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Archive for the ‘Climate change’ Category

Viewpoint: ‘Win-win for food security’ — Why Uganda needs both biotechnology and agroecology to feed itself as climate change roils farming

Henry Lutaaya | Sunrise | June 30, 2022

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Credit: Wendy Stone/Corbis via Getty Images
Credit: Wendy Stone/Corbis via Getty Images

Over the past decade or so, many ordinary farmers especially in developing countries including Uganda, have been thrown into a polarizing debate about what steps to take to achieve food security in a hotter and more populous world.

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On the one hand, is a group that has advocated for the adoption of modern agricultural technologies such biotechnology that involves use of biology to solve environmental stresses such as pests, or develop useful products such as vitamin-rich bananas.

On the other hand, another group that has come to be known as the agroecology movement, comprising mostly the civil society and movements of smallholder farmers, has gained momentum in recent years by opposing industrial farming as characterized by consistent use of improved seed, mechanization, and use of chemical fertilizer. Instead, they have advocated for use of saved seed, organic fertilizer, diversity in food and decentralized marketing.

There is increasing realization that intensification and use of modern tools such as biotechnology and agro-ecology are not conflicting targets. Indeed, both approaches can reinforce each other in a mutually supportive way to achieve food and nutrition security.

This is an excerpt. Read the original post here

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Heat-lovers are the lucky ones: Insects and climate change

40 years of conservation data: Researchers show population trends of native insects

Date:June 3, 2022Source:Technical University of Munich (TUM)Summary:Sparse data often make it difficult to track how climate change is affecting populations of insect species. A new study has now evaluated an extensive species mapping database (Artenschutzkartierung, ASK) and assessed the population trends of butterflies, dragonflies and grasshoppers in Bavaria since 1980. The main finding: heat-loving species have been increasing.Share:

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Sparse data often make it difficult to track how climate change is affecting populations of insect species. A new study by the Technical University of Munich (TUM) and the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research (iDiv) has now evaluated an extensive species mapping database (Artenschutzkartierung, ASK) organized by the Bavarian State Office for the Environment (LfU) and assessed the population trends of butterflies, dragonflies and grasshoppers in Bavaria since 1980. The main finding: heat-loving species have been increasing.

Climate change has long since been happening in central Europe, and it is no secret that it affects the populations and distribution of animals and plants. Especially insect trends are a growing cause for concern, as multiple studies have shown their declines. How populations of our insect species are changing over past decades is a question explored by the BioChange Lab at TUM. “It is not only the climate that is changing, but also the type and intensity of land use. This includes agriculture, forestry, urban areas, and transport infrastructure” says Dr. Christian Hof, head of the BioChange research group at TUM.

While changes in flora and fauna may be well-documented in certain areas or for specific species, data for insects and most importantly over prolonged time periods is very sparse. This makes it difficult to draw general conclusions about the changes in populations of insect species and the factors driving biodiversity change. Yet it is precisely findings on species population changes over time, together with factors such as land use and the climate, that informs conservation plans for protecting species, biotopes and the climate.

A rich seam of data

Thanks to the tireless efforts of volunteer and professional nature observers, we have data sets on the occurrence of various different species in Germany. One especially useful resource is the species mapping database (ASK) of the Bavarian State Office for the Environment. The ASK is the state-wide register of animal and plant species in Bavaria and currently has around 3.1 million records of species. It forms a central data resource for the everyday work of the nature conservation authorities and for compilation by the LfU of Red Lists of threatened species.

Using complex statistical methods, researchers at the TUM Chair of Terrestrial Ecology evaluated the valuable ASK data and analyzed the population trends of more than 200 species of insects in Bavaria — around 120 butterflies, 50 Orthoptera, and 60 dragonflies. In collaboration with many other experts, they showed in that across all these insect groups, there was an increase in the populations of warmth-loving species and a decline of species adapted to cooler temperatures.

Species like the heat-loving scarlet dragonfly are benefiting from climate change

Insects were divided into those that prefer warm temperatures and those that prefer cold temperatures on the basis of empirical data. “We determined the temperature preferences of each species using data on their distribution within Europe and the mean temperature in that area. In other words, species with a primarily northern distribution are cold-adapted species, and species with a primarily southern European distribution are warm-adapted species,” says Eva Katharina Engelhardt, a doctoral student at the TUM BioChange Lab.

Warm-adapted species include the baton blue (butterfly), the European tree cricket, and the scarlet dragonfly. “The scarlet dragonfly is one of the best-known beneficiaries of global warming. The dragonfly, most commonly occurring in the Mediterranean region, first appeared in Bavaria in the early 1990s and is now widespread,” Hof tells us.

Among the cold-adapted species are Thor’s fritillary, the green mountain grasshopper, and the white-faced darter.

Populations of butterflies, Orthoptera and dragonflies affected by climate change

“Our comparisons of the various groups of insects revealed significant differences,” Engelhardt says. “Whilst there was more decline than increase in butterfly and Orthoptera species, the trends for dragonflies were largely positive.” One possible reason for this is improvements in water quality over recent decades, a change that particularly benefits dragonflies, which depend on aquatic habitats. Habitat specialists, in other words species adapted to very specific ecosystems, experienced a decline. Butterflies such as the large heath or the cranberry blue are example specialists since they are dependent on very specific habitats.

“Our study highlights the complex effect of climate change on our insect fauna. Our work is also an example of how modern approaches to data analysis can be used to obtain fascinating results from existing data sets. Volunteer and agency conservation work often does generate the data, but they are rarely evaluated systematically. This should happen much more often through collaborations like ours,” says Dr. Diana Bowler of the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research (iDiv).

Johannes Voith, an entomologist within the Bayerisches Artenschutzzentrum (Bavarian species conservation center) at LfU, adds that “as part of collaboration with TUM in particular, we are benefiting from the knowledge gained. Next, we plan to create dynamic distribution maps for individual species.”


Story Source:

Materials provided by Technical University of Munich (TUM)Note: Content may be edited for style and length.


Journal Reference:

  1. Eva Katharina Engelhardt, Matthias F. Biber, Matthias Dolek, Thomas Fartmann, Axel Hochkirch, Jan Leidinger, Franz Löffler, Stefan Pinkert, Dominik Poniatowski, Johannes Voith, Michael Winterholler, Dirk Zeuss, Diana E. Bowler, Christian Hof. Consistent signals of a warming climate in occupancy changes of three insect taxa over 40 years in central EuropeGlobal Change Biology, 2022; DOI: 10.1111/gcb.16200

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Technical University of Munich (TUM). “Heat-lovers are the lucky ones: Insects and climate change: 40 years of conservation data: Researchers show population trends of native insects.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 3 June 2022. <www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2022/06/220603100055.htm>.

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Grahame Jackson

PestNet

 Sydney NSW, Australia

 For your information

Climate change is pushing pine defoliating moth northward 50 years ahead of earlier predictions

ScienceDaily Source: University of Eastern Finland

Summary In Finland, climate change is causing the pine pest Panolis flammea, or pine beauty moth, to shift its range northward 50 years ahead of predictions. Changes in both the distribution and size of the pine beauty moth population are linked to higher temperatures, a new study shows.Share:

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In Finland, climate change is causing the pine pest Panolis flammea, or pine beauty moth, to shift its range northward 50 years ahead of predictions. Changes in both the distribution and size of the pine beauty moth population are linked to higher temperatures, a new study from the University of Eastern Finland shows. The findings were reported in Scandinavian Journal of Forest Research.

“This is not unexpected, since many scientists have previously predicted that some insect pests will shift their distribution range northward as a result of rising temperatures caused by climate change. However, what is astonishing is that this is happening 50 years ahead of earlier predictions,” Doctoral Researcher Alexander Pulgarin Diaz from the University of Eastern Finland says.

The larvae of the pine beauty moth feed on the needles of different pine species across Central Europe, developing periodical outbreaks often controlled with chemical insecticides. These outbreaks co-occur with other pine insect pests and diseases and could reach thousands of hectares. Outbreaks have not been reported in Finland, but conditions for their development could become favourable as a result of increasing temperatures and forest health decline — both of which are consequences of climate change.

Earlier studies have shown that temperature is closely related to the development and distribution of insects. To study the distribution and size of the pine beauty moth population in Finland, the researchers coupled the number of captured individuals with the previous year’s thermal sums for the same location. For this, they used traps throughout Finland and found that this insect pest had spread into northern Finland, up to 68°51’N. Also, they found that its abundance was higher in warmer places, as in southern Finland.

As climate change advances and temperatures rise in Finland, the range and population density of the pine beauty moth may also increase, allowing it to become a common, abundant pine-feeder throughout the country. The results of this study on the pine beauty moth are parallel with previous findings on another major pine defoliator, the Nun moth (Lymantria monacha), which also has increased significantly in Finland since 2000.

The study was funded by the Academy of Finland Flagship Programme Forest-Human-Machine Interplay -Building Resilience, Redefining Value Networks and Enabling Meaningful Experiences (UNITE) (decision no: 337127).


Story Source:

Materials provided by University of Eastern FinlandNote: Content may be edited for style and length.


Journal Reference:

  1. John Alexander Pulgarin Díaz, Markus Melin, Olli-Pekka Tikkanen. Thermal sum drives abundance and distribution range shift of Panolis flammea in FinlandScandinavian Journal of Forest Research, 2022; 1 DOI: 10.1080/02827581.2022.2060303

 Panolis_flammea

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How plant breeding innovations are helping feed a hungry world

Mikaela Waldbauer | Sustainable Agricultural Innovation & Food (SAIFood) | April 29, 2022

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Rice can survive submerged, but not for long. Plant breeding technology is getting the crop ready for climate change floods. Credit: Sasin Tipchai
Rice can survive submerged, but not for long. Plant breeding technology is getting the crop ready for climate change floods. Credit: Sasin Tipchai

This article or excerpt is included in the GLP’s daily curated selection of ideologically diverse news, opinion and analysis of biotechnology innovation. It is posted under Fair Use guidelines.

As of 2019, nearly 26% of the globe’s population “experienced hunger or did not have regular” access to safe and nutritious food (FAO, 2020). With increasing global populations and a changing climate, this number is estimated to surpass 840 million by 2030 (UN, n.d.).

Plant breeding technologies have impacted global food security in positive ways. One of the major ways genetically modified (GM) crops can influence global food security is by adapting plants to the changing climate. Plant breeding can be utilized to develop crop plant varieties with a higher tolerance to environmental stresses such as heat, drought, and flooded conditions.

For example, a rice variety developed by plant breeders in Bangladesh has been shown to survive flooded conditions for as long as two weeks, and common beans have been used to develop both heat and cold resistant varieties capable of being grown in both the Durango region of Mexico and the high altitudes of Columbia and Peru (Global Partnership Initiative for Plant Breeding Capacity Building [GIPD], n.d.).

The climate is changing at a faster rate than crop plants can adapt, and few solutions to this issue exist. One key solution is the improvement of crop plant varieties through new plant breeding innovations. The evidence is clear that GM crop varieties are superior in performance under harsh conditions (GIPD, n.d.). However, these solutions are not utilized to their fullest extent due to intense scrutiny and rejection.

Importance of nutritious diets

With an increase in the global population, food insecurity is predicted to rise. To compensate for population growth, food production must increase at a faster rate than it currently is today. Research shows plant breeding can address this concern. According to a 22-year study on the economic impact of GM crops, global production has increased substantially because of yield increased from GM crops (Brookes & Barfoot, 2020). Urbanization is reducing the area of arable land available for food production. Without the use of additional land to grow more food, an increase in yields on the land currently cultivated will be solely relied on to increase production. GM crops are one tool that can be used in improving production levels of food, when compared to conventional crops, by increasing yields.

Considering smallholder farmers make up 50% of the world’s undernourished (Qaim & Kouser, 2013), increasing the profit of smallholder farmers should have a net decrease in food insecurity in developing countries. Smallholder profits have also increased with the adoption of GM crops. Studies have found that GM crop varieties have improved yields substantially when compared to conventional crops. Most notably, the highest improvements in crop yield have been observed in developing countries, where food insecurity is the highest (Brookes & Barfoot, 2014). Since the study began in 1996, there has been a $225 billion increase in farmer income, as of 2018. A reduction in pesticide cost and improvement in yields is responsible for increased profit, primarily through insect-resistant varieties such as the newly commercialized Bt cowpea in Nigeria. An increase in farmer profit through GM crop cultivation is clear, especially in low-income countries. Yet, the very regions that could benefit most from these crops are the ones that reject them. More widespread commercialization of GM crop varieties has the impact to increase farmer profit, specifically smallholder profit, which makes up a generous portion of the world’s undernourished.

Micronutrient deficiency affects over 50% of the global population (Nestel et al., 2006). Large consumption of staple food products in developing countries such as rice, wheat, and corn with little variety can lead to nutritional deficiencies including deficiencies in vitamin A, iron, zinc, among others. Recently, a GM rice crop biofortified with beta-carotene (a vitamin A precursor) was approved for cultivation in the Philippines, called Golden Rice. Golden Rice has the potential to diminish the prevalence of micronutrient-related malnutrition, vitamin A deficiency. Golden Rice can combat vitamin A deficiency in high rice-consuming regions by allowing the consumption of beta-carotene without changing the taste or agronomic qualities of the rice while remaining at a comparable cost to conventional rice (IRRI, n.d.). Evidence does depict the capabilities of biofortification in a deficient diet.

Looking forward

Of the opposing views brought forth by ant-GMO advocates, most are refutable. Sifting through the scientific literature, is it suggested that while GM crops may offer a net positive impact on the state of global food security, they are not a panacea to the enormous problem of global food insecurity. Rather, GM crops can be viewed as one vital tool assisting in the mitigation of global food insecurity.

Mikaela Waldbauer is an Agronomy student at University of Saskatchewan interested in food security and plant breeding. Follow Mikaela on Twitter @Mikaela_Marion

A version of this article was posted at Saifood and is used here with permission. You can check out Saifood on Twitter @SAIFood_blog

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GMOs could shrink Europe’s climate footprint, study suggests

BY JOSEPH MAINA

FEBRUARY 24, 2022

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Though Europe has long rejected genetically modified (GM) crops, a new study suggests their adoption could significantly boost yields and slash climate-warming greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

Wider adoption of the already-existing GM crops in the European Union could result in a reduction equivalent to 7.5 percent of the total agricultural GHG emissions of Europe, researchers observe in a new paper published in Trends in Plant Science.

The research, conducted by the University of Bonn in Germany and the Breakthrough Institute in the United States, highlights the enormous potential of genetic engineering for the climate.

“We find that growing GM crops in the EU could reduce GHG emissions by 33 million tons of CO2 equivalents per year, which is equivalent to 7.5 percent of the total agricultural GHG emissions of the EU in 2017,” states the study.

The researchers used global agricultural data and estimates of the yield effects of GM crops to model how increased technology adoption in the EU would affect production, land use and greenhouse gas emissions. Higher yields in the EU would have a global effect.

“Most of these positive climate effects are attributable to reduced land-use change,” stated lead author Dr. Emma Kovak from the Breakthrough Institute.

In addition, the authors argue that yield increases of GM crops can have additional positive effects on climate change mitigation that have not been previously considered and quantified.

“As global demand for food production continues to grow, crop yield increases can reduce the need to add new land into production, thus preventing additional CO2 emissions from land-use change. Currently, land-use change accounts for over 30 percent of agricultural GHG emissions,” they assert.

Citing past studies, the authors posit that certain GM crop applications help reduce GHG emissions and support carbon sequestration in the soil by facilitating reduced tillage farming.

In justifying their choice of the EU as the focal point of their study, the authors point to the EU’s reluctance to adopt GM crops, ascribing it to public hesitation and political hurdles. They also noted that the EU is progressively assessing its regulatory stance on GMOs, and the study thus provides a hypothetical picture of the likely effects of policy change.

“European politicians and policymakers have restricted most cultivation of genetically engineered crops for decades, yet certain types of genetically engineered crops, such as GM maize and soybean, are widely grown in other parts of the world,” study co-author Dan Rejto told the Alliance.

“If the European Union allowed and encouraged farmers to use existing genetically modified crops, such as those that provide insect resitance and herbicide tolerance, yields could increase, reducing land-use change and the associated emissions,” he said.

The review assesses two components of GHG emissions, namely the carbon opportunity costs (COCs) of land use and production emissions (PEMs).

COCs represent the opportunity that a change in production, such as increased yields, in one location reduces land-use change or stores carbon elsewhere.

PEMs are calculated based on fertilizer and energy input use in agricultural production. Shifting production toward places with PEMs below the global average, as is the case in most of the EU, lowers total global PEMs.

In this context, widespread adoption of GM crops in Europe would radiate positive changes elsewhere, particularly with reduced land use. The authors cite the instance of soybean, which the EU principally imports from Brazil, Argentina and the US. In addition to reducing some of its food imports, higher yields in the EU could help preserve the Amazon rainforest, Rejto said.

“The EU currently imports over 30 million tons of soybean and soybean meal annually. Especially in the Brazilian Amazon, the expansion of the soybean area for export contributes significantly to tropical deforestation,” states the study.

The authors submit that in their analysis they only look at already-existing GM crops, noting that new genomic breeding technologies are being used to develop a wide range of new crop applications that could lead to additional climate change mitigation and adaptation benefits in the future.

Speaking to the Alliance, Kovak opined that while the EU’s future regulations might favor emerging crop engineering techniques, the regulations may not favor genetically modified crops. This could hinder expansion of GM crops in the EU.

“The European Commission is developing new proposals for regulating products of new genomic techniques, which could enable the use of gene editing to help address challenges in agriculture, such as adapting crops to climate change,” she said. “Unfortunately, it is unlikely that the European Commission’s proposed new regulation will allow expanded cultivation of transgenic crops — those engineered to add genes from a different species — like the existing herbicide- tolerant and insect-resistant crops in our study.”

The EU’s Farm-to-Fork Strategy under the European Green Deal aims to expand organic farming, which has lower yields and would be associated with increases in global GHG emissions by causing land-use changes elsewhere, state the authors.

Image: Maize harvest in Hamburg, Germany. Photo: Shutterstock/Natascha Kaukorat

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Agriculture and Climate Change: Call “Plantix — Your Crop Doctor” for Help

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Kendra Poole 

Lilyana Gabrielse

Feb 10, 2022

A young woman standing in her farmland displays the mobile application Plantix — Your Crop Doctor
Munni Akhter, a villager based in the Patuakhali district, receives training on the Plantix — Your Crop Doctor application. Photo Credit: Atanu Bhattacharjee, DAI.

At the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) Conference, President Biden announced an annual $3 billion Emergency Plan for Adaptation and Resilience (also known as PREPARE) aimed at supporting developing countries that are vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Samantha Power, administrator for USAID, will be one of the U.S. officials spearheading these efforts.

“We are devoting a larger and larger share of our budget to humanitarian assistance, because there are so many more climate-related disasters happening,” Power explained in a recent interview with National Public Radio’s (NPR) Ari Shapiro. “A whopping 1.7 billion people, in fact… since 2000, have been affected by climate-related disasters.”

The last seven years have been some of the hottest on record, and despite worldwide efforts to mitigate climate change, temperatures are expected to climb dramatically in coming years. “We will help support more than 500 million people to adapt to climate change through efforts like scaling drought-tolerant agriculture, establishing early-warning systems for storms and creating new insurance schemes that can support people when their harvests fail or livestock perish,” Power announced in her “A New Vision for Global Development” speech.

The changing climate will have a particularly profound impact on agricultural production and food security. “Even as the global population continues to grow and the climate crisis threatens more corners of the world each year, it seems each passing day, we still have an opportunity to harness agricultural research and innovation to grow the pipeline of crop varieties that can protect the world’s food supply,” Power remarked. Farmers around the world are already suffering the consequences of severe climate change, including drought, erosion, flooding, crop disease and falling crop yields. In the face of such vast and interrelated threats, development practitioners everywhere are looking to the frontiers of science and technology to develop and pilot innovative solutions.

“As smallholder farmers across the globe navigate the increasingly dire challenges presented by climate change, artificial intelligence offers a solution to help support decision-making at the farm-level,” posited Araba Sapara-Grant, a digital specialist with DAI. “This is critical because, as we know, with a changing climate comes increasingly volatile weather patterns that can — and have — forced farmers to make increasingly risky decisions on how best to use resources like water and inputs such as seeds and fertilizer,” she explained.

The ever-growing field of digital agriculture must turn its attention to cutting-edge emerging tools and technologies. Aware of artificial intelligence’s (AI) potential as an important tool in agricultural adaptation, USAID’s Feed the Future Bangladesh Digital Agriculture Activity (BDAA), as a part of DAI’s Digital Frontiers Project, recently supported the pilot of Plantix, a highly specialized and AI-driven smartphone application for farmers and extension workers in Bangladesh.

“In Bangladesh right now, we have the second generation of farmers. If we look at the previous generation of people, they knew how to farm,” said Tasnuba Sinha, BDAA digital tools specialist. “They were experts in the sense that they could look at the sky and they could understand whether it would rain or what the weather would be like. But now, with climate change, the weather is not as certain as it used to be. Agriculture right now is a bit unpredictable, and what Plantix can do is actually help you instead of the usual trial and error.”

When downloaded for the first time, the free “Plantix — Your Crop Doctor” application allows users to select their preferred language, location, crops of interest and growing conditions. Plantix can provide users with customized recommendations for the amount of water, light, pesticide and fertilizer necessary for a successful yield. The application interface also acts as a weather monitor, providing farmers with updates on rainfall, temperature and other sudden environmental changes pertinent to the user’s crops. The application’s most unique feature, however, is its remarkable ability to diagnosis a pest-infested, disease-ridden or malnourished crop from a simple picture.

“You can take a picture of a crop or plant, and the app, using its AI technology, will assess, and it will tell you what the problem is with the plant and how to take care of it,” detailed Sinha. “If it’s suffering from a disease, if it’s underwatered or it’s overwatered, or if it [needs] fertilizer…” the application is capable of diagnosing over 400 different ailments of 60 different crops and prescribing recommended solutions or treatments. When delivering advice, the Plantix application also considers data from a soil map and reports of any previous cases of crop disease in the user’s area.

If the response received from the AI feature is not sufficient, however, Plantix users also have the opportunity to connect with local experts and discuss potential remedies through the “community tab” on the application. “They have another tab in which anyone can ask the question, and then the active group members answer the question… It’s very active… I tested that [feature myself], and I posted a few questions and got answers in a couple of hours,” Sinha confirmed.

The community tab also allows users to directly engage with local agricultural experts and extension officers. Typically, agricultural extension officers are responsible for providing services to as many as 800 different farming communities, significantly limiting their ability to visit all farms in need of assistance. This circumstance usually shifts the travel obligations and costs to the farmers and their families. Thus, a free mobile application provides a great alternative to traveling to the nearest agricultural extension office, a process both inefficient and expensive for the farmer. “For people who reside in a very rural area, they have to travel a distance in order to reach these extension offices…” shared Sinha. “There’s also the cost of transportation to consider and, also, in regard to time, because for some it could mean like a half day’s journey.”

Changing weather patterns experienced across Bangladesh in recent years have led to an increased dependency on agricultural expertise — in person or digitally. Due to climate change, farmers are also having to contend with completely new crop diseases, many of which even agricultural extension workers are not yet familiar. If unable to predict the weather patterns and anticipate or even identify crop disease, many farmers who are unable to access real-time, collectivized information have had to resort to trial-and-error strategies. This, BDAA experts explain, is ineffective given the speed and magnitude of climate change. A.S.M. Monirujjaman, a DAI expert working on the ground to socialize the Plantix application, commented, “The recent seasonal shift in the Barishal region of Bangladesh… relabeled the October-November months as a part of the rainy season rather than winter, which put additional pressure on rural farmers.”

The Plantix tool has also proved uniquely beneficial for rural women. “Women can also use this Plantix app, because in rural areas lots of women are involved in homestead gardening… And [in] the cultural context of Bangladesh, women are not allowed to go far from their homes,” said BDAA technical expert Sutapa Biswas. “So, if they use the Plantix app, they can gain similar benefits [to visiting an agricultural extension office].” By working within the sociocultural framework of Bangladesh, the Plantix tool provides women with direct access to agricultural resources that may not have been previously available due to social or familial restrictions on traveling or conducting business as a woman.

Agri-input businesses have also adapted Plantix’s features to their unique needs and services. Agri-input businesses are engaging with the application to improve their reputation among customers and to increase seed sales by “identify[ing] what their clients suffer [from] and what solutions they need to provide their customers in the future,” elaborated Monirujjaman. The community tab feature allows agri-input business owners and operators to establish legitimacy, build relationships with local farming communities and increase sales of seeds, fertilizers, pesticides, etc. While the tool was not explicitly created for this use, it seems that the tool can be easily adapted to serve the wider agricultural value chain.

“The majority of farmers in Bangladesh face crop losses due to pest and disease, lack of knowledge, overfertilization or soil nutrient deficiencies and climate change,” reported BDAA. “They depend on other farmers or experts like extension officers… to resolve the problems. Most of the time they cannot reach the experts in time.” By using the Plantix image recognition and intelligent automation technology, farmers, homestead gardeners and other value chain actors can receive immediate access to highly accurate diagnoses and recommendations for treatments and corrective measures.

“Through AI-enabled mobile phone applications, farmers and digitally-enabled extension officers have the opportunity to receive time-sensitive decision support on issues from how best to treat crop diseases (some of which are spreading or increasing in severity due to changing climates),” reiterated Sapara-Grant. Since the pilot began in Bangladesh, Plantix has demonstrated this capacity to protect and prepare the country’s next generation of farmers for what could be challenging days ahead.

AI technologies are still novel in digital agriculture, and experts call for further research and refinement of AI-enhanced digital tools. “While the international development community must still address barriers to the use of AI, such as unavailable or incomplete data sets, AI is a critical tool in helping smallholder farmers combat the effects of climate change and maintain productivity through forthcoming shocks,” remarked Sapara-Grant. While AI technology alone cannot mitigate climate change and foster resilience in farming communities, its potential for high impact, sustainable change and scalability cannot be overlooked.

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FOREST FIGHT

Germany invented “scientific” forestry. But a huge dieback triggered by climate change has ignited a fierce debate over how the nation should manage its trees

Go to contentPAUSELENA MUCHASHARE:

issue cover imageTable of contentsA version of this story appeared in Science, Vol 374, Issue 6572.

SCHWENDA, GERMANY—Last summer, Friederike and Jörg von Beyme stood on a bramble-covered, Sun-blasted slope outside this small town in eastern Germany. Just 4 years ago, the hillside, part of a nearly 500-hectare forest the couple bought in 2002, was green and shady, covered in tall, neatly arranged Norway spruce trees the couple planned to cut and sell.

During January 2018, however, a powerful storm felled many of the trees. Then, over the next 3 years, a record drought hit Germany and much of Central Europe, stressing the spruces that still stood. The back-to-back disasters enabled bark-boring beetles that had been munching on dead trees to jump to drought-weakened ones. Beetle populations exploded. In just 3 weeks, towering spruces that had seemed healthy were dead.

The von Beymes salvaged what they could, rushing to log and sell the dead and diseased trees. But thousands of other forest owners did the same, causing the timber market to collapse. The couple’s piles of logs were worth less than what it had cost to cut and stack them. Now, they don’t expect to earn a profit from logging spruces for 20 years. “We have a big forest now with big problems,” Jörg von Beyme says.

The von Beymes are far from alone. Since 2018, more than 300,000 hectares of Germany’s trees—more than 2.5% of the country’s total forest area—have died because of beetles and drought fueled by a warming climate. The massive dieback has shocked the public. And it has raised hard questions about how a country renowned for inventing “scientific” forestry more than 3 centuries ago should manage forests so they can continue to produce wood and protect ecosystems in the face of destablizing climate shifts.

Everyone agrees that new approaches are needed, but no one, it seems, can agree on what those should be. Some advocates want Germany’s government and forest industry to stop promoting the widespread planting of commercially valuable trees such as Norway spruces, and instead encourage landowners to allow forests to regenerate on their own. Others say that to meet economic, environmental, and climate goals, Germany must double down on tree planting—but using more resilient varieties, including some barely known in Germany today.

The stakes are high: Germany’s forest products sector generates some €170 billion annually and employs more than 1.1 million people. If its wood supplies dwindle, pressure could grow to log forests elsewhere around the world. Declining forests could also imperil efforts to replace building materials that generate huge emissions of greenhouse gases, such as concrete and steel, with potentially climate-friendlier wood.

The disagreements are often fierce, with the opposing sides trading insults in the media and even holding competing forest summits. “The intensity of the debate,” says ecologist Christopher Reyer of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, “is surprising for everybody.”

IT’S NO EXAGGERATION to say modern industrial forestry was invented in Germany. In the early 1700s, mining official Hans Carl von Carlowitz, who lived not far from where the von Beymes live today, became alarmed by devastating timber shortages caused by demand from mining and smelting. In response, he penned a 1713 treatise proposing that forests be managed sustainably. Wood harvests should be limited to what the land could produce, von Carlowitz wrote, and trees should be assiduously replanted to ensure a future supply. (Of course, Indigenous people around the world had been applying similar ideas for millennia.)

German forests started to recover as landowners adopted the approach. And Germany’s scientific approach to forestry—planting fast-growing species in neat rows, perfectly spaced for maximum timber production—became an international model. After World War II, with Germany in ruins and Allied nations demanding shipments of timber for reparations, foresters doubled down on von Carlowitz’s vision. Areas where deciduous trees such as beech and oak would have grown naturally were planted in monocultures of fast-growing evergreen spruce and pine. The trees were so essential to Germany’s economy that they became known as the brotbaums or “bread trees.”

Aerial view of forest with half the trees dead.
Dead conifers in a forest near Königshain, Germany. Policies and tradition often discourage leaving dead trees in place. FLORIAN GAERTNER/PHOTOTHEK VIA GETTY IMAGES

For decades, the program looked like a stunning success: Even as West Germany experienced its Wirtschaftswunder (economic miracle) starting in the 1950s, timber stocks increased. By the early 21st century, the total amount of wood in German forests had reached a volume probably not seen since the Middle Ages. Today, nearly one-third of Germany is forested.

But many of those forests are far from natural. Norway spruce alone, for example, accounts for one-quarter of the trees—and more than half the timber harvest. The shallow-rooted species naturally grows in high latitudes or on cold mountainsides. But in Germany, as well as in the Czech Republic, Austria, and elsewhere, foresters planted it throughout low-lying and far warmer regions. The monocultures nurtured only a fraction of the biodiversity found in native deciduous forests, but as long as there was enough rain and temperatures stayed cool enough, the spruces thrived.

In recent years, however, global warming has begun to disrupt long-standing weather patterns, delivering extremes these forests hadn’t experienced. The unprecedented drought that began in 2018 was especially devastating for Germany’s spruce plantations. The combination of extreme summer heat and a lack of precipitation set off a deadly chain reaction. Soils dried out to a depth of 2 meters. The water-starved spruces could no longer produce the tough gooey resin that helps protect them against insects, leaving them open to attack by bark beetles, which normally feed on dead or dying trees. Beetle populations swelled—one adult can produce hundreds of offspring in a season—and overwhelmed whole forests, turning them from green to ghostly gray.

The destruction hit hardest in Germany, the Czech Republic, and Austria. Forests in France, Poland, Switzerland, Slovakia, and Italy also took hits. Across Central Europe, some 300 million cubic meters of wood was damaged, according to forest scientist Andreas Bolte of the Thünen Institute, the German government’s forest research agency.

FOR MANY FOREST OWNERS, and for ordinary Germans for whom a wander in the woods is a favorite pastime and an essential part of their cultural identity, the dead trees delivered a huge shock. In a 2019 speech, former Chancellor Angela Merkel soberly recounted the “very, very large forest damage” that had affected “thousands of forest owners.” The dismay has helped fuel an intense political and scientific struggle over the future of Germany’s forests.

All sides agree the recent die-off highlights the climate change threat. “It’s kind of an early warning, … a signal of what may still come,” says forest researcher Gert-Jan Nabuurs of Wageningen University & Research. The future, he says, “is worrying.”

Dry spell

A record 3-year drought that began in 2018 (right) set off a cascade of tree stress, fires, and insect attacks that killed more than 2.5% of Germany’s forests. The destruction highlights the threat posed by climate change, researchers say.0200km2018 droughtAverage, 1991–2010DrierWetterWater available to trees

Stress maps

A rapidly shifting climate has made many of Germany’s most important trees vulnerable to various threats, projections show. Droughts, which are predicted to become more severe, are expected to make Norway spruce growing in lower, warmer areas vulnerable to bark beetle attacks (left). A drier climate also threatens European beech trees growing in soils with less capacity to store water (right).Trees at riskTrees not at risk0100kmDrier soilsMoister soilsTrees above 600 mTrees below 600 mNorway spruceEuropean beech(GRAPHIC) K. FRANKLIN/SCIENCE; (DATA) ANDREAS BOLTE/THÜNEN INSTITUTE OF FOREST ECOSYSTEMS

Most also agree that existing monocultures, so important to European forestry’s past, cannot ensure its future. “It’s a clear signal to the wood industry that you have to change the utilization from Norway spruce to other species,” Bolte says.

The consensus breaks down, however, when it comes to solutions. For some, the dieback offers a rare chance to dramatically shift forest policy toward a more hands-off approach. Allowing devastated forests to naturally regrow, the thinking goes, could revitalize ecosystems and start to reverse centuries of biodiversity decline.

One leading proponent of this view is Peter Wohlleben, a prominent author and forester. In books and media appearances, he describes natural forests as interconnected, cooperative communities. And he argues that Germany’s vaunted scientific forestry, with its single-minded focus on maximizing timber production, disrupted those communities, creating simplified forests that are highly vulnerable to climate extremes.

Wohlleben and his allies are calling for a wholesale rethinking of plantations. “It’s always better to let nature do the job,” he says. “I don’t know any place on Earth where a planted forest is better than a native forest.”

Pierre Ibisch and Jeanette Blumröder, biologists at the Eberswalde University for Sustainable Development, agree. In August, as bursts of rain and gloom alternated with intense sunshine, they visited a fire-scarred research plot 1 hour’s drive from Berlin that they believe could help prove the point.

Just a few years ago, the plot—part of a forest owned by the small town of Treuenbrietzen—was covered by Scotch pines, a common plantation species in regions with sandy soils. In the hot, dry summer of 2018, however, fires torched some 400 hectares of the pine forest, closing highways and forcing hundreds of people to flee their homes; smoke even reached Berlin. In the past, such large fires were almost unheard of in mild Central Europe.

In this plot, charred trees were removed, replaced by newly planted pines. But the drought, which continued through 2020, killed many of the puny seedlings, Blumröder pointed out as she surveyed the site. And even the survivors were struggling to keep up with fast-growing poplar saplings, some already 3 meters tall, that had sprouted on their own. The poplars’ vigor indicates that replanting is not necessary, Blumröder and Ibisch argue. “The problem is, foresters don’t wait,” Ibisch says. “They always say they think in long-term scales. But when calamity happens … they panic.”

In some other burned plots, Ibisch and Blumröder persuaded Treuenbrietzen’s forester to deviate from usual practices. On one tract, he left charred trunks standing and didn’t replant, allowing forest succession to proceed on its own—a rare practice. In others, he cleared some of the snags and planted rows of oaks—which many researchers believe could be more resilient to future climate change—instead of pines.

Two researchers check an instrument attached to the side of a tree trunk, surrounded by many fallen trees.
Forest researchers Pierre Ibisch (left) and Jeanette Blumröder check a data logger in a pine forest that burned in 2018 and is now being allowed to naturally regenerate. LENA MUCHA

In preliminary results, the new approaches are producing promising outcomes. In areas where some or all burned trees were left standing, for example, Ibisch and Blumröder have found more plant, fungus, and insect species than in cleared tracts. Soil temperatures in the uncleared tracts are lower on hot days, and winds calmer, helping the soil retain moisture. Moss is beginning to cover the ground where fallen trees have started to rot, preventing erosion and stimulating the growth of underground soil fungal networks. The lesson for Germany’s foresters, Blumröder believes, is that they should “step back, let the system do [its thing] first, and then learn from it.”

In Harz National Park, which sits in mountains straddling the former border of East and West Germany, ecologist Gunter Karste with the Harz National Park Authority is also bucking tradition. Here, waves of bark beetles have killed more than 10,000 hectares of spruce stands. But research published by Karste and colleagues persuaded park managers to let the dead snags stand and hold off on replanting. Today, the lifeless gray, spirelike trunks are everywhere, surrounded by tangles of fallen trees, their airborne root systems still clinging futilely to soil. People now call the tracts the Harzer Silberwald, or Harz Silver Forest, Karste says.

Less than 3% of Germany’s forests are currently managed like this, as strict nature preserves, but such practices could soon become more common. The German government has a goal to increase the figure to 5%, thanks in part to the ecological benefits Karste and others have documented. Although the dead trees “look awful the first 5 years,” Karste says, what regrows is far more diverse and resilient than a plantation. Although still largely spruce, which thrives on cold mountainsides, the trees vary far more in size and age than do those in uniform, planted stands. That creates a greater variety of niches for wildlife, Karste notes. In the understory, wildflowers bloom and bees buzz; blueberries, mountain ash, birch, and other shrubs and small trees thrive. Meanwhile, owls, bats, and other species roost in dead trunk cavities. Karste says research suggests that “when you don’t leave the dead trees, you lose 40% of the biology.”

The more diverse, naturally regenerating forest will also likely cope better with future drought and pests, he says, because trees of different ages respond differently to such stresses, making it more likely that some will survive. If the park had simply cleared and replanted, he says, “then in 60 years you would again have a forest that’s as interesting for the bark beetle as for the spruce forester.”

THE IDEA OF LEAVING forests alone alarms other researchers. They argue the climate is changing so quickly that, without human help, even many native trees won’t survive in places where they’ve long thrived.

“We have beeches dying now, we have maples dying … and pines that were considered pretty drought tolerant,” says Henrik Hartmann, a plant scientist at the Max Planck Institute for Biogeochemistry. “It’s not a spruce problem. It’s a general forest problem.” Recent modeling suggests more than half of Europe’s forests are now vulnerable to insects, storms, fires, or a combination of these threats, Hartmann and colleagues reported earlier this year in Nature Communications.

To reduce the risks, some experts argue forest owners need to strategically plant new, more resilient tree varieties. Hints about strong candidates could come from a 250-hectare arboretum founded in the late 1800s in Wuppertal, a hilly town in western Germany. Here, collectors planted some 200 tree species from all over the world. More than 100 of those species are still growing, offering a rare opportunity to assess how the mature trees are handling climate change.

This fall, Leonore Gärtner, the state forester who now manages the area, strolled with her dog through a stand featuring some North American natives—Alaskan red cedar, incense cedar, and western hemlock—each with a number painted on the trunk. It looked more like the Olympic Peninsula of Washington state than Germany. But Gärtner was excited because the trees were thriving, even after 3 years of drought. “It’s amazing,” she said. “The trees are looking good, very healthy.”

Gärtner believes the stand indicates foresters would do well by planting diverse mixes of commercially valuable species, increasing the likelihood that at least some will survive to harvest age in a changing climate.

A gloved hand holding a segment of bark, with winding paths bored into it by insects.
Bark beetles (second photo) carve galleries in trees (first photo) and kill many. Infestations are spreading in Germany because of drought and warmer temperatures. PHOTO CREDIT: (FIRST) LENA MUCHA; (SECOND) NIGEL CATTLIN/FLPA/MINDEN PICTURES

Others are exploring variations on this approach. For example, Nabuurs is co-leading a project that will plant native trees that haven’t been heavily used in forestry, such as linden and sweet chestnut, at 11 sites across Europe and assess their resilience to climate shifts. Hartmann, meanwhile, urges researchers to exploit the genetic diversity hidden within European tree species. Pines, for example, grow across much of the continent, and trees from hotter, drier areas—such as southern Europe—might have already evolved resistance to conditions forecast for Germany and other more northerly nations.

Hartmann cautions against immediately replanting dead forests with trees that have grown well in the past, instead urging foresters to first consult climate models that predict which tree species might fare best in the future. “We should not just blindly start reforesting sites that have been disturbed,” he says. “We could, by doing this, create the next disaster.”

WIDELY IMPLEMENTING new forestry techniques will require changes in government policy and buy-in from foresters and landowners. Germany’s agriculture ministry has already met the dieback with an unprecedented aid program, showering forest owners with €1.5 billion to help them remove dead trees and replant. Those receiving funds must plant a mix of species, the ministry has said, though owners not taking funds can still plant monocultures. And for the first time, the government has made funds available to forest owners who want to allow their woods to regenerate naturally.

Last week, Germany’s newly elected government went further, saying it intends to amend federal law to increase native forests, end logging in publicly owned oldgrowth beech stands, and promote other policies advocated by environmentalists.

The next step is largely up to the 2 million or so private landowners—individuals, families, and firms—who own about half the country’s forests, and the cities and states that own most of the rest. And whereas environmentalists want more forests managed primarily for ecological values rather than timber, most forest owners, private or public, aim to make money from logging.

Loggers use a harvester to fell trees.
Loggers remove spruce trees killed by drought and insects near Drübeck, Germany. Critics of such active management say forests should be left to rebound on their own. LENA MUCHA

The von Beymes, for one, aren’t keen on the hands-off approach. They see their denuded hillside, now thick with blackberries and grasses, not as a flourishing ecosystem, but a weedy, unprofitable mess. “That, to me, is not a forest,” Jörg von Beyme says.

Most sawmills are designed for evergreen conifers and continue to demand them, he notes. That means that for now it is nearly impossible to sell species that come in naturally, such as poplars and birches, and even some new planted varieties that might do well in the future climate. The von Beymes also note that the commercially valuable deciduous trees they are growing in some forests—including oaks and beeches—can take 140 to 160 years to mature, compared with a mere 60 to 80 years for spruce. Moreover, they add, climate research indicates the cold- and moisture-loving beech “has no future” as a dominant species in their area.

That’s why the von Beymes have planted some of their land with Douglas fir, a fast-growing conifer from North America. German foresters have been planting the species for nearly 2 centuries, but it is now gaining popularity because it’s thought to be especially drought- and pest-resistant. Jörg von Beyme, for example, points to data from the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research suggesting Douglas fir can tolerate drier soils than spruce.

But some are skeptical of the tree’s long-term future here. It’s native to the rain-soaked Pacific Northwest, they note, a far cry from increasingly dry Central Europe. And mature Douglas firs planted decades ago at Burgholz are losing their needles, Gärtner says; some have even been attacked by bark beetles.

THE VON BEYMES won’t know for decades whether the bet they’ve placed on their Douglas firs will pay off. In the meantime, the debate over Germany’s forests continues to simmer. Earlier this year, Wohlleben organized a summit called Waldsterben 2.0 (Forest Death 2.0), at which scientists, activists, and officials from Germany’s Green Party largely endorsed natural regeneration and criticized government officials for propping up the plantation system. Wohlleben says scientists from the government forest ministry declined to attend, but a ministry spokesperson says they never received invitations. The ministry held its own summit, where it announced new incentives for forest owners and a plan to compensate forest owners for using their forests to absorb and store carbon.

Some observers lament that the debate has become so polarized and are urging a middle path. “We don’t have perfect solutions anymore,” Reyer says. It is time to “stop pointing fingers at each other because it’s not leading anywhere,” Hartmann adds. Trees will still need to be planted, many argue, but more forested land should be left to nature.

One thing is clear: Germans will need to adapt to forests very different from the ones they’ve known. “This is disturbing for people,” Hartmann says. “The forest of the future will not look like the one where I was walking with my grandpa.”Reporting for this story was supported, in part, by an Arthur F. Burns Fellowship.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Gabriel Popkin

Gabriel Popkin is a journalist based in Mount Rainier, Maryland.


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The tomatoes at the forefront of a food revolution Share using EmailShare on TwitterShare on FacebookShare on Linkedin(Image credit: Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images)

BBC

More than 180 million tons of tomatoes are produced globally each year, but the crop is sensitive to changes in the climate (Credit: Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images)

By Marta Zaraska8th December 2021As global temperatures increase and extreme weather events become more common, can gene editing help to tweak our food plants so they can cope with the changes?A

At first glance, it looked like any other plant that can be found growing in the corners of offices or on the windowsills of university laboratories. But this particular tomato plant, grown in 2018 at the University of Minnesota, was different. The bushy tangle of elongated leaves and small red fruits were characteristic of a wild species of tomato plant native to Peru and Ecuador called Solanum pimpinellifolium, also known as the red currant tomato. A closer inspection, however, made the plant’s uniqueness more apparent.

This particular plant was more compact, with fewer branches but more fruits than the wild tomato. Its fruits were also a little darker than was usual, a sign of increased lycopene – an antioxidant linked to a lower risk of cancer and heart disease. It had, in fact, been designed that way.

The plant was created by geneticist Tomas Cermak and his colleagues with the use of Crispr gene editing, a Nobel Prize-winning technology which works like a “cut and paste” tool for genetic material. The technique is now revolutionising agriculture and helping create crops for the future.ADVERTISEMENT

Cermak himself is on a mission to find a perfect tomato, one that would be easy to cultivate, nutritious and tasty, yet more adaptable to a changing climate. “The ideal plant would be resistant to all forms of stress — heat, cold, salt and drought, as well as to pests,” he says.

Climate change spells trouble for many crops, and tomatoes are no exception. Tomatoes don’t like heat, growing best between 18C (64F) and 25C (77F). Cross either side of that threshold and things start going downhill: pollen doesn’t form properly, the flowers don’t form into berries in the way they should. Once the mercury goes over 35C (95F), yields begin to collapse. A 2020 study showed that by mid-21st Century up to 66% of land in California historically used for growing tomatoes may no longer have temperatures appropriate for the crop. Other modelling studies suggest that by 2050 large swaths of land in Brazil, sub-Saharan Africa, India and Indonesia will also no longer have optimal climate for cultivation of tomatoes.

Story continues belowSolanum pimpinellifolium is a wild tomato found in Peru and Ecuador which bears fruit the size of currants (Credit: Alamy)

Solanum pimpinellifolium is a wild tomato found in Peru and Ecuador which bears fruit the size of currants (Credit: Alamy)

Of course, as average temperatures rise, other, previously too chilly regions, may become tomato-friendly. Yet observations in Italy show that weather extremes are something to consider, too. The 2019 growing season in northern Italy was marred by hail, strong winds, unusually high rainfall, and both exceptional frost and exceptional heat. The result was stressed tomato plants and poor harvests.

And there is more. Water scarcity, which forces farmers to use lower quality irrigation water, often containing salt, leads to increases in soil salinity – something commercial tomato cultivars don’t like. Higher ozone levels, meanwhile, make tomatoes more susceptible to diseases such as bacterial leaf spot.

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That’s all troubling, especially considering that tomatoes are currently the largest horticultural crop in the world – humanity produces 182 million tons of the fruit every year, equivalent to the weight of almost 32 Great Pyramids of Giza. What’s more, our appetites for tomatoes are growing fast – over the last 15 years global production of tomatoes rose by more than 30%.

Besides being humanity’s favourite fruit, tomatoes also happen to be a model crop: they are fast to grow, easy to breed and relatively simple to manipulate on a genetic level. “There is more funding available for research than there is for other plant species to develop resources like genome sequences, genetic engineering, and gene editing for tomato,” says Joyce Van Eck, plant geneticist at the Boyce Thompson Institute in New York. Taken together, this makes tomatoes perfect for study of novel gene editing technologies such as Crispr, which could bring us many climate-adaptive crops in the near future.

Once the climate-smart genes such as these are identified, they can be targeted using Crispr to delete certain unwanted genes, to tune others or insert new ones

Crispr is a molecular toolbox scientists have repurposed from bacteria – when bacteria are attacked by viruses, they capture and cut the viral DNA to prevent the aggressor from being able to replicate and so fight it off. In use in plants since 2013, Crispr now allows researchers to modify genome with extreme precision and accuracy to obtain traits they desire. You can insert genes, delete them, and create targeted mutations. In non-human animals Crispr is being used for the study of human disease models, for improving livestock, and could even potentially be used to resurrecting extinct species. In plants, it can help create better, tastier, more nutritious and more resistant crops.

The first step is finding the right genes to target. “We need to identify the genes responsible or involved in being able to withstand abiotic and biotic stress because otherwise we cannot alter, modify or knock them out by using gene editing,” says Richard Visser, plant geneticist at Wageningen University, the Netherlands.

Domesticating crops, tomatoes included, has led to a huge loss of genetic diversity. Modern commercial cultivars may be fast to grow and easy to harvest, but genetically speaking they are plain vanilla. Just four highly homogenised crops – soybeans, rice, wheat and corn – dominate global agriculture, accounting for more than half of all the world’s agricultural land.

In contrast, their wild cousins – as well as so-called landraces (traditional varieties adapted to specific locations) – are a treasure box of genetic diversity. This is why scientists now search this genetic pool to identify traits that can be reintroduced into commercial plants – a process much helped by fast-dropping costs of DNA-sequencing technologies.As climate change alters rainfall patterns, new varieties of drought resistant crops will be needed in areas that struggle with water shortages (Credit: Janos Chiala/Getty Images)

As climate change alters rainfall patterns, new varieties of drought resistant crops will be needed in areas that struggle with water shortages (Credit: Janos Chiala/Getty Images)

One 2021 study looked at the genome of Solanum sitiens – a wild tomato species which grows in the extremely harsh environment of the Atacama Desert in Chile, and can be found at altitudes as high as 3,300m (10,826ft). The study identified several genes related to drought-resistance in Solanum sitiens, including one aptly named YUCCA7 (yucca are draught-resistant shrubs and trees popular as houseplants).

They are far from the only genes that could be used to give the humble tomato a boost. In 2020 Chinese and American scientists performed a genome-wide association study of 369 tomato cultivars, breeding lines and landraces, and pinpointed a gene called SlHAK20 as crucial for salt tolerance.

Once the climate-smart genes such as these are identified, they can be targeted using Crispr to delete certain unwanted genes, to tune others or insert new ones. This has recently been done with salt tolerance, resistance to various tomato pathogens, and even to create dwarf plants which could withstand strong winds (another side effect of climate change). However, scientists such as Cermak go even further and start at the roots – they are using Crispr to domesticate wild plant species from scratch, “de novo” in science speak. Not only can they achieve in a single generation what previously took thousands of years, but also with a much greater precision.

De novo domestication of Solanum pimpinellifolium was how Cermak and his colleagues at the University of Minnesota arrived at their 2018 plant. They targeted five genes in the wild species to obtain a tomato that would be still resistant to various stresses, yet more adapted to modern commercial farming – more compact for easier mechanical harvesting, for example. The new plant also had larger fruits than the wild original.

“The size and weight was about double,” Cermak says. Yet this still wasn’t the ideal tomato he strives to obtain – for that more work needs to be done. “By adding additional genes, we could make the fruit even bigger and more abundant, increase the amount of sugar to improve taste, and the concentration of antioxidants, vitamin C and other nutrients,” he says. And, of course, resistance to various forms of stress, from heat and pests to draught and salinity.Some scientists believe that Crispr's ability to accurately edit the traits of plants could usher in a new green revolution (Credit: Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

Some scientists believe that Crispr’s ability to accurately edit the traits of plants could usher in a new green revolution (Credit: Sean Gallup/Getty Images)

De novo domestication could also make orphan crops more attractive. These are plants that are grown on a limited scale, but have a great potential to help food security. Groundcherry, a wild cousin of tomatoes which produces subtly sweet berries, is one such crop that has been recently domesticated with Crispr technology. In the near future, de novo domestication could bring crops as cowpea, sorghum and teff — all cereals native to Africa – to a far wider audience around the world. Crispr is also now being used to improve various other plants, from bananas and grapes to rice and cucumbers.

Some scientists believe that Crispr gene-editing marks the beginning of the second green revolution to help feed the fast-growing human population. Yet although the technology does hold a great promise for crop improvement, it’s “not a miracle potion”, Visser says. There are still technical hurdles to address.

“Efficiency of editing can be a problem in some crop species,” Van Eck says. As opposed to diploid plants like tomato (which have paired chromosomes), those that have more than two paired sets of chromosomes (known as polyploid, like wheat), are much harder to work on. “You basically have more copies of a gene in polyploids that need to be affected by Crispr than in a diploid,” Van Eck adds.Scientists Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their discovery of the Crispr-Cas9 genetic scissors (Credit: Reuters/Eloy Alonso/Alamy)

Scientists Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their discovery of the Crispr-Cas9 genetic scissors (Credit: Reuters/Eloy Alonso/Alamy)

Regulation and social acceptance are also an issue. Crispr modified plants can be “transgene-free” – meaning that unlike traditional genetically modified (GM) crops, those created by Crispr technology do not contain DNA from a different species (ie transgenic) – that’s because the technology either involves simply deleting genes, or may involve inserting genes from a different varieties of the same species (as is being done with tomatoes).

Yet, the few existing studies on acceptance of Crispr-edited food products show a mixed picture. In a cross-country survey conducted in USA, Canada, Belgium, France and Australia, people perceived Crispr-edited and GM food similarly. However, in a 2020 Canadian study, consumers were more willing to accept Crispr-edited foods.

And then, there is the law. Although in 2016 Crispr-edited mushrooms fell into a legal loophole in the US and escaped regulation, Europe’s highest court decided in 2018 that gene-edited crops should be subject to the same stringent regulations that govern conventional GM organisms.

For Cermak’s climate-smart “ideal tomato”, such legal hurdles paired with consumer hesitance, could prove a major obstacle.

* This article was updated on 7 January 2022 to change Joyce Van Eck’s affiliation from Cornell University to the Boyce Thompson Institute, where she is primarily based.

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Nigeria needs biotechnology to weather climate change impacts on farming, say West African scientists

BY JOAN CONROW

NOVEMBER 24, 2021

Alliance for Science

Agricultural biotechnology will help Nigeria respond to climate change issues and support food security, asserts a new study by West African researchers.

“Evidence of climate change on agriculture in Nigeria has since been established and increased atmospheric warmness, irregular rainfall, emergent pests, [crop] diseases…and their resultant adverse effect on agricultural productivity are glaring,” the authors write in the November 2021 Handbook of Climate Change Management. “This scenario poses a serious threat to food security in Nigeria and calls for the adoption of innovative biotechnologies to create resilient crops with improved adaptation to the environmental stresses occasioned by the increasing climate change.”

While agricultural production is extremely vulnerable to the impacts of climate change, the higher mean temperatures and longer growing seasons resulting from global warming could favor farming in regions where temperatures are already low, like North America, Europe and Asia, the authors write. But production in already hot regions, like Africa, will possibly suffer greater productivity declines as higher temperatures bring longer periods of excessive heat, which in turn shorten the growing season and eventually reduce crop yields.

Additionally, research and a 2010 global weather forecast assert that climate change will reduce global agricultural production by 6 percent by the year 2080 — a figure that could reach 30 percent or more in warm regions like regions like Africa and India, write the authors, who are affiliated with Ebonyi State University in Nigeria and the Boyce Thompson Institute (BTI) at Cornell University. (Disclaimer: The Alliance for Science is housed at BTI.)

African farmers who have little or no access to irrigation facilities will be hardest hit, they write. “Therefore, farmers in these regions very much need innovative practices and technologies that improve agricultural production under the prevailing climate change scenarios. Current biotechnologies have provided limitless opportunities to expand crop improvement through [their] capacity to source genes for desired traits from distantly related species.”

Agricultural biotechnology has helped to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions (GHG) that contribute to climate change and develop crop cultivars that can tolerate heat, cold, drought, submergence and salinity stress, as well as pests and diseases, the authors write.

However, an assessment of the effects of climate change on agriculture, the anthropogenic causes of climate change and the current biotechnologies employed for climate change mitigation and adaptation in Nigeria “exposed the country’s very low capacity to deal with climate change issues using biotechnology approaches,” the authors conclude.

“In Nigeria, only IITA [International Institute of Tropical Agriculture] has the technical capacity for crop genetic engineering approach,” they note.

Nigerian researchers have developed two biotech crops to help farmers weather these challenges: insect-resistant (Bt) cotton and cowpea. Both have been approved for commercial use. Two other genetically modified crops —Africa bio-fortified sorghum and Nitrogen-Use Efficient, Water-Use Efficient and Salt-Tolerant (NEWEST) rice — are at different stages of field and confined field trials.

“Despite the numerous organizations that should be involved in the development, adoption, promotion and regulation of agricultural biotechnology in Nigeria, a recent comprehensive review of the current status of agricultural biotechnology in Nigeria  showed that the rate of development, adoption and implementation of agricultural biotechnology in Nigeria is still at a low ebb,” the authors assert. “In particular, research and deployment of transgenic technology is still in its embryonic stage in Africa’s most populous country…The slow rate of development and deployment of biotechnology in agriculture in the nation is unequivocally due to ethical, socioeconomic,and political issues, as well as poor knowledge of the technologies.”

The authors warn that “total reliance on conventional breeding methods in developing climate-friendly and resilient crop varieties, without incorporating the more efficient, modern, advanced, precise and reliable biotechnology techniques, will in the long-run deprive the rapidly expanding population access to adequate food provision and threaten food security and economic development.”

Land use change and forestry (LUCF) and the energy sector accounted for up to 70 percent of Nigeria’s GHG emissions in 2014. Agriculture contributes about 13 percent, largely from livestock production and rice cultivation.  In Nigeria, farmers use huge quantities of synthetic (nitrogen) fertilizers annually to boost crop yields, especially rice, which leads to high emission of N2O from this sector, the authors write.

Nigeria’s agricultural sector produces far more GHG emissions than in developed nations due to its use of traditional agricultural practices and overdependence on farming, the authors note.

Climate change has already been triggering drought and flooding scenarios that adversely affected crop production in various parts of Nigeria, the authors write. Reduced rainfall occurred in some northern states in 2010 and reduced millet, sorghum and cowpea production by about 10 percent. Other northern states that do not normally have heavy rainfall have experienced flooding that reduced rice production by as much as 50 percent.

Temperature and rainfall fluctuations are also associated with increases in plant diseases and insect pest pressure that further suppress production and make farming increasingly difficult. “Climate change-induced crop yield losses are forcing existing and potential farmers in Nigeria to abandon farming for nonfarming ventures,” the authors warn.

“As the effects of climate change on agricultural productivity in any region do not depend only on the changing climatic conditions, but even more on the region’s adaptive response capacity, Nigeria is at a high risk of the damaging effects of climate change if effective adaptive and mitigation technologies and strategies remain acutely lacking,” the authors caution.

“However, with the emerging biotechnology landscape in Nigeria, harnessing innovative biotech approaches for effective response to climate change is pivotal, but would require concerted efforts and engagement of all stakeholders including policy makers, scientists, and farmers.”

Image: A drought-ravaged field in Nigeria. Photo: Shutterstock: Paul shuang

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Graduate Students in Nepal Uncover the Impacts of Climate Change and Invasive Species Spread

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Integrated Pest Management Innovation Lab

Jul 27, 2021

Anju Sharma Paudel
Anju Sharma Paudel

This post is written by Sara Hendery, communications coordinator for the Feed the Future Integrated Pest Management (IPM) Innovation Lab

Virginia Tech’s Feed the Future IPM Innovation Lab is celebrating the work of 27 students funded by one of its projects. 

The IPM Innovation Lab collaborates with Tribhuvan University and the University of Virginia’s Biocomplexity Institute to assess the spread of invasive weeds over the last 30 years — based on elevation and under different climate scenarios — in central Nepal. The project has found that as climate change events continue to occur, invasive weeds are spreading faster and higher than ever before. 

Over the course of this six-year project, many research findings have been uncovered by graduate students supported by the project’s funding. Post-graduation, those students are now working at high levels within the Nepal government, universities and the private sector. They have also participated in more than 45 international and national conference presentations and published more than three dozen research papers in national and international scientific journals, with more being developed.

“Student research, with the guidance of experts and advisors, has been at the helm of some of the most exciting research to come out of this project,” said Pramod Jha, professor emeritus at Tribhuvan University and the project lead. “Some have uncovered, for example, incredibly valuable biocontrol options for some of Nepal’s most pressing invasive weed issues as well as assessed the shrinking land availability of critical food crops communities depend on. These students are just at the beginning of recognizing the long-term impacts of climate change and this initial research will propel them into future careers where they can actually see their work come to life.”

Take, for example, soon-to-be graduate Seerjana Maharjan. Maharjan is earning her Ph.D. from Tribhuvan University, researching the ecology and management of the invasive weed Parthenium hysterophorus, which causes human, animal and environmental health issues. Her research considers the possibility of winter rust as a biocontrol agent of parthenium and projects the increased suitable habitat of parthenium under future climate scenarios. Post-graduation, Maharjan will serve as a scientific officer in Nepal’s Department of Plant Resources, Ministry of Forests and Environment

Dol Raj Luitel also works as a senior scientific officer in Nepal’s Department of Plant Resources, Ministry of Forests and Environment. Earning his Ph.D. at Tribhuvan University, Luitel’s research explores the impact of climate change on distribution, production and cropping patterns of finger millet and buckwheat along altitudinal gradients in Nepal. His research assesses the medicinal value of finger millet, the declining habitat of buckwheat under future climate scenarios and the important nutrients that can be found in finger millet and soil at varying elevations.

Ghanshyam Bhandari earned his Ph.D. from the Agriculture and Forestry University, researching insect diversity of maize and eco-friendly management practices of maize stemborers. Bhandari’s research also assesses the performance of traps for capturing maize insects and farmer perception of climate change in relation to maize cultivation. As a current research officer at the Nepal Agricultural Research Council (NARC), Bhandari is assisting the IPM Innovation Lab in developing biological control efforts of the invasive fall armyworm in Nepal. 

Hom Nath Giri earned a Ph.D. from the Agriculture and Forestry University and currently serves as an assistant professor of horticulture at his alma mater. His research explores the growth of cauliflower at different ecological zones in Nepal, the effect of nitrogen on the post-harvest quality of cauliflower, and efficacy testing of pesticides against the cabbage butterfly in Nepal.

Anju Sharma Paudel earned a Ph.D. from Tribhuvan University, her research focusing on the management of the invasive weed Ageratina adenophora. Post-graduation, Paudel is continuing to develop her research, predicting the current and future distribution of Ageratina adenophora in Nepal and whether stem-galling of the invasive weed by the biocontrol agent Procecidochares utilis is elevation dependent.

The IPM Innovation Lab supported Ram Asheswar Mandal, a postdoctoral student at Tribhuvan University, over the course of the program. Mandal’s research assesses the impacts of climate change and biological invasion on livelihoods.

The IPM Innovation Lab has also supported 21 master’s-level students in the same project, many of whom now work as agricultural officers for the Nepal government or as lecturers at local universities.

Muni Muniappan, director of the IPM Innovation Lab, said the involvement of students in this project is a win-win for both students and research.

“Students are eager to address the biggest problems of our time,” he said, “whether it be food insecurity, resource limitations, climate change impacts or other constraints. Students bring to these global challenges new perspectives and out-of-the-box thinking that is exactly what is needed to help move the science forward. In return, they receive real-life, hands-on experience in their own country as well as other countries, which further nurtures their problem-solving abilities.”

Graduating master’s students funded by the project include:

  • Sagar Khadka, Tribhuvan University: Decomposition of Eichhornia crassipes of different fungi in Chitwan Annapurna Landscape, Nepal. 
  • Bidya Shrestha, Tribhuvan University: Impacts of climate change on biodiversity utilization by smallholder farmers. 
  • Pristi Dangol, Tribhuvan University: Changes in the life history traits of the invasive weed Lantana camara in central Nepal.
  • Yashoda Panthi, Tribhuvan University: Diversity of invasive alien plant species and their impacts on provisioning services in a village of Lamjung district. 
  • Ganga Shah, Tribhuvan University: Distribution of vulture species and its nest site from lowland to highland in Chitwan Annapurna Landscape, Nepal.
  • Vishubha Thapa, Tribhuvan University: Food access and threats to vultures in Chitwan Annapurna Landscape, Nepal. 
  • Vivekanand Mahat, Agriculture and Forestry University: Hygiene behavior of the honey bee (Apis cerana. F. and Apis mellifera L.) and diversity of flower visitors in rapeseed (Brassica campestris var. toria). 
  • Sarita Sapkota, Agriculture and Forestry University: Relative abundance of dung beetles and their role in nutrient cycling in Terai and mid hills of Nepal. 
  • Ramesh Upreti, Agriculture and Forestry University: Fruit thinning and defoliation effects on the quality and yield of papaya (Carica papaya) cv. Red Lady under net house conditions at Chitwan. 
  • Madhu Sudan Ghimire, Agriculture and Forestry University: Evaluation of indigenous cultivation of potato against late blight (Phytopthora infestance L.) in Okhaldhunga, Nepal.
  • Pratiksha Sharma, Agriculture and Forestry University: Climate resilient maize production among Chepang and non-Chepang communities in Chitwan, Nepal. 
  • Srijana Paudel, Tribhuvan University: Spatio-temporal distribution of Mikania micrantha in Chitwan Annapurna Landscape, Nepal. 
  • Abhisek Singh, Tribhuvan University: Spatio-temporal distribution of Ipomea carnea ssp fistulosa and spatio-temporal distribution of Lantana camara in Chitwan Annapurna Landscape, Nepal. 
  • Sita Gyawali, Tribhuvan University: Spatio-temporal distribution of Chromolaena odorata in Chitwan Annapurna Landscape, Nepal. 
  • Sandeep Dhakal, Tribhuvan University: Spatio-temporal distribution of Lantana camara in Chitwan Annapurna Landscape, Nepal. 
  • Sanjeev Bhandari, Tribhuvan University: Climate change and its impacts on fodder availability in Puranchaur, Kaski district.
  • Himal Yonjon, Tribhuvan University: Spatio-temporal distribution of Eichhornea crassipes in Chitwan Annapurna Landscape, Nepal. 
  • Chandra Paudel, Tribhuvan University: Impacts of Lantana camara on associated species. 
  • Binod Malla, Tribhuvan University: Impacts of Mikania micrantha on associated species. 
  • Aarati Chand, Tribhuvan University: Impacts of Parthenium hysterophorus on associated species. 
  • Nitu Joshi, Tribhuvan University: Impacts of  Chromolaena odorata on associated species.

This invasive weed modeling project is one of nine projects the IPM Innovation Lab currently manages. Since the program’s inception in 1993, it has funded the research of more than 600 students worldwide.FILED UNDER:AGRICULTURAL PRODUCTIVITYCLIMATE AND NATURAL RESOURCES

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Invasive Species Spread: Mapping the Impacts of Climate Change from Space

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Integrated Pest Management Innovation Lab

Oct 29, 2021

Sita Gyawali
Sita Gyawali

Nepal is considered to be one of the most vulnerable nations to climate change. The country’s unique geographic and topographic variations contribute to its rich biodiversity, which is at great risk from the spread of invasive species. As invasive species are more adaptable to change, they are wiping out critical native species that help communities and ecosystems thrive.  

Using satellite imaging, the Innovation Lab for Integrated Pest Management and Tribhuvan University in Nepal monitor the spread of invasive weeds, tracking species specifically between the period of 1990 to 2018. The programs account for climatic changes that have occurred over the last 30 years – such as fluctuations in rainfall and temperature – to measure how climate change impacts the spread of the invasive weeds over time.

Chromolaena odorata is one such weed, and is considered one of the world’s worst invasive alien species. Native species are greatly impacted by Chromolaena’s spread. The weed alters soil health, and due to the high level of nitrate content in its leaves, it’s poisonous to cattle.

Tribhuvan University graduate student Sita Gyawali utilized multispectral and medium spatial resolution satellite data – using programs such as Landsat, World View 2, and ArcGIS – to show that Chromolaena has significantly increased in spread over the last 30 years. The weed’s expansion in the Chitwan Annapurna Landscape (CHAL) area was 0.62% in 1992, and 0.87%, 1.11%, 1.29% in the years of 2000, 2010, and 2018, respectively. In total, its coverage increased from 201 sq. km to 412 sq. km, indicating that the weed is still invading new areas. The invasion of Chromolaena is expanding mostly in the mid-hill region of Nepal, considered to encompass the country’s most fertile lands.

“Images from such programs as Landsat and World View have become an invaluable source of data for detecting the spatial distribution of Chromolaena in Nepal,” said Gyawali. “Historical time series of remotely sensed data presents opportunities for characterizing habitat preferences of new species. This information provides us the insight we need in order to find management technologies that can combat the weed.”

In addition to Chromolaena, the project is also assessing the distribution expansion of the invasive weed Lantana camara. Lantana can be extremely destructive, as it smothers native vegetation, reducing species diversity and leading to species extinction. Tribhuvan University graduate student Sandeep Dhakal used Landsat images to show that the weed has increased in spread over the last 30 years, progressing from 0.24%, 0.9%, 1.45%, and 2.74 % in area in CHAL in the years 1992, 2000, 2009, and 2018, respectively. The largest area of distribution was found in Middle Mountain, followed by Siwalik and high mountains.

“Effective mapping of invasive species extent and determining the risk they pose for future invasions is incredibly important to Nepal,” said Dhakal. “The food we eat, the land our animals graze on, and more is at risk if we do not continue to utilize these types of programs to understand invasive species impact.”

Tribhuvan University students knew little about remote sensing before the start of the Virginia Tech-managed project. They gained satellite monitoring and modeling expert assistance from collaborators at the University of Virginia’s Biocomplexity Institute, who also operate the IPM Innovation Lab’s monitoring program of the invasive insect pest Tuta absoluta. Through this project alone, the IPM Innovation Lab has supported 27 students for their graduate degrees in Nepal. 

“For students to come into this program and learn a completely new skill – one that they will be able to apply to future careers – is a major contribution to building Nepal’s local research capacity,” said Pramod K. Jha, head of the program. “We know that invasive species respond quickly to change. As climate change persists and globalization continues, we cannot afford to wait to see how our lands are changing over time. Monitoring systems using satellite imaging help give us a bird’s eye view of not only how quickly this change is happening, but how quickly we need to react to ensure no further damage is done.”

Graduate students involved in the invasive weed modeling program in Nepal have already published 42 research publications in international and national journals in the areas of climate change, satellite imaging, biodiversity, and beyond.

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