change occurs from a solitary to a gregarious phase, eventually causing the locusts to form dense hopper bands and swarms. One of the most serious locust pests is the Desert Locust.

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Banana bacterial wilt leaves thousands hungry in Tanzania

Use a fork shaped stick to twist and break the male flower bud off of the banana plant. © CABI

Use a fork shaped stick to twist and break the male flower bud off of the banana plant. © CABI

According to IPP Media, over 8,000 people in 15 villages in Kagera region of Tanzania are in dire need of food relief following an outbreak of banana bacterial disease that has destroyed 90% of the banana crop. Bananas are the staple food for people in the region. Adam Malima, Deputy Minister for Agriculture, Food and Cooperatives, told the National Assembly earlier this week that the government has allocated 300 tonnes of maize to be distributed to people in the area.

Banana bacterial wilt (or “banana slim”) is easily spread through pollinating insects, tools and planting material. Disease management is notoriously difficult, often involving cultural methods that can be impractical for smallholders. One easy method of prevention involves breaking off the male flower bud using a fork-shaped stick.

The male flower bud is often where the bacteria enters the plant. Pollinating insects collect nectar from the bud and carry nectar from plant to plant, transferring the bacteria at the same time. Removing the male bud soon after formation of the last cluster stops insects from spreading the disease. A forked stick can be used to twist and break the bud. This is better than cutting the bud off with a knife which might spread the bacteria.

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Slicing Into The Bread Wheat Genome

Bread wheat (Triticum aestivum) is a globally important crop that accounts for 20% of the calories consumed by the world’s human population. Major work is underway to increase wheat production by expanding knowledge of the wheat genome and analysing key traits, however due to the large size and great complexity of the bread wheat genome progress has been slow. Now scientists from a number of organisations including the Centre for Genome Research at the University of Liverpool, the University of Bristol, University of California and the US Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research service have been working to sequence the genome and identify several classes of genes involved in crop productivity. The analysis provides a resource for improving this major crop by identifying variation in useful traits such as yield and nutrient content, thereby contributing to sustainable increases in wheat production.

Wheat (Triticum aestivum), one of the world's most important food crops © David Monniaux via Wikimedia Commons (License CC-BY-SA 3.0)

Wheat (Triticum aestivum), one of the world’s most important food crops © David Monniaux via Wikimedia Commons (License CC-BY-SA 3.0)

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Bean and Gone – Controlling the Coffee Berry Borer Using Integrated Pest Management

Coffee is one of our most popular drinks, but coffee production worldwide is threatened by the Coffee Berry Borer, a tiny beetle which affects the yield and quality of coffee beans © Frank Gruber, via Flickr (License CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The Coffee Berry Borer, Hypothenemus hampei, is a tiny beetle which is widely considered to be the most damaging pest of coffee plantations in the world. Originating in Africa, it is now found in almost all coffee growing areas in the world as an invasive species, with nearly 160 records from different areas worldwide on the Plantwise Distribution Map. Coffee is an extremely important commodity in many countries, including Brazil, Peru, Columbia, Vietnam, India and Indonesia. CABI is currently running a project led by Soetikno S. Sastroutomo in partnership with the Indonesian Coffee and Cacao Research Institute (ICCRI) and Papua New Guinea Coffee Industry Corporation Ltd (CIC) to address problems with the Coffee Berry Borer in Indonesia, where over 920,000 ha of coffee are infested, 95% of which are farmed by small holder farmers. Papua New Guinea is one of the last two remaining coffee nations without the pest, so the project also aims to prevent the establishment of the pest in Papua New Guinea and save the country’s extensive coffee growing areas. The CABI project is applying knowledge from Coffee Berry Borer management in African and Latin American countries to create a country-specific management program with an emphasis on Integrated Pest Management techniques and training for farmers in order to combat the Coffee Berry Borer. A recent paper published this year highlights the potential for Integrated Pest Management (IPM) programs in the management of Coffee Berry Borer, using a case study from a large coffee plantation in Colombia. Farm managers and harvest workers received training workshops on pest management strategies based on prior research and the recommendations of the National Coffee Research Center in Columbia in order to implement effective IPM strategies. Read more of this post

Weevils get bugged

Banana weevil, image from via rural

Never mind phone hacking scandals, it has recently been revealed that radio tags have been attached to banana weevils allowing their exact movements to be followed. Ignoring any controversy over invasions of privacy, this new insight into weevil journeys’ has produced some interesting results for researchers and banana growers alike.

Earlier this year a ‘weevil detector’ that could test for the presence of red palm weevils inside the trunks of palm trees allowed pesticides to be targeted more effectively. But stalking weevils has now reached a new level, as they get tracked on their daily commutes around banana plantations.

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Improved understanding of Striga resistance in rice

Striga infected field. USDA APHIS PPQ Archive, Bugwood.org

A group of scientists from the Netherlands, UK and Africa have studied upland NERICA rice cultivars to identify those that exhibit multi-level striga resistance. In two separate research papers, the 18 NEw RICe for Africa (NERICA) cultivars and their parents were screened for pre- and post- attachment striga resistance. One particular cultivar NERICA 1 was shown to possess high levels of both these types of resistances.

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Information Diffusion Key to Pest Management

A recent study has found that integrated pest management programs can experience significant lags in their implementation due to slow ‘information diffusion’ within farmer communities. Cooperation between farmers in developing countries was found to be key to ensure the successful coordinated implementation of such programs.

IPM tries to avoid dangerous pesticides. USAID Afghanistan

Integrated pest management (IPM) programs are biological approaches to dealing with invasive pests without using expensive and environmentally damaging pesticides. These can range from using pest traps, erecting insect barriers or introducing natural predators that prey only upon the pests and can fit into the ecosystem without any undesirable effects.

The study, published last week in PLoS Computational Biology, has found that these IPM programs are adversely affected by slow information diffusion within farming communities. In this case ‘information diffusion’ refers to the movement of knowledge from the scientists in charge of the project, to the individual farmers implementing this knowledge on their farms. The success of IPM programs depends on the fast information diffusion to farmers to allow a coordinated response to invasive pests. A coordinated response can eradicate an invasive pest, however a patchy response will leave small areas where the pest will still exist.

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Predicting the effects of global warming on insect pests

It has been estimated that presently pests cause 30-50% of yield losses to agricultural crops in developing countries and these rates are likely to increase with climate change. Although much attention has been given to the impacts of climate change on insect abundance and severity in temperate regions, little is known about potential impacts in tropical regions. Furthermore, recent studies suggest that climate change may favour pests over their natural predators, disrupting classical biocontrol of insect pests.

To address this gap, a new software, Insect Life Cycle Modelling (ILCYM),  was developed by The International Potato Center (CIP) to better estimate and to help mitigate the impacts of global warming on pest risk to food crops.

How is ILCYM used?

The “model builder” software supports the development of insect phenology models based on experimental temperature data of a specific insect, explained the model developers in a report, published in the CGIAR page. The module also provides tools to analyse an insect’s life-table and to validate existing models. The second module implements the CIP-developed temperature-driven phenology model in a GIS environment and allows for regional as well as global spatial simulation of insect activities (“pest risk mapping”). In its present version the software uses the phenology model of the potato tuber moth, Phthorimaea operculela, as an example, but can also be applied to other insect species.

The  effects of the 1997 El Niño event on Peru provided a preview of what global warming may bring.  Temperatures on the Peruvian coast were about 5°C higher than average and insect pest populations flourished, which prompted farmers to respond by applying high doses of pesticides every 2-3 days.

The ILCYM software is a new tool, which, it is hoped, will facilitate the development of insect phenology models and mapping of risk scenarios, highlighting places where training and adaptation efforts can be most effective.

CIP is coordinating further development of ILCYM and  its application to a wider range of insects in a new project. Collaborators include the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology, the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA), the University of Hohenheim, Germany, under the CGIAR System-wide Program on Integrated Pest management, and partners at national agricultural research institutes and universities in Africa.

Link to CIP webpage.

Link to CGIAR System-wide Program on Integrated Pest Management (SP-IPM) report page.

Link to CGIAR’s climate change page.

Link to datasheet on potato tuber moth in the Plantwise knowledge bank.

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