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Showing posts from July, 2016

Using GM to fight cassava brown streak disease

Last week I helped plant a new confined field trial for genetically modified (GM) cassava in western Uganda. The aim is to find how well the plants resist Cassava brown streak disease (CBSD).

Before planting, the National Crops Resources Research Institute (NaCRRI) held discussions with people from the local government and farmers’ groups. It’s vital to engage the local community so that people are correctly informed and on-board with the project. There were certainly some very strange myths to debunk!

Henry Wagaba (Head of Biosciences at NaCRRI) explained the huge losses caused by CBSD, which spoils tubers and can wipe out entire fields. CBSD is now the most devastating crop disease in Uganda and there are no resistant varieties currently available.

To fight the disease, NaCRRI researchers have developed GM cassava plants, which show high levels of resistance to CBSD at sites in southern and central Uganda. This trial will test how the plants perform in the growing conditions in wes…

In defence of wasps: why squashing them comes with a sting in the tale

They are one of the most unwelcome signs of summer. Buzzing through beer gardens, attacking innocent picnics, wasps arrive ominously with a sting in their tails. Universally disliked, they are swatted, trapped and cursed. But would a wasp-free world really be a better place?

Despite their poor public image, wasps are incredibly important for the world’s economy and ecosystems. Without them, the planet would be pest-ridden to biblical proportions, with much reduced biodiversity. They are a natural asset of a world dominated by humans, providing us with free services that contribute to our economy, society and ecology.

Wasps, as we know, turn up everywhere. More than 110,000 species have been identified, and it is estimated there are still another 100,000 waiting to be discovered. One recent study described 186 new wasp species in one small corner of Costa Rican rainforest alone. In contrast there are only around 5,400 species of mammals, and 14,000 recorded species of ant.

This huge a…

Why we need a new science of safety

It is often said that our approach to health and safety has gone mad. But the truth is that it needs to go scientific. Managing risk is ultimately linked to questions of engineering and economics. Can something be made safer? How much will that safety cost? Is it worth that cost?

Decisions under uncertainty can be explained using utility, a concept introduced by Swiss mathematician Daniel Bernoulli 300 years ago, to measure the amount of reward received by an individual. But the element of risk will still be there. And where there is risk, there is risk aversion.
Risk aversion itself is a complex phenomenon, as illustrated by psychologist John W. Atkinson’s 1950s experiment, in which five-year-old children played a game of throwing wooden hoops around pegs, with rewards based on successful throws and the varying distances the children chose to stand from the pegs.

The risk-confident stood a challenging but realistic distance away, but the risk averse children fell into two camps. Eith…

Taking a trip to the cassava field!

At the end of last week I was lucky enough to be invited on a trip to the field. I didn’t really know what to expect but was very excited to find out!

The purpose of the trip was to collect data for the 5CP project to find out how different varieties of cassava respond to Cassava brown streak disease (CBSD) and Cassava mosaic disease (CMD) in different areas.

We set off at 5.30am in the morning; the first stop was Lake Victoria to catch a ferry to the Sesse Islands. The team consisted of me, the driver (Bosco), research assistant (Gerald Adiga) and research technician (Joseph). Along the road, we saw several accidents, sadly a far too common occurrence in Uganda…

Due to delays, the ferry was rammed, and by the time we arrived it was almost the evening. We raced to the agricultural school with the field trial. Here the team have planted blocks of 25 clean cassava varieties from five African countries and our job was to score them for disease symptoms. CBSD and CMD are not very common …

Clean cassava to solve brown streak problem?

Since arriving in Uganda, I’ve been learning a lot about the affects of Cassava brown streak disease (CBSD), which is devastating cassava production and threatening food security. The disease is spread by the whitefly insect, which picks up the virus from an infected plant and carries it to neighbouring healthy plants.

Cassava plants are grown by planting stem cuttings in the ground, which go on to become new plants. If farmers use cuttings from infected plants, the new plants will also become infected. This is a big problem, as infected cuttings can be transported to new areas, spreading CBSD across large distances.

What can be done?

Tolerance
Huge efforts are being put into a number of different solutions. These include breeding new cassava varieties, which are tolerant to CBSD. This is a very long and challenging process, as cassava plants also need to be resistant to Cassava mosaic disease (CMD) and have yield/taste properties which farmers and consumers prefer.

The National Crop…

Measuring greenhouse gases during India's monsoon

This summer, researchers across the UK and India are teaming up to study the Indian monsoon as part of a £8 million observational campaign using the NERC research aircraftBAe-146
India receives 80% of its annual rainfall in three months – between June and September. There are large year-to-year differences in the strength of the monsoon, which is heavily impacted by drivers such as aerosols and large-scale weather patterns, and this has significant impact on the livelihoods of over a billion people. For example, due to the strong El Nino last year, the 2015 monsoon experienced a 14% lower precipitation than average with some regions of India facing up to 50% shortfall.  Forecasting the timing and strength of the monsoon is critical for the region and particularly for India’s farmers, who must manage water resources to avoid failing crops.   The observational campaign, which is part of NERC’s Drivers of Variability in the South Asian Monsoon programme, is led jointly by UK researcher…

Play stops rain: could 'cloud seeding' deliver perfect Wimbledon weather?

Wimbledon, 2026. Bright blue skies and a wonderful late afternoon sun lights up the lush green grass of centre court. Out strides the British number one and four-time winner, Andy Henman, to the cheers of the excitable, partisan crowd.

Somewhere nearby, at the headquarters of WeatherMod Inc, a group of technicians are busily checking data, confident that their efforts have worked. They have been in contact with two pilots who have just completed their spray sorties and are returning to land at Heathrow’s new third runway. Thanks to the delivery of 4kg of, in its pure form, a yellowish powder known as Silver Iodide (AgI) into clouds upwind of London, it is now raining over the Salisbury Plain, 100 miles away, and the rain predicted for later in SW19 is now 92% less likely.

This scenario probably sounds a little far-fetched, and not least the bit about the repeatedly successful home-grown tennis player. However, weather modification occurs more often than most people are aware. For exa…

Sharing routine statistics must continue post-Brexit when tackling health and climate change

Post-Brexit vote, we are posting some blogs from our Cabot Institute members outlining their thoughts on Brexit and potential implications for environmental research, environmental law and the environment.  
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It has been argued that one of the EU's major contributions has been its legislation regarding environmental protection. Some of these bear directly on human health (for example, concerning air pollution levels). Looking forwards, moves to adapt and mitigate the effects of climate change may be greatly facilitated by sharing data on emerging trends across Europe.

An excellent example is provided by analysis carried out on "excess winter deaths" across Europe. Every country in the world displays seasonal patterns of mortality whereby more deaths occur in winter than at other times of year. However the extent of this excess varies between countries even within Europe. Intuitively one might have expected the excess to be g…