Category Archives: agriculture

A Botanical Treasure: Congo

Situated along the banks of the Congo River, the Yangambi Research Station was in its heyday a booming scientific hub, revered for its invaluable work in the Congo Basin throughout the midcentury.

It wasn’t to last. War, political instability and budget cuts were to hamper the center’s survival after Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) gained independence from its colonial ruler, Belgium, in 1960. The following decades would see skilled staff numbers dwindle, the jungle reclaim its buildings, and the center’s science work come to a stop.  But inside these crumbling walls lay a botanical treasure-trove. Yangambi’s herbarium holds Central Africa’s largest collection of dried plants. In fact, 15% of its 150,000 specimens are so rare, that they can only be found here….

Efforts from the Congolese Institute for Agronomy Research (INERA) could not keep the center running alone.   It was in 2017 that a ‘game changing’ opportunity arrived. INERA and the Meise Botanic Garden partnered with FORETS, a project coordinated by the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR)and financed by the European Union…Now, the herbarium has benefitted from a facelift – including a new roof, windows and doors, and a water cistern – soon its staff will be trained in modern preservation techniques and new technologies…Digitization of specimens will enable access to researchers around the world.

Excerpts from AHTZIRI GONZALEZ, Protecting Congo’s botanical treasures, CIFOR Press Release, Jan 11, 2019

Who to Blame for Climate Change? the Carbon Majors

 Whether the damage caused by extreme weather events can be linked to human emissions of greenhouse gases is one of the hottest topics in climate science. And that debate leads directly to another: if this link can be established, who bears the responsibility?  Both of these questions are at the center of an inquiry by the Philippine Commission on Human Rights, whose latest hearings took place in London in November 2018. It is the first time a human-rights commission has heard evidence on whether large emitters violate basic human rights by causing climate change

 Where the hearings become more unusual is in investigating the link between the damage caused by climate change and the behaviour of large industrial companies. This is predicated on recent efforts to trace greenhouse-gas emissions back to large corporate and state-owned producers of fossil fuels and cement, dubbed the “carbon majors”. The latest analysis by cdp (formerly the  Carbon Disclosure Project), a non-governmental organisation that works with companies, cities and states to measure their environmental impact, published in 2017, found that 100 of them had produced just over half of emissions since the Industrial Revolution.

The Philippine hearings will come to a close in December in Manila. The commission does not have the power to compensate victims of typhoons or to sanction emitters of carbon dioxide. According to Roberto Cadiz, one of the commissioners, that isn’t even the point. His wish is to open a dialogue about possible solutions to climate change that includes the industrial emitters. So far, however, only one side of the story is being heard. The emitters have declined to participate.

Excerpts from Climate Change: The Blame Game, Economist, Nov. 17, 2018

Genetically Modified Crops in Africa: opponents

According to the acting director, Andrew Kigundu,  of Uganda’s National Agricultural Research Organisation (NARO): “The idea of work on genetically engineered bananas is a result of many years of testing of Banana production.” The experiments started in 2005 and work is still ongoing to improve on the content of the fruit and resistance to parasites….The East African country is the first African country to turn toward GM to improve its production of bananas. An option which should make the country remain the first producer in the world .

The adoption of restrictive policies across Africa has been pursued under the pretext of protecting the environment and human health. So far there has been little evidence to support draconian biosafety rules. It is important that the risks of new products be assessed. But the restrictions should proportionate and consistent with needs of different countries.

Africa’s needs are different from those of the EU. There are certain uniquely African problems where GM should be considered as an option.   The Xanthomonas banana wilt bacterial disease causes early ripening and discoloration of bananas, a staple crop for Uganda. This costs the Great Lakes region nearly US $500m annually in losses. There is no treatment for the disease, which continues to undermine food security.  Ugandan scientists at Kawanda Agricultural Research Institute have developed a GM approach but their efforts to further their research in the technology are hampered by opposition to it. Those opposed to the technology advocate the adoption of an EU biosafety approach that would effectively stall the adoption of the technology. In fact, some of opponents using scare tactics against the technology are EU-based non-governmental organizations.

Genetically modified bananas solve Uganda’s productivity problems, AllAfricanews, May 24, 2016; See also Excerpt FromHow the EU starves Africa into submission,” by Calestous Juma, a professor of the practice of international development at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government:  “EU policy undermines African agricultural innovation …in the field of genetically modified (GM) crops. The EU exercises its right not to cultivate transgenic crops but only to import them as animal feed. However, its export of restrictive policies on GM crops has negatively affected Africa.”

How to Stop the Chemical Wars of the Future

Stark illustrations of the dangers from chemical weapons can be seen in attacks using toxic industrial chemicals and sarin against civilians and combatants in Syria and toxic industrial chemicals in Iraq, as well as more targeted assassination operations in Malaysia and the United Kingdom, employing VX and novichok nerve agents, respectively. . With the parties to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) convening a Review Conference to address such issues beginning 21 November 2018, we highlight important scientific aspects .

The Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) is a multilateral treaty in effect since 1997 that proscribes the development, production, stockpiling, transfer, and use of chemical weapons “under any circumstances” and requires their destruction within a specified time period. The CWC allows the use of toxic chemicals for a range of industrial, agricultural, research, medical, pharmaceutical, or other peaceful purposes, including law enforcement, as long as the “types and quantities” of chemicals employed are “consistent with such purposes.” …The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW), which is the implementing body of the CWC, comprises the 193 State Parties and a Technical Secretariat that provides technical assistance to States, routinely inspects relevant State and commercial industrial facilities, and monitors activities to ensure compliance. It was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2013 for overseeing and facilitating the verified destruction of most of the declared chemical weapons stocks produced in the last century—to date totaling more than 96% (69,750 metric tons) of the declared stockpiles of chemical agents.

Although the CWC includes three schedules of toxic chemicals for the application of verification measures, the scope of the CWC is not constrained to these schedules but by its General Purpose Criterion (GPC), which prohibits misuse of toxic chemicals based on intent rather than on this limited list of chemicals.  [This GPC makes it possible to widen the authority of the OPCW. More, specifically issues to consider include]:

1) Riot control agents (RCAs). The CWC defines RCAs—such as tear gas and pepper spray—as “any chemical not listed” in one of its three schedules that can produce “rapidly in humans sensory irritation or disabling physical effects which disappear within a short time following termination of exposure.”…However, a recurring concern documented by the medical community and human rights monitors has been the widespread misuse of RCAs by police and security forces in excessive quantities, including in hospitals, prisons, homes, and automobiles, where targeted individuals cannot disperse. In such situations, serious injury or death can result from toxic properties of chemicals or from asphyxiation… [It is important to clarify] the nature and scope of “law enforcement” activities and develop guidance as to “types and quantities” of RCAs that can legitimately be used in such circumstances

2) Delivery systems… capable of delivering far greater amounts of RCAs (and potentially other toxic chemicals) over wider areas or more extended distances than current standard law enforcement delivery mechanisms, such as handheld sprays, grenades, and single launched projectiles. Such new systems include large-capacity spraying devices, automatic grenade launchers, multibarrel projectile launchers, large-caliber RCA projectiles, and unmanned ground or aerial vehicles capable of carrying spraying devices or projectile launchers. ..

3) Incapacitating chemical agent (ICA) weapons. Although the CWC permits use of appropriate types and quantities of RCAs for law enforcement, certain countries have conducted research into weapons employing other distinct toxic chemicals, so-called ICAs. Not separately defined under the CWC, ICAs can be considered as a range of toxic chemicals—only one of which [3-quinuclidinyl benzilate (BZ) and two of its immediate precursors] is currently scheduled—including anesthetics and other pharmaceutical chemicals that are purportedly intended to act on the body’s core biochemical and physiological systems, notably the central nervous system (CNS), to cause prolonged but nonpermanent disability. Such CNS-acting chemicals can produce unconsciousness, sedation, hallucination, incoherence, disorientation, or paralysis…An aerosolized mixture of two anesthetics—carfentanil and remifentanil—employed by Russian security forces to end the Moscow theatre siege of October 2002 caused the deaths of 125 of the 900 hostages

Other chemical production facilities (OCPFs) are chemical plants that do not currently produce, but are capable of manufacturing, chemical warfare agents or precursors. At present, a small fraction of declared OCPFs are selected for verification by the OPCW; the Review Conference should consider authorizing a substantial increase in OCPF inspections per year. …Biological and biologically mediated processes for production of discrete organic chemicals  Some products and processes used by the biomanufacturing industry are as relevant to the CWC as those used by other OCPF facilities  The OPCW should  build on the considerable progress made toward developing a network of designated laboratories for the analysis of biomedical and biological samples. Advances in other fields could also facilitate more effective evidence collection, for example, exploring the potential of unmanned aerial vehicles to support reconnaissance, detection, and chain of custody.

Excerpts from  Michael Crowley at al., Preventing Chemical Weapons as Sciences Converge, Science, Nov. 16, 2018

Sequencing All Species: the Earth BioGenome Project

In the first attempt of its kind, researchers plan to sequence all known species of eukaryotic life—66,000 species of animals, plants, fungi, and protozoa—in a single country, the United Kingdom. The announcement was made here today at the official launch of an even grander $4.7 billion global effort, called the Earth BioGenome Project (EBP), to sequence the genomes of all of Earth’s known 1.5 million species of eukaryotes within a decade.

In terms of genomes sequenced, the eukaryotes—the branch of complex life consisting of organisms with cells that have a nucleus inside a membrane—lag far behind the bacteria and archaea. Researchers have sequenced just about 3500 eukaryotic genomes, and only 100 at high quality.

The U.K. sequencing effort—dubbed The Darwin Tree of Life project—will now become part of the EBP mix…Also announced today was a memorandum of understanding for participating in EBP. It has been signed by 19 institutions, including BGI Shenzhen, China; the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew; and Sanger. 

Excerpts from Erik Stokstad, Researchers launch plan to sequence 66,000 species in the United Kingdom. But that’s just a start, Science, Nov. 1, 2018

Eradicate Mosquitoes Forever: Gene Drives

The mosquitoes are being fitted with a piece of dna called a gene drive. Unlike the genes introduced into run-of-the-mill genetically modified organisms, gene drives do not just sit still once inserted into a chromosome. They actively spread themselves, thereby reaching more and more of the population with each generation. If their effect is damaging, they could in principle wipe out whole species.. If gene drives were to condemn to a similar fate the mosquitoes that spread malaria, a second of humankind’s great scourges might be consigned to history.

Gene drives can in principle be used against any creatures which reproduce sexually with short generations and aren’t too rooted to a single spot. The insects that spread leishmaniasis, Chagas disease, dengue fever, chikungunya, trypanosomiasis and Zika could all be potential targets. So could creatures which harm only humankind’s dominion, not people themselves. Biologists at the University of California, San Diego, have developed a gene-drive system for Drosophila suzukii, an Asian fruitfly which, as an invasive species, damages berry and fruit crops in America and Europe. Island Conservation, an international environmental ngo, thinks gene drives could offer a humane and effective way of reversing the damage done by invasive species such as rats and stoats to native ecosystems in New Zealand and Hawaii.

Such critics fear that the laudable aim of vastly reducing deaths from malaria—which the World Health Organisation puts at 445,000 a year, most of them children—will open the door to the use of gene drives for far less clear-cut benefits in ways that will entrench some interests, such as those of industrial farmers, at the expense of others. They also point to possible military applications: gene drives could in principle make creatures that used not to spread disease more dangerous… The ability to remove species by fiat—in effect, to get them to remove themselves—is, like the prospect of making new species from scratch, a power that goes beyond the past ambit of humankind.

Gene drives based on crispr-Cas9 could easily be engineered to target specific bits of the chromosome and insert themselves seamlessly into the gap, thus ensuring that every gamete gets a copy . By 2016, gene drives had been created in yeast, fruitflies and two species of mosquito. In work published in the journal Nature Biotechnology in September, Andrea Crisanti, Mr Burt and colleagues at Imperial showed that one of their gene drives could drive a small, caged population of the mosquito Anopheles gambiae to extinction—the first time a gene drive had shown itself capable of doing this. The next step is to try this in a larger caged population.

There are also worries about how gene drives might be used to create a weapon. …The need to find ways to guard against such attacks is one of the reasons that the Pentagon’s Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (darpa) gives for its work on gene drives. Renee Wegrzyn, programme manager for darpa’s “Safe Genes” project, says the work is to prevent “technological surprise”, whether in the form of an unintended consequence or nefarious use. One of the academic teams she funds has made progress in developing anti-crispr enzyme systems that one day might be able to inhibit a drive’s operation.

Oversight needs not just to bring together a range of government agencies; it requires co-operation between governments, too. The Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, which entered into force under the un Convention on Biological Diversity (cbd) in 2003, provides controls on the transfer of genetically modified organisms. But how it applies to gene drives is unclear—and besides, America has never ratified the convention. An attempt to ban gene-drive research through the cbd, which was backed by the etc Group and other ngos, failed at the convention’s biennial meeting in Cancún in 2016…Like the reintroduction of vanished species advocated by the rewilding movement, gene-drive technology will provide new arenas for the fight between those who wish to defend nature and those who wish to tame it.

Excertps from Gene Drives: Extinction on Demand, Economist, Nov. 10, 2018, at 24

Meddling with Nature: Is it Right? Is it Fair?

Many envisioned environmental applications of newly developed gene-editing techniques such as CRISPR might provide profound benefits for ecosystems and society. But depending on the type and scale of the edit, gene-edited organisms intentionally released into the environment could also deliver off-target mutations, evolutionary resistance, ecological disturbance, and extinctions. Hence, there are ongoing conversations about the responsible application of CRISPR, especially relative to the limitations of current global governance structures to safeguard its use,   Largely missing from these conversations is attention to local communities in decision-making. Most policy discussions are instead occurring at the national or international level even though local communities will be the first to feel the context-dependent impacts of any release. ..

CRISPR gene editing and other related genetic technologies are groundbreaking in their ability to precisely and inexpensively alter the genome of any species. CRISPR-based gene drives hold particular import because they are designed to rapidly spread genetic changes—including detrimental traits such as infertility—through populations of sexually reproducing organisms, to potentially reach every member of a species. Villages in Burkina Faso are weighing the release of gene drive–bearing mosquitoes that could suppress malaria. Nantucket Island residents in the United States are considering the release of genetically engineered white-footed mice to deplete Lyme disease reservoirs. New Zealand communities are discussing the possibility of using genetic methods to eliminate exotic predators.

But what if a gene drive designed to suppress an invasive species escaped its release site and spread to a native population? Or if a coral species gene edited to better adapt to environmental stressors dominated reef ecosystems at the expense of a diversity of naturally evolving coral species and the fish that depend on them ? The gravity of these potential outcomes begs the question: Should humans even be meddling with the DNA of wild organisms? The absence of generally agreed on answers can be used to support calls for moratoria on developing and releasing genetically altered organisms, especially those with gene drives (6).

However, the promising benefits of environmental gene editing cannot be dismissed. Gene drives may provide a long-sought-after tool to control vectors of infectious disease and save millions of human lives. Projects to conserve ecosystems or promote species resilience are often intended to repair human-inflicted environmental damage. Put simply, either using this technology irresponsibly or not using it at all could prove damaging to humans, our welfare, and our planet.

At the international level, the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) has enlisted an expert technical panel to, in part, update its Cartagena Protocol (of which the United States is not a party) that oversees transboundary transport of living modified organisms to accommodate gene drive–bearing organisms. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) is also developing policy to address the release of gene-edited organisms. Although the CBD and the IUCN offer fora to engage diverse public feedback, a role largely fulfilled by civil society groups, none of these agencies currently use the broad and open deliberative process we advocate….

Different societal views about the human relationship to nature will therefore shape decision-making. Local community knowledge and perspectives must therefore be engaged to address these context-dependent, value-based considerations.  A special emphasis on local communities is also a matter of justice because the first and most closely affected individuals deserve a strong voice in the decision-making process…Compounding this challenge is that these decisions cannot be made in isolation. Organisms released into local environments may cross regional and even international borders. Hence, respect for and consideration of local knowledge and value systems are necessary, but insufficient, to anticipate the potentially ramifying global implications of environmental release of gene-edited organisms. What is needed is an approach that places great weight on local perspectives within a larger global vision…

The needs of ecosystems could also be given voice to inform deliberative outcomes through custodial human proxies. Inspired by legislative precedent set by New Zealand, in which the Whanganui River was granted legal “personhood,” human representatives, nominated by both an international body like the IUCN and the local community, would be responsible for upholding the health and interests of the ecosystems in question. Proposed gene-editing strategies would be placed in the larger context of alternative approaches to address the public health or environmental issue in question…d

An online registry for all projects intending to release genetically engineered organisms into the environment must be created. Currently, no central database exists for environmental gene-editing applications or for decision-making outcomes associated with their deployment, and this potentially puts the global community at risk…A global coordination task force would be charged with coordinating multiple communities, nations, and regions to ensure successful deliberative outcomes. As a hypothetical example, genetic strategies to eliminate invasive possums from New Zealand must include representatives from Australia, the country likely to be affected should animals be transported outside the intended range. Similarly, the African Union is currently deliberating appropriate governance of gene drive–bearing mosquitoes to combat malaria on a regional scale. 

Excerpts from Natalie Kofl et al.,  Editing nature: Local roots of global governance, Science Magazine, Nov. 2, 2018