Thursday, 27 June 2013

Irrigation isn’t the only way to achieve food security in Ghana

Farmers attending their livestock in Northern
Ghana (2012) by Ericsson Images / Flickr
By Rachael Taylor, PhD student
SPRU, University of Sussex

Earlier this month, a number of Members of the Ghanaian Parliament presented a statement to the House calling for large investment in irrigation systems throughout Ghana. They advocate the use of irrigation for crop production as the “only way” to ensure national food security. The statement proposes that irrigation would be particularly beneficial for semi-arid Northern Ghana by enabling year-round crop production in a region which only has one wet season and currently depends predominantly on rain-fed agriculture.

The desire to take steps towards more food security in Northern Ghana is understandable. Six percent of the land area of Ghana is currently under irrigation, mostly drawn from small dam and reservoir systems, but in the three regions of Northern Ghana this figure is just 0.6 percent. Over 80 percent of households in Northern Ghana depend on agriculture as their main livelihood, making the population vulnerable to climatic shocks.

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Monday, 24 June 2013

‘Golden Rice’ and the GM crop debate

Golden Rice grain compared to white rice grain in screenhouse of Golden Rice plants / IRRI
Guest blog by Sally Brooks, Researcher and Associate Tutor at the University of York, and former STEPS Centre member

In an interview on the Radio 4 Today Programme last week, Owen Paterson, Minister for Environment, outlined his case for a ‘new push’ by the Government to promote the development and adoption of GM crops in the UK.

Interestingly, Mr Paterson’s argument was largely based, not on evidence demonstrating benefits to UK agriculture, but on an account of a project which aims to develop beta carotene-enriched ‘Golden Rice’ as a way to address malnutrition-induced child blindness and mortality, which is a ‘problem mainly in Southeast Asia.’

The decision to back GM crops was presented as a matter of life and death. As Mr Paterson explained: "Over the last 15 years … every attempt to deploy this Golden Rice has been thwarted. And in that time, seven million children have gone blind or died." The implication was clear - those who had ‘thwarted’ attempts to deploy a life-saving technology bore some responsibility for this tragic outcome. Such people, Paterson suggested, "should really reflect".

This is not the first time that the specific case of the Golden Rice project has been deployed as the lynchpin of an argument for policy and regulatory changes to accelerate the commercialisation on GM crops in general. This is problematic for a number of reasons which I have set out in a new article.

The presentation of Golden Rice as a technology that has been available for 15 years, but whose deployment has been delayed only by excessive regulation, is familiar but misleading. In fact, the first genetic transformation, achieved in a Swiss laboratory in 1999, was just the first step in a complex, interdisciplinary research endeavor that has also included plant breeding (to ‘back cross’ the modified materials into rice varieties adapted to the tropical environments of Southeast Asia) and nutritional testing (to find out whether the beta carotene in Golden Rice converts to usable vitamin A when consumed by malnourished children and adults).

As well as bringing more heat than light to an already overheated debate, the deployment of Golden Rice as ‘poster child’ in the GM crop debate has had serious consequences for the way the research has been carried out ‘on the ground’ over the years. In research stations in Southeast Asia, the pressure cooker environment surrounding the project has not been conducive to the kind of open discussion and debate – among crop scientists, nutritionists, public health experts, and others – that an ambitious research effort such as this warrants and requires. Unfortunately, too much hype ‘upstream’ has tended to close down opportunities for open scientific enquiry and debate ‘downstream’, just where it is most needed.

A recent statement issued by the International Rice Research Institute, based in the Philippines (due to be the first country to commercialise Golden Rice) was therefore an important moment in the history of the project. Why was it so important? Because it stated, unambiguously, what is still a key unknown – whether Golden Rice will actually improve the nutritional status of malnourished children and adults. Moreover, it states clearly that the remaining stages of the project, which include both regulatory assessment and nutrition studies to establish whether Golden Rice does indeed have potential to prevent malnutrition-induced child blindness and mortality, will take ‘two years or more’.

It is important, therefore, that at this critical stage in the project, the researchers and their partners in the Philippines are able to complete these studies – and, most importantly, openly share their results, whatever the outcome – unencumbered by inflated expectations and claims generated in support of the adoption of agricultural biotechnologies elsewhere. In the meantime, the GM crop debate in the UK would surely be better served by evidence sourced much closer to home.

Further reading:


This article was originally posted on the The Crossing.

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Friday, 21 June 2013

Exposing the political journey of climate change evidence from Exeter to Africa

The Met Office's modelling IBM supercomputer
Stephen Whitfield, PhD student, Institute of Development Studies (Knowledge, Technology and Society Team)
 
For someone more used to the quiet productivity and relative inconspicuousness of the PhD office at the Institute of Development Studies, the headquarters of the UK Meteorological Office in Exeter is impressive and intimidating in equal measure. Mazes of desk separators fill vast open plan offices and obscure a sea of computer screens displaying intriguing and animated maps. It feels very much like the climate modelling hub that it is, as much an industrial factory of climate forecasts as it is a place of intellectual exchange and research. You immediately get a sense of the complexity and scale of the whole operation behind producing climate model projections.

My visit to the Met Office back in January 2012 was the beginning of an exciting year in which I had the opportunity to follow these climate model projections all the way to Kenya, to their use in projects that made predictions of the country’s future yields of maize and ultimately in the design of climate change adaptation interventions for smallholder maize farmers.

It was a fascinating process, not just because of the mystery of the sophisticated computer programmes through which vast data sets gradually became simple pictures of the future world, but also because of the way that understandings and meanings became attached to these pictures.

Undoubtedly what went missing along the journey were the uncertainties, assumptions, and methodological choices that were such a big part of the initial modelling endeavour. By the time it came to promoting technologies designed to help farmers adapt to the growing threat of water shortage, for example, the overwhelming outputs of the Exeter’s weather forecast factory had been reduced a single supposed truth, that ‘climate change will lead to increased drought’.

Of course there is a political motivation captured within this end product, but there is also a politics of knowledge that transcends the whole chain through which it is produced.

In a recent paper published in ‘Climatic Change’ - Uncertainty, ignorance and ambiguity in crop modelling for African agricultural adaptation - I begin to unpack some of this politics of knowledge, by looking critically at how the growing complexity of climate impact modelling endeavours, and the journey that their outputs go on, are changing the industry of climate impact knowledge and the nature of this knowledge itself.

Exposing this politics is not about fanning the flames of often unreflective climate scepticism, but is rather a call for a more inclusive and transparent process of evidence production and evidence interpretation. I argue that from a more plural ‘evidence-base’, adaptation programmes, policies and interventions might respond to uncertainty and contextual appropriateness rather than to a reductionist and linear understanding of change.

This article was originally posted on the The Crossing.
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Monday, 17 June 2013

Future Earth takes flight with inaugural scientific committee


Global sustainability research programme Future Earth has announced its inaugural science committee, with ESRC STEPS Centre director Melissa Leach serving as vice chair.

Future Earth is major 10-year international research programme which aims to provide the critical knowledge needed to address the challenges of global environmental change and to identify opportunities for a transition to global sustainability.

Dr Mark Stafford Smith, science director of CSIRO’s Climate Adaptation Flagship, Australia will chair the science committee with Professor Leach, director of the STEPS Centre and Professorial Fellow at the Institute of Development Studies in the UK and Belinda Reyers, a chief scientist at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) in South Africa, serving as vice chairs.

“In an era of unprecedented environment and development challenges, Future Earth offers the vital opportunity many of us have awaited: to take forward, at global scale, a new paradigm for interdisciplinary, engaged science that will genuinely help build pathways to sustainability, and wellbeing for those who are marginalised,” said Prof. Leach.

“I am delighted at the chance to bring engaged social science perspectives to this endeavour, and to work with a fantastic group of committee members and partners around the world to help make this vision a reality,” she added.

Future Earth was launched in June 2012, at the UN Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20). The 18-member science committee – the first Future Earth governance body to be appointed – will make recommendations on projects and priorities for research. It will oversee the transition of the International Geosphere-Biosphere Programme (IGBP), the International Human Dimensions Programme (IHDP) and Diversitas activities into Future Earth, secure strong partnership with the World Climate Research Programme (WCRP) community and provide guidance on new activities for Future Earth.

The initiative seeks to answer fundamental questions about how and why the global environment is changing, what are likely future changes, what are risks and implications for human development and the diversity of life on Earth, and what the opportunities are to reduce risks and vulnerabilities, enhance resilience and innovation, and implement transformations to prosperous and equitable futures.

It aims to deliver highest quality science across natural and social sciences (including economic, legal and behavioural research), engineering and humanities. Its research will be co-designed and co-produced by academics, governments, business and civil society from across the world, encompassing bottom-up ideas.

Future Earth is jointly supported by the International Council for Science (ICSU), the International Social Science Council (ISSC), the Belmont Forum of funding agencies, UN Environment Programme (UNEP), UN Educational Scientific Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and UN University (UNU), with the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) as an observer.

Dr Stafford Smith said: “Future Earth is going to change the way we do science globally. It represents a unique opportunity to provide the research needed to address the biggest challenges of our time on global sustainability, and to do so in partnership with decision-makers.

“We’ve assembled an impressive and truly international team for this committee; we are all looking forward to continuing to develop the science agenda and global networks for this innovative programme,” he added.

This article was originally posted on the The Crossing.
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