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Future Directions

Access to crop seeds through an SMTA: what is that?

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Carolina Roa, Independent Consultant at CropIP

“We need a material transfer agreement”

Copyright: CIAT, CC BY-SA.

© CIAT, licensed under Creative Commons CC BY-SA.

As a plant breeder in the area of food and agriculture you look for well-characterized ­– or at least well-referenced – plant materials suitable for making crosses and generating populations to be tested for agricultural traits. If you or your organization don’t already have such materials, you are likely to contact people at seed or germplasm banks, research or breeding programs to obtain sexual or vegetative seeds.

Have the entities come back to you saying that to get access to the plant material you and/or your organization need to agree to the terms of a material transfer agreement (MTA)? Have they perhaps used the expression “Standard Material Transfer Agreement (SMTA)”? Likewise, if you wanted to provide germplasm to a colleague or a breeder/researcher at another institute, has your own organization told you that an MTA or an SMTA is required? You may be asking yourself, “What is an MTA or SMTA, and why are they required?” This article aims to address these questions.

International and national contexts behind the agreements

Around 20 years ago, no written agreement was necessary to exchange plant materials used for research, breeding or training in the area of food and agriculture, particularly if one was working in the public sector. A verbal agreement was likely to suffice. The latter, however, meant that access to plant materials depended in great measure on personal or inter-organizational relationships, geographic proximity, reciprocity and mutual gain, and interactions between governments1.

Maize active collection. © Xochilquetzal-Fonseca, CIMMYT, licensed under Creative Commons CC BY-NC-SA.

Maize active collection. © Xochilquetzal Fonseca, CIMMYT, licensed under Creative Commons CC BY-NC-SA.

In the early 1990s the situation changed with the advent of two major international treaties. The Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD), in force since 1993, deals with access to all biological diversity, including all genetic resources, as well as the sharing of benefits arising from their use. The International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (ITPGRFA; referred to as the Plant Treaty), in force since 2004, carved a niche for plant genetic resources for food and agriculture (PGRFA) and created a multilateral system to facilitate access and benefit sharing for PGRFA deemed important for food security2.

A large number of countries are members of one or both of these treaties, currently 194 countries in the case of the CBD and 134 in the case of the Plant Treaty. The country members (called Contracting Parties) have implemented national laws and regulatory measures to adopt and adapt these regimes at national levels. Implementation, however, is not uniform. Some countries have amended existing national laws to incorporate the main aspects of the international treaties. Others have issued specific national laws that reproduce the international instruments and have added aspects pertinent to their national contexts, and a number of countries have not yet implemented the treaties at a national level. Therefore, as a plant breeder/researcher you are likely to encounter different rules and conditions for accessing or providing PGRFA, depending on whether the country where the materials are located have implemented the CBD, the Plant Treaty, both or none, and depending on the rules and regulations applicable at the organizations hosting/administering the plant materials, including your own institute.

MTA or SMTA? What’s the difference?

ILRI Forage genebank_ILRI-Stevie Mann-CC BY-NC-SA

ILRI forage genebank © Stevie Mann, ILRI, licensed under Creative Commons CC BY-NC-SA.

Whether an MTA with specific conditions of access and use, or the SMTA with standardized conditions applies for the plant materials to be exchanged depends on whether CBD-derived regulations apply, or whether the Plant Treaty operates. In case CBD rules apply, you or your institute, as a prospective recipient, will receive an MTA with conditions defined by the germplasm provider. You/your institute will need to accept the terms as they are, or try negotiating and modifying them to suit your purposes. This process normally takes time and legal skills. Going through this bilateral negotiation process every time new plant material is requested from another entity could be a deterrent to the research, and breeding work might not progress at the pace and scale that is needed to address growing food security challenges.

The SMTA, as its name indicates, was designed by the negotiators of the Plant Treaty as a standard and multilateral MTA with fixed terms and conditions of access and use, applicable to plant materials from 64 food and feed crops listed in Annex 1 of the Plant Treaty, which are under public management and control and in the public domain. This system is referred to as the Multilateral System of access and benefit sharing (MLS for short). The SMTA also applies to PGRFA placed voluntarily into the MLS by its holders. Therefore, if particular PGRFA required for research, breeding and/or training purposes are under the MLS, the SMTA as it is applies without the need to negotiate terms, saving time and costs.

At this point it is worth clarifying that PGRFA, even belonging to the crops listed in Annex 1 of the Plant Treaty, owned or administered by private corporate entities are generally outside the MLS. Likewise, PGRFA of the listed crops growing in farmers’ fields, or PGRFA under development by breeders or farmers (that is, not ready for commercialization and commonly referred to as ‘breeding materials’) may not be under the MLS. Their inclusion in the MLS is at the discretion of the owner/holder, the grower or the developer of the breeding materials. If they place such materials under the MLS, they will need to use the SMTA as the instrument for access and benefit sharing for the purposes specified in the Plant Treaty. However, the developer is entitled to add terms and conditions to the SMTA.

How the SMTA works3

CIAT Genebank_Luigi Guarino_CC BY

CIAT genebank © Luigi Guarino, licensed under Creative Commons CC BY.

Scope of use – PGRFA under the SMTA can be used for research, breeding and/or training in the fields of food and agriculture. If the intended use is different, e.g., extraction of compounds to be used for chemical or pharmaceutical applications, the SMTA is not the instrument to use. Other conditions dictated by national legislation, the holder/owner of the resources, or both may apply for non-food/feed applications.

Facilitated access – access to PGRFA should be free of charge and expeditious, without the need to track individual accessions. If a fee is charged, it should reflect ‘minimal costs’ related to shipment and transport costs. For instance, costs of seed maintenance, seed production, and the like should not be included.

Provider’s obligations and rights – the main obligations of PGRFA providers include (1) granting ‘facilitated access’ to PGRFA and associated passport data and non-confidential descriptive information, and (2) reporting periodically to the Secretariat of the Plant Treaty about the SMTAs entered into. As a provider and developer of breeding materials, you will have discretion on granting access to such materials while they are under development. If you grant others access to such materials, you’d be entitled to add terms and conditions to the SMTA, including aspects such as payments, limitations on subsequent transfers, etc.

Recipient’s obligations and rights – the main obligations that come with materials received under the SMTA include: (1) to exclusively use them for research, breeding, and/or training related to food and agriculture; (2) to not claim intellectual property rights or any other rights that may limit facilitated access; (3) to use a new SMTA for subsequent transfers; and (4) to report such subsequent transfer to the Secretariat of the Plant Treaty.

If the recipient were to subsequently transfer PGRFA under development, the recipient will act as a provider and in this case, s/he should (1) use a new SMTA; (2) identify in Annex 1 of the new SMTA the material from which the breeding materials were derived; and (3) report this transaction to the Secretariat of the Plant Treaty.

If additional conditions are added to the SMTA for the transfer (or the subsequent transfer) of PGRFA under development, they should go as a separate agreement to the associated SMTA and there is no need to report such add-on conditions to the Secretariat of the Plant Treaty. A recipient of PGRFA, whether under development or not, has no further duties with respect to the actions of a subsequent recipient.

Benefit sharing commitments – As a recipient, you are expected to share the benefits obtained from MLS materials with the agricultural community in general. As an example, granting access for further research and breeding to products developed by incorporating MLS materials received, is one of such benefits. In this case, you may also voluntarily contribute funds to the Benefit Sharing Fund, administered by the Plant Treaty, which finances food and feed-related research projects, mostly in developing economies. Conversely, if you decided to restrict further access to your MLS-derived products, you would be required to pay to the Benefit Sharing Fund either 0.77% or 0.5% of the sales of your product, depending on whether you opted to pay per accession received (first amount) or per crop accessed (second figure). The payment requirement operates regardless of how much MLS-derived material has been incorporated into your product and it will last as long as access to the product is restricted.

Duration – the particular SMTA you entered into will be valid as long as the Plant Treaty remains in force.

Genebanks using the SMTA

Rice seed varieties. Copyright: IRRI CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Rice seed varieties. © IRRI, licensed under Creative Commons CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Apart from national seed collections of member countries, there are international institutions that have placed their seed holdings under the purview of the Plant Treaty.  The International Agricultural Research Centers of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) are among those institutions. Eleven of the CGIAR centers, holding approximately 700,000 accessions of crops listed in Annex 1, as well as non-Annex 1 crops and breeding materials, use the SMTA to transfer these materials for the purposes specified by the Plant Treaty.

The individual websites of the CGIAR centers publish lists of available accessions, and requests can be placed electronically. As a prospective recipient, you should receive confirmation of availability of sufficient seed for shipping together with an electronic copy of the SMTA. You have the options to accept the SMTA terms through a mouse click, by signature, or by ripping the package containing the seed and a printed copy of the SMTA. From this point onwards, the rights and obligations of the SMTA for both providers and recipients start operating.

Therefore, next time you receive an SMTA don’t despair; come back to these notes and seek guidance from the legal or other pertinent office at your organization on how to proceed with this or any other kind of agreement. ©

 

REFERENCES

  1. Halewood, M (2013). What kind of goods are plant genetic resources for food and agriculture? Towards the identification and development of a new kind of commons. International Journal of the Commons 7(2): 278–312.
  2. Moore, Gerard and Tymowski. 2005. Explanatory guide to the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture. IUCN, Gland, Switzerland and Cambridge, UK. xii + 212 pp.
  3. Standard Material Transfer Agreement (accessed at http://www.planttreaty.org/content/what-smta).

 

About the author: Carolina Roa is plant biologist and a legal professional with around 25 years of experience. She has worked for the public and private sector in different parts of the world on a range of legal and intellectual-property aspects related to agriculture and biotechnology. Carolina is currently the Principal Consultant at CropIP. She can be reached at carolina@crop-ip.info.

Yes, Africa will feed itself within the next 15 years

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Africa will be able to feed itself in the next 15 years. That’s one of the big “bets on the future” that Bill and Melinda Gates have made in their foundation’s latest annual letter. Helped by other breakthroughs in health, mobile banking and education, they argue that the lives of people in poor countries “will improve faster in the next 15 years than at any other time in history”.

Their “bet” is good news for African agriculture: agronomy and its natural twin, agricultural extension, are back on the agenda. If Africa is to feed itself, the women and men who grow its crops need access to technical expertise on how to manage their variable natural resources and limited inputs and market intelligence on what to grow, what to sell and what to keep.

New tools in the hands of farmers

The Gates foundation report outlines that African countries spend $50 billion a year importing food. Nigeria alone imports $500m of rice from Vietnam each year.

But there is no quick fix that will transform African agriculture without skillful agronomy and intelligent extension. Whatever the promises brought by new, drought-tolerant varieties of crops such as maize, they cannot achieve their potential without the wise management of fertilisers, timing of cultivations and appropriate crop rotations.

Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation 

As the graph above shows, sub-Saharan Africa’s crop yields remain very low compared to the rest of the world. Sadly, in our rush for only genetic solutions to increasing agricultural yields, we have ignored the fields and landscapes in which crops are grown. The consequence has been a missing generation of scientifically trained agronomists and agricultural extension workers – who help teach farmers about new farming practices – with the skill sets required to manage resources and apply principles.

Meanwhile, powerful tools such as geospatial mapping, predictive modelling, remote-sensing (using aerial imaging to assess the state of vegetation) and mobile technologies have advanced to a stage where they are of practical use to the scientific agronomist, educated extensionist and literate farmer. We now have a real opportunity to link genetic advances and improved management with the social and economic drivers for African agriculture. This “research value chain” between grower and consumer requires that each research discipline plays an interconnected role with the end-user always in sharp focus.

Soils and sustainability

So, what are the priorities for African agriculture in the next 15 years? First, we must rehabilitate its soils. Since 2015 has been declared as the UN International Year of Soil, we need to recognise that Africa has some of the world’s frailest soils, which have suffered most from “cereal abuse” through the almost continuous cultivation of cereal crops. These monocultures have left Africa’s soils tired and impoverished. Applications of fertilisers will not, by themselves, be enough to save them.

For sustainable agricultural systems, we need to reconsider our addiction to major cereals grown as monocultures and move from “calorie security” to “nutritional security”. For this, nitrogen-fixing leguminous crops have to be part of any solution. In his Noble Peace Prize address in 1970, Norman Borlaug, the father of what became known as the “green revolution” in South Asia, recognised the imbalance between research advances on the major cereals and those on all other crops:

The only crops which have been appreciably affected up to the present time are wheat, rice, and maize… nor has there been any appreciable increase in yield or production of the pulse or legume crops, which are essential in the diets of cereal-consuming populations.

Approaching 50 years later, the situation remains similar. Clearly, improvements in leguminous crops (such as beans and lentils), both in their own right as nutritious sources of food and as rehabilitators of soil, are long overdue. Since 2016 has been declared as the UN International Year of Pulses, there is no better opportunity to redress the historical imbalance noted by Borlaug.

Crops for the future

We also need to recognise that most African family farmers are women. Often the species they cultivate are not the major cash crops grown by men as mechanised monocultures. Rather, they are local “underutilised” species, often legumes and vegetables, which families cultivate in complex landscapes for their own sustenance.

These crops, and the multiple cropping systems which support them, have few influential champions and rarely feature in the research strategies of national and international agencies. But it is crops and agricultural systems such as these that will help Africa feed itself sustainably.

In a very real sense, these “crops for the future” will help diversify Africa’s agriculture to meet the volatile physical and economic climates that lie ahead. Unlike the major crops which have received billions of dollars of support over generations, underutilised crops deserve a “big bet” over the next 15 years if they are to help achieve major breakthroughs for most people in most poor countries.

The Conversation

This article was written by Sayed Azam-Ali, CEO of the Crops for the Future Research Centre and Professor of Global Food Security at University of Nottingham, and originally published at The Conversation.

Read the original article.

B.B. Singh’s quest to make cowpea the food legume of the 21st century

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4fig3In 1944, the year Bir Bahadur (B.B.) Singh was born in the state of Uttar Pradesh in India, Indian agriculture was in shambles. During nearly 200 years of British rule, the country’s agricultural enterprise had been turned over to commodities such as cotton, indigo, and sugarcane for export; what little food was grown hinged on rainfall and the soil’s natural fertility—or lack of it. Crop yields were often abysmal as a result, and famine was common. So when India won independence from Britain in 1947, the Indian government enacted a sweeping program of nationwide, agricultural education.

That’s why when Singh graduated in 1956 from his village school with good grades and an interest in science, he found himself at one of India’s newly minted agricultural high schools. It was the only nearby school where he could study science, Singh says, as well as the closest high school to his home. Plus, his father wanted him to attend, saying, “Why don’t you study agriculture and see what help you can give to our people,” Singh recalls.

“So I was okay with going to an agricultural high school, and that later became my good luck,” he says. Turns out it also became the good luck of millions of the world’s smallholder farmers.

Today, Singh is among the most revered breeders of legume—or pulse—crops, credited with improving the diets, incomes, and lives of farming families across Africa, Asia, and South America. In the late 1960s and 1970s, for instance, the ASA and CSSA Fellow not only established the first systematic breeding program for soybean in India, but was also pivotal in bringing the novel food to millions of Indian people. Soybean production has since grown in India from just 5,000 tons in 1961 to about 12 million today. Yet this was only the start.

“Of course, B.B. is best known for his work with cowpea,” says Bill Payne, an ASA, CSSA, and SSSA Fellow who was at Texas A&M and CGIAR in Ethiopia before becoming dean of agriculture at the University of Nevada–Reno this winter. “Almost anywhere in the world, you cannot work on cowpea without running into him in some way, fashion, or form.”

imagesKnown also as black-eyed pea, cowpea is a staple crop in many tropical areas, and Singh’s signature achievement is a fast-maturing variety that fits into the rotational niches between wheat, maize, and rice. Due largely to this advance, worldwide cowpea production rose from 1.3 million to 7 million tons between 1981 and 2013—the only food legume to enjoy such an upswing. But the crop scientist, now in the 48th year of his career, isn’t content to stop there.

“I think there’s a very good possibility that we will have a surge in pulse production in the coming decades,” says Singh, who currently splits his time between Texas A&M University and India’s G.B. Pant University. The title of his new book, Cowpea—The Food Legume of the 21st Century asserts the same.

Those who know him don’t doubt it. “He’s just tenacious,” says CSSA President David Baltensperger, also an ASA and CSSA Fellow. He often compares Singh’s success with cowpea to Norman Borlaug’s accomplishments with wheat. “One of the secrets to B.B., like Dr. Borlaug, has been his ability to keep his eye on what he considers to be really powerful fundamentals. That leads to a lot of success over a long career.”

Good decisions… and a little luck

Focus is indeed crucial for a researcher, and other colleagues add that Singh is highly intelligent, full of energy, and a careful listener—as well as supremely dedicated to helping farmers.

“He is an excellent scientist—I mean, he publishes a lot,” says Ken Dashiell of the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture (IITA) in Ibadan, Nigeria, from which Singh retired in 2006. “But he probably spends 98% of his energy on getting the best cowpea varieties for the farmers, and 2% of his energy on publishing.”

What Singh himself says is that he’s been lucky. “At every stage of my life, some good people have come, given me direction, and good things have happened,” he says. The first stroke of luck came when his father pushed him toward an agricultural high school because it helped gain him admission in 1960 to India’s first agricultural university: Uttar Pradesh Agricultural University (now Pant University).

4fig3Singh then earned a scholarship in 1963 to do graduate studies in plant breeding at the University of Illinois, where again he made a fateful choice. After learning how much research was already under way to improve cereals, Singh resolved to study legumes to help India’s vegetarian multitudes meet their need for protein. And at the University of Illinois, that meant one option: soybean.

“So, that’s how I decided to work on soybean,” he says, “and it was one of the best decisions that I took in my life.”

Soybean contains roughly twice the protein of other pulses, he explains, and by the time he earned his Ph.D., USAID and the University of Illinois were already trying to bring soybean to countries beset by malnutrition, including India. Meanwhile, the dean of agriculture at Pant University was monitoring Singh’s progress, and in 1968 sent him a “very personal and emotional letter,” Singh says. It offered him—now a postdoc at Cornell—an assistant professorship at Pant that included 50% more salary than what a new assistant professor in India typically earned.

Singh had two competing offers from U.S. universities for substantially higher pay, but he never gave the decision a second thought. Later that year, he returned to India to begin the work that would transform soybean from an agricultural novelty into one of the nation’s principal foods.

He might have stayed at Pant for the rest of his career. But in 1977, a change in university administration led to major campus unrest, including the shooting of several staff. Hoping to get away for a “breathing spell,” Singh began looking for other opportunities and was immediately offered soybean breeding positions by the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) in Zambia and by IITA in Nigeria. Opting for IITA because of his interest in research, he intended to stay abroad for just two years, but “then based on my work, they kept me there forever, and I spent my life there,” he says.

They asked something else of him, as well: to work not on soybean, but cowpea.

Continue reading this story in the Oct. 2014 issue of CSA News magazine…

This blog was first published by the American Society of Agronomy

https://www.agronomy.org/science-news/bb-singhs-quest-make-cowpea-food-legume-21st-century

Cellulosic Ethanol from Sugarcane in Brazil

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sugarcane fieldBrazil is a major producer of ethanol from sugarcane, and this leading global position is the fruit of scientific and technological advances resulting from a development program that was initiated in the 1970s. Driven by the oil crises of 1972-1973, Brazil transformed several sugar mills into ethanol producing units that became capable of co-production of ethanol and raw sugar (5). This was technically possible due to the high levels of sucrose in sugarcane and to the development of yeast strains capable of fermenting this sugar efficiently. At the same time, the first automobiles running exclusively on ethanol were introduced, which on the one hand helped Brazil face major world energy crises, and on the other implanted the basis for development of future technologies. Over the following 40 years, Brazilian sugar mills undertook a technological transformation that significantly increased the efficiency of sucrose and alcohol production. This method, now called first generation (1G), has reached a level of 90% conversion of sucrose into ethanol (5). At the same time, advances in sugarcane agricultural technology improved the sugarcane crop to a high level of productivity (averaging 80 tones per hectare). Using intensive breeding programs, a number of sugarcane varieties have been developed that are increasingly better adapted to the diverse climate and soils encountered in Brazil. The result is that Brazil is now the second largest producer of ethanol and the first placed producer of sugarcane in the world.

The necessity to produce second-generation ethanol

Until 2006, Brazil was the only country to produce and use ethanol on a large scale as a fuel alternative for cars. Since then, increased public awareness and governmental focus around the world on issues related to climate change and the excessive use of fossil fuels has led to increased interest in the use of renewable energy. It was at this moment that Brazil, with its highly efficient sugarcane bioethanol sector, became a leader worldwide in the production and use of renewable energy. Nevertheless, production of 1G bioethanol was already at the limit of efficiency both from industrial and agronomical viewpoints.

It was in this context that the Brazilian scientific community and the Federal and State of São Paulo governments took the initiative in the search for ways to increase production of sugarcane ethanol beyond current limits. An idea that was already being revived in several places in the world was the possibility to produce ethanol from sugar polymers, including cellulose, present in cell walls of plants. This search for ‘cellulosic ethanol’ is generally referred to as second-generation (2G) ethanol. Although establishment of 1G technology was highly successful, the potential for ethanol production from 2G is much higher because energy accumulated in sugarcane in the form of sucrose represents only 1/3 of the total. The other two-thirds are distributed equally between the bagasse (stems) and the leaves.

Cell wall recalcitrance

At first sight, the idea of producing ethanol from biomass seems straightforward: it would be enough to convert cellulose to free sugars that could be fermented by yeast. Although many advances have been made in this area, this problem is far from being solved, and developing 2G processes that are economically viable has proven to be a major challenge. The plant cell wall is composed mainly of carbohydrates in the form of polysaccharides that associate to form a supramolecular structure where polymers aggregate through non-covalent linkages. Some polysaccharides are branched with phenolic compounds (ferulic an p-coumaric acids). Ferulic acid can dimerize interlocking polysaccharide chains or these can still undergo polymerization with other phenylpropanoids, including p-hydrocinammic, sinapyl and coniferyl alcohols, forming lignin. Together, the supramolecular structure of cell-wall polymers constitute the main obstacle to enzymatic hydrolysis. Furthermore, known hydrolytic enzymes have molecular sizes that prevent their penetration into the polymer matrix. Therefore, when a mixture of enzymes is added to the surface of the cell wall, the catalytic attack is mainly on the surface of the composite. To perform more complete hydrolysis, enzymatic complexes would have to act in a synergetic fashion on the entire cell wall composite. At present this is not feasible as researchers cannot adequately control the process because very little is known about the synergism between the enzymes involved. One of the principal limitations to understand such mechanisms is that until recently our knowledge of the structure and architecture of the sugarcane cell wall was very limited.

Sugarcane buckAt the biological level, cell wall recalcitrance in plants is thought to be due to the wall’ ability to protect against herbivores and the penetration of pathogens. At the molecular level, the cell wall of sugarcane presents three domains of polysaccharides that interact through non-covalent linkages: the pectic domain, the hemicellulosic domain and the cellulosic domain. The cellulosic domain is embedded within the hemicellulosic domain and both are embedded in the pectin domain. Thus, the basic unit of the cell wall of sugarcane consists of a core with macrofibrils (agglomerated of microfibrils) of cellulose strongly linked to structurally complex hemicelluloses that display a glycomic code, the complex branching pattern of these compounds (2). In addition, this core of polysaccharides is surrounded by an agglomerate of polymers that interact with themselves. Phenolic compounds are also thought to interlock the three polysaccharide domains so that the covalent linkages are protected, effectively sealing the whole unit and creating a structure that is extremely resistant to mechanical, chemical and biochemical degradation.

Several publications produced by the research labs of the National Institute of Science and Technology of Bioethanol (INCT-Bioetanol – www.inctdobioetanol.com.br) have demonstrated that it is possible to disassemble the cell wall using chemical reagents (4). The procedure consists of initially attacking the phenolic compounds and eliminating them from the wall. This makes subsequent separation of the wall polysaccharides possible via treatment with a series of alkali solutions of increasing concentration (6).

A procedure called pretreatment (chemical and physical treatments with hot water, ammonia, acids and/alkali), eliminates the porosity barrier so that all polymers become accessible to attack by hydrolases. However, the branching nature of hemicelluloses still acts as a barrier and prevents further enzyme attack of the polymer chains. This highlights the necessity of using specific enzymatic complexes in order to produce free sugars that can be utilized for fermentation (1-7). As branched hemicelluloses alter the way polysaccharides are recognized by enzymes, their branching pattern (glycomic code) can alter the interaction between enzyme and substrate, affecting enzyme kinetics and cell wall degradation efficiency. The available data shows that the cell wall of sugarcane displays at least 18 glycosidic linkages, and suggests that approximately the same number of enzymes will be necessary to degrade the cell wall completely (5,6). Nevertheless, this chemical process is extremely complicated, laborious and expensive, and this is therefore not a viable strategy for industry.

The collection of enzymes characterized during the first phase of the INCT-Bioetanol contains practically all the catalytic capabilities needed for complete sugarcane cell wall hydrolysis. For this reason, the Institute has reached a point of prioritizing experiments focused on combining enzymes, forming consortia capable of dealing with each of the limiting factors related to recalcitrance. The possible combinations of enzymes have been proposed (1,6) and during the next phase of the project, these strategies will be put into practice by an integrated group of researchers in a series of experiments that will test this hypothesis.

At the same time, it will be necessary to understand the variability in the structure of the sugarcane cell wall in order to find Brazilian sugarcane varieties possessing structures and architectures that are more amenable to hydrolysis. Although the variation in cell wall composition is relatively limited among sugarcane tissues, one may expect to find considerable variation among the great number of extant varieties. This has been recently observed for Miscanthus and maize, two grass species that are genetically related to sugarcane and with very similar cell walls. Several research groups have concentrated efforts on understanding the role of lignin in recalcitrance and have concluded that this interference is somewhat limited. The reduction in lignin content leads in general to an increase in saccharification in a non-linear fashion depending on the pre-treatment, morphological distribution and the level of lignin aggregation (9), suggesting that other cell wall domains make equally important contributions to the recalcitrance of biomass. Research groups of the INCT-Bioetanol have already obtained transformed sugarcane in which the gene encoding one of the enzymes of lignin biosynthesis (COMT) has been silenced. These transgenic plants have cell walls that are modified, and saccharification tests are currently in progress. During the second phase of the INCT we intend to verify whether such genetic variability also exists in sugarcane and to use this information to obtain varieties in which differences among cell wall composition lead to lower recalcitrance to hydrolysis.

 

Marcos S. Buckeridge

msbuck@usp.br

Laboratory of Plant Physiological Ecology, Depatment of Botany, Institute of Biosciences, University of São Paulo (www.lafieco.com.br)

Director of the National Institute of Science and Technology of Bioethanol (www.inctdobioetanol.com.br)

 

REFEFENCES

  1. Buckeridge, M.S., Dos Santos,W.D., Tiné, M.A.S., De Souza, A.P. (2015) Compendium of Bioenergy Crops: Sugarcane edited by Eric Lam. CRC Press, Taylor and Francis (in press)
  2. Buckeridge, M.S. & De Souza, A.P. (2014) Breaking the “glycomic code” of cell wall polysaccharides may improve second generation bioenergy production from biomass. Bioenergy Research DOI 10.1007/s12155-014-9460-6
  3. Buckeridge, M.S.; Souza, A.P.; Arundale, R.A.; Anderson-Teixeira, K.J.; DeLucia, E. (2012) Ethanol from sugarcane in Brazil: a “midway” strategy for increasing ethanol production while maximizing environmental benefits. GCB Bioenergy, 4:119-126.
  4. Buckeridge, M. S. (Org.) ; Goldman, G. H. (Org.) . Routes to cellulosic ethanol. 1. ed. Nova Iorque: Springer, 2011. v. 1. 263p.
  5. De Souza, A. P. ; Grandis, A. ; Leite, D. C. C. ; Buckeridge, M.S. (2014) Sugarcane as a Bioenergy Source: History, Performance, and Perspectives for Second-Generation Bioethanol. Bioenerg Res, 7:24-35.
  6. De Souza, A. P., Leite, D. C. C., Pattathil, S. ; Hahn, M. G. ; Buckeridge, M. S. (2013) Composition and Structure of Sugarcane Cell Wall Polysaccharides: Implications for Second-Generation Bioethanol Production. Bioenergy Research, 6: 564-579.
  7. Mccann, M. ; Buckeridge, M. S. ; Carpita, N.C. . Plants and Bioenergy. 1. ed. New York: Springer, 2013. v. 1. 300p.
  8. Magrin, G.O., J.A. Marengo, J.-P. Boulanger, M.S. Buckeridge, E. Castellanos, G. Poveda, F.R. Scarano, and S. Vicuña, 2014: Central and South America. In: Climate Change 2014: Impacts, Adaptation, and Vulnerability. Part B: Regional Aspects. Contribution of Working Group II to the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change [Barros, V.R., C.B. Field, D.J. Dokken, M.D. Mastrandrea, K.J. Mach, T.E. Bilir, M. Chatterjee,K.L. Ebi, Y.O. Estrada, R.C. Genova, B. Girma, E.S. Kissel, A.N. Levy, S. MacCracken, P.R. Mastrandrea, and L.L. White (eds.)]. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, USA, pp. XXX-YYY
  9. Rezende, C.A.; Lima, M.; Maziero, P.; Azevedo, E.; Garcia, W.; Polikarpov, I. (2011) Chemical and morphological characterization of sugarcane bagasse submitted to a delignification process for enhanced enzymatic digestibility. Biotechnology for Biofuels. 4: 54

Why nutrition-smart agriculture matters

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Orange Sweet PotatoThe focus of agricultural policy should be to increase productivity, provide employment and reduce poverty.

How often have you read or heard statements like this?

I am an economist, and I understand this thinking. It has its place. But I will argue that the reason global food systems are failing is because they have neglected the most fundamental purpose of agricultural systems — to nourish people.

Today, more than 2 billion people are suffering from hidden hunger — most will get enough calories, which has been the metric for food systems thus far, but not enough vitamins and minerals. We know too well the global costs of this hidden hunger. We see it in women as they risk death during childbirth. We see it in a stunted child with a diminished IQ. And we see it in men and women too weakened by illness and poor immunity to be able to work at an optimal level.

We need to re-envision agriculture as the primary source of sound nutrition through the food people harvest and eat. This is a radical concept in the true sense of the word — returning to the root or fundamental purpose of agriculture.

To read the rest of this blog post that was originally posted on Devex as part of the Feeding Development campaign, please click here.

This blog was written by Howdy Bouis who holds a joint appointment at the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington, D.C. and the International Centre for Tropical Agriculture in Cali, Colombia.

“Children in Uganda share a plate of orange sweet potato” Photo used in this blog is by: A. Ball / HarvestPlus / CC BY-NC

“It’s the Economy, Stupid”: Understanding Agricultural Biotechnology

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Plant scientists develop knowledge that may lead to new cultivars or products that have great potential to benefit agriculture, society, and research. Although these technologies often show immense promise in the lab or during experimental field trials they are not always adopted in the field. James Carville’s famed explanation of what determines the result of the US presidential election, “It’s the economy, stupid,” also applies to agricultural biotechnology. Research in agricultural economics is investigating what happens to these innovations beyond the experimental phase. Why are some of them succeeding while others are not? What is the social value of a given technology and what is its potential? Why are individuals and groups objecting to their introduction?

I have been working on agricultural biotechnology over the last decade, and there is quite a large body of literature on this topic. Two excellent surveys of the literature can be found in Qaim (2009) and Bennett et al. (2013). This blog focus on how technology affects agricultural productivity and profitability at the farm level, which helps to explain adoption choices, amount of food available, and food prices.

The first large-scale, commercially available agricultural biotechnologies to utilize genetic modification incorporated either pest-control traits, such as insect resistance through plant-producing Bt toxin, virus and oomycete resistance, or herbicide tolerance (to glyphosate). Such cultivars had the potential to increase output/edible yield by reducing damage and competition.

Agricultural economists have found that reasons and rates of adoption of such genetically modified (GM) cultivars vary among locations. In some cases, GM cultivars increase profits by increasing yields (mostly in developing countries where they address problems that have not been addressed before). In other cases, it increases profits because it leads to the reduction of alternative pest controls (mostly in developed countries). There is also significant evidence that many farmers have adopted GM cultivars not only because they have reduced pest infestation but also because the have reduced exposure to chemicals known to be toxic. For example studies of Bt-cotton in China have found that its adoption has actually saved lives in China (Huang, Pray, and Rozelle, 2002) There were several fatalities from the application of toxic chemicals agrichemicals, and these types of fatalities have significantly declined since the adoption of Bt-cotton.

cottonIn the case of Bt-cotton in China and Bt-maize in South Africa, adoption rates are considerably high and have also increased farmers’ profits significantly (greater than 50% in India (Subramanian and Qaim, 2009)). It is often thought (incorrectly) that the profits from GM-cultivars end up in the pockets of the large multinational corporations, instead our evidence indicates that they are shared among the providers of the technology (both the multinational corporations and local companies that sell it), the farmers, and the consumers. Consumer benefits also increase the greater the adoption rate, and the larger the price effect. In fact it is possible to distinguish between adopters who simply switch from traditional to GM-cultivars and those who expand production capacity because it becomes more profitable when growing GM cultivars. For example, in India, most cotton production has switched to Bt-cultivars and the share of global cotton production from India subsequently increased. In the case of soybeans global acreage has increased by more than 40% over the last 20 years, and most of this new acreage is growing GM-soybean. It should be noted that a large proportion of this expansion in soybean occurred through double-cropping in Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay, so the actual footprint of agriculture did not increase. Our studies estimate that the over supply of maize increased by about 10%, of cotton by 20%, and of soybeans by 30%. Without GM-soybeans, the price of soybeans is estimated to have been 33% higher on average, the price of maize 13% higher, and the price of cotton about 30% higher (Barrows, Sexton, and Zilberman, 2013).

800px-Soybean_fields_at_Applethorpe_FarmThe fact that GM-cultivars have already reduced the price of soybeans is very significant. While increases in commodity prices have little effect on consumers in the USA or EU, they affect consumers in developing countries quite substantially. Likewise, when supply decreases, consumers in the poorest countries around the world suffer most. We all remember the food price crisis of 2008. Without GM-crops, we would have experienced a much worse food situation. The increase in the supply of food provided by GM-crops is of the same order of magnitude as the amount of maize that is allocated to biofuel. If Europe and Africa adopted Bt-maize and soybeans, prices would decrease significantly and we would not face the food supply and access challenges that we face today. If we introduce existing traits to rice and wheat, the global food situation will improve, which will benefit poor producers and consumers the most. Moreover, since existing traits improve edible yields, they allow farmers to produce more on a given unit of land. Without GM-cultivars, we would need to employ more land in production, which translates to greater deforestation and increased greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from more water and fertilizer use. The use of Roundup Ready soybeans enables the adoption of low-tillage farming practices, which leads to carbon sequestration (Lal, 2005). A conservative assessment suggests that the adoption of GM-crops reduced future GHG emissions by an amount equivalent to 1/8 of the level produced in a year by cars in the United States.

Agricultural biotechnology is in its infancy. The process to breed a new cultivar begins with researchers in companies and universities making new discoveries and seeking intellectual property such as patents or plant variety rights. Then, startups and companies invest in their development and commercialization. In the 1990s, the biotechnology industry was growing very fast. However, complex regulatory systems, particularly in the EU, have placed a heavy burdened on this process, drastically slowing the innovation process and in some cases even stalling the industry. As a result the technology is far from reaching its potential. In the pipeline alone, there are many innovations that can improve food quality, digestibility, nutritional intake, and shelf life. These technologies can be beneficial to consumers and, through increased efficiency of inputs such as land and water- They can also reduce the carbon footprint of agriculture. Heavy and uncertain regulation denies us from obtaining the benefits from these technologies. In many crops (e.g. fruits and vegetables), there has been minimal adoption of agricultural biotechnology, which reduces our ability to address disease and pest problems as well as achieving improved product quality. More importantly, we need as many tools as possible to adapt to climate change, drought, flood, extreme temperatures, unstable weather, and new pests. But, with stricter regulation and resistance to GM-crops, there will be limited investment in these technologies and our capacity to adapt to and mitigate climate change will be compromised. Economic research aims to assist governments in developing policies that will make consumers, producers, and the environment better off. The existing heavy regulation of agricultural biotechnology is very costly and thus suboptimal from an economic perspective.

This blog was provided by David Zilberman – Professor and Robinson Chair in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics at the University of California at Berkeley.

 

References

Barrows G., S. Sexton and D. Zilberman. 2013. “The impact of agricultural biotechnology on supply and land-use.” CUDARE Working Paper 1133, University of California, Berkeley.

Bennett, A.B., C. Chi-Ham, G. Barrows, S. Sexton and D. Zilberman. 2013. “Agricultural biotechnology: Economics, environment, ethics, and the future.” Annual Review of Environment and Resources 38: 249-279.

Huang, J., C. Pray and S. Rozelle. 2002. “Enhancing the Crops to Feed the Poor.” Nature 418:678– 684.

Lal, R. 2005. Soil erosion and carbon dynamics. Soil Tillage Research 81:137–142.

Qaim, M. 2009. “The economics of genetically modified crops.” Annual Review of Resource Economics 1: 665-694.

Subramanian, A. and M. Qaim. 2009. “Village-wide effects of agricultural biotechnology: the case of Bt cotton in India.” World Development 37:256–267.

A New Venture in Agriculture and Food Science: The World Food Center at UC Davis

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WFCblogIn mid-2013 the University of California Davis announced establishment of the World Food Center (WFC) following extensive planning with input from a broad spectrum of university faculty and external advisors. There was broad agreement that the University could, and indeed should, strive to bring its leadership in food and agriculture research together to address specific global challenges in this arena. In doing so it would take a broad and trans-disciplinary approach to developing solutions to questions that the University is qualified to lead.

The Mission of the World Food Center is not simple:

The World Food Center will connect visionary research and teaching with innovators, philanthropists, industry, and public and social leaders to drive economic, health, social, and environmental value in the world’s food system.

tomsmallUC Davis is well known for outstanding research and teaching in disciplines that span food and agriculture, nutrition and health. Furthermore, work at the University has played a large role in the success of agriculture inside and outside the state. California’s agriculture is a vibrant industry based on production of more than 400 different crops as well as dairy and animal agriculture. The industry contributes more than $46 billion to the state economy. Since these crops contribute heavily to dietary diversity of consumers and provide essential nutrients, the University has developed outstanding research and education programs that span from molecular biology of crop and animal genomes and molecular breeding, seed biology, food sciences, enology and wine and other brewing sciences, sustainable agriculture, water management, post-harvest sciences, food safety, food sciences and food safety, nutrition (including the role of gut microbiome), health and wellness. It also includes substantial strengths in economics, social sciences and policy studies related to food and agriculture. Bringing this diversity of knowledge and technical skill to bear on grand challenges in food and agriculture (writ large) presents faculty and students with opportunities to have broader impacts on society than if single or even several disciplines are engaged. This is a goal of the WFC.

maizesmall2The World Food Center is not alone in striving to address grand challenges in food and agriculture, and other universities and research institutions around the globe have taken on similar goals, with variations. We suggest that during the next year a concerted effort be made to identify institutional initiatives with similar goals in developing ‘systems approaches’ to addressing challenges in food and agriculture. This exercise should lead to a more coordinated global effort that will minimize duplication of efforts while encouraging collaboration in research and training. And, it will increase the impacts of our efforts to address the grand challenges in food and agriculture.

If you are aware of other centers with goals similar to those of the World Food Center please contact us at www.worldfoodcenter.org.

Roger N. Beachy, Executive Director, World Food Center, University of California, One Shields Avenue, Davis, CA 95616. rnbeachy@ucdavis.edu