Monday, April 20th, 2009


Andy Jarvis

Andy Jarvis

An interview with Andy Jarvis, agricultural geographer, CIAT and Bioversity

Q: You say you have two “mantras.” What are they?

A: One is “crop wild relatives.” (Note: A crop wild relative (CWR) is the wild variety of a domesticated food crop.) When you look at the status of crop wild relatives, it’s actually very scary. They’re not conserved in the wild. And the degree of conservation in gene banks is appallingly low. Many have gone extinct already—and we have no idea what genes they might have had—for disease resistance, productivity, drought or salt tolerance….

At the same time, there’s exponential growth in the demand for and use of these genes through biotechnology. In the past, when you bred a wild crop relative with a cultivar you might get what you wanted—say disease resistance—but along with that came a tough seed coat or small pod or other things you don’t want. Now, you can use molecular markers to take just what you want.

Q: If they’re not in the genebanks, how do you find wild crop relatives?

A: We’ve been going through 30 major crop genepools, including beans, potatoes, wheat, rice, sorghum, cassava, some forages, coffee…. We collect all available information, through herbarium and genebank databases, of every point where wild crop relatives have been observed. Then we model the species distribution see what all these habitats have in common, to come up with suitability requirements.

So if, for instance, we know something exists in ten sites with these characteristics—where else in the world has those characteristics? That’s where you’re likely to find the species.

Q: For example…?

A: Geneticists were searching for wild chili peppers in Paraguay. We found records of 18 places with chili populations in the past, but they weren’t there any more, nor in collections So we modeled the conditions in the sites the botanists had described—and came up with 20 places with similar environments where people might look. It worked–they found the chilis in seven of those places.

In beans, there are 70-plus wild species, all in the Americas. There are 170-plus wild relatives of potatoes. But in lots of crops—maize being one of the most notable—there are just a few wild relatives left. Most of the species have been lost.

A massive global initiative is urgent for our major crops. That’s what the Global Crop Diversity Trust, housed at FAO, is trying to do.

Q: And the other mantra?

A: Climate change and crops. We’ve taken the 50 biggest crops, by area, and modeled how climate change will change their geography. After the biggest—rice, maize, wheat and a couple of others—no one has done this. We’re using a simple, niche-based approach: this crop grows in an environment with this rainfall and other characteristics, based on expert knowledge.

The shocking thing is that there are huge changes, for both 2020 and 2050. For instance, the models show that maize goes way down in Africa. But cassava gains area. Already, there’s anecdotal evidence of farmers shifting from maize to cassava or sorghum.

In a few areas farmers will lose all sorts of options. Maybe today they have 20 crop options; in the future, maybe they’ll only have 3. Some regions are in serious trouble: Southern Africa. Parts of Sahel. Eastern Brazil, northern Africa and the Mediterranean, including southern Europe.

But in East Africa—the rainy parts, such as most of Uganda—massive increases in rainfall are predicted. So farmers may have more choices. And they may be able to crop continuously. But the models show that pests and diseases also rise.

The bottom line is that everything’s changing, and quickly. The first users of climate-change information should be researchers themselves. Most agricultural research programs take at least 10 years to come to fruition out in the fields. So researchers need to target a 2020 world for their 2020 research results—not work toward better strategies for a 2009 world in 2020.

Q: Why do you call yourself a “promiscuous geographer?”

A: I use the same geographic tools—but apply them to all sorts of things: what we’ve been talking about, plus forest biodiversity, coffee quality, forage, threats to protected areas…. I’m interested in so many things, I seem to need to keep moving around.

You can hear Andy’s perspective on BBC Digital Planet – available at ICT-KM Blog on Famers’ productivity

This article was first published in the International Livestock Research Institute’s (ILRI, www.ilri.org ) internal intranet site. ILRI hosts the Bioscience facility for East and Central Africa (BecA) and is ramping up its work in the area of biotechnology. However, East Africa will be the last region in the world to be connected to the internet by optic fibre cable. Slow, expensive, often contested satellite bandwidth is a big constraint to carrying out this work. These are some thoughts from our partner Erik Bongcam Rudloff and from Etienne de Villiers and Ian Moore of ILRI.

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Is our bandwidth sufficient to do networked science? and if it’s not, what are the implications and potential solutions? Ian, Etienne and Erik puzzle it out!

Ian, Etienne and Erik

Ian, Etienne and Erik

Today’s scientific work is becoming more networked!

Erik Bongcam-Rudloff, associate professor of bioinformatics at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU), talks about networked science and the need for high bandwidth.

Erik Bongcam-Rudloff

Erik Bongcam-Rudloff

Erik, who has been a regular visitor to ILRI Nairobi since 2006, says: ‘Scientific work is becoming more and more networked and technology development is going VERY fast.

 

‘We are in a golden era of development. We need to look at bandwidth and the channels (ports) we have open for communications and what scientists need to ‘do’ science today and tomorrow.

 

‘Email is just a primitive communication tool from the past!

 

Erik argues: ‘Good internet connectivity is more imperative than ever before.

 ‘You’ll soon have a new 454 machine at the BecA-ILRI hub. [For non-scientists a ‘454’ is a ‘second generation’ high throughput sequencing machine – apparently the ‘new paradigm in sequencing’!].

About Erik

About Erik

‘These machines will change the way people design experiments and allow us to ask research questions that weren’t possible before. These machines can produce lots of data… but without knowledge the data is worthless! It’s all about how you connect data to knowledge and no single institute or university or lab is capable of coping with this alone. New science demands that many people – many thousands of people – connect and share in real time!

‘So there’s a huge need for a very fast internet connection to distribute, communicate and do analysis of scientific data. All future research will be done collectively. Living in silos, unconnected to the rest of the world, is out!

Fibre optic connection coming soon! 

Ian Moore

Ian Moore

Ian Moore (ILRI-ICRAF ICT Manager) says: ‘Reliability, bandwidth capacity and speed are the three most important factors that we take into account when implementing an internet connection. A research institute the size of ILRI should have an absolute minimum capacity of 10Mbps of uncontested bandwidth on each campus, preferably through a fibre optic connection to the internet.

‘This capacity is still small when compared to universities like SLU where Erik works or even compared to our sister centre IRRI in the Philippines.

‘In Ethiopia the optic fibre internet connection is fast but very unreliable so we’re going to install a satellite connection to improve the reliability, but unfortunately that won’t help the speed!

In Kenya and many other parts of eastern and southern Africa we’re still waiting for fibre optic internet connections, so until then we have to access the internet through slower, expensive satellites. For an asymmetrical satellite connection of 4Mbps incoming and 1Mbps outgoing in Nairobi ILRI spends an extortionate USD 180,000 per year. In Europe you can have shared 10Mbps in your house for USD20 per month!

The growth of the mobile phone industry and the loss of several satellites means that available capacity in the region is limited… costs are high and our upgrade options are limited. The limited bandwidth means that the link becomes congested at peak times and this is the main reason for slow speeds.

‘But the good news is that fibre optic internet connections from TEAMS, a Kenyan Government project, and SEACOM will land in Mombasa by March and be commissioned in June [That’s THIS year: 2009!]. The cost of bandwidth is estimated to drop to around USD800 per Mbps per month. If ILRI continues its policy of increasing bandwidth rather than making savings when prices fall then we’ll be able to implement the minimum 10Mbps internet connection that we need. Fibre optic connections are 5 times faster than a good satellite connection, so speeds will improve too.

So what can we do in the meantime?

Ian says: ‘First we needed to make sure that we were using our bandwidth productively. We’ve been monitoring to ensure capacity is not being taken up by viruses, other unexpected traffic, that staff are not using the internet for personal entertainment or gain and that we’re caching regularly accessed content. But at the same time we don’t want to frustrate scientists by blocking access to sites they need to do their work!

‘We’re now confident that the large majority of bandwidth is being used solely for work-related purposes. We’ve also ordered a bandwidth manager device which will be installed within the next month. This will give us more flexibility to assign priority use of the bandwidth to specific groups of users or to certain types of internet traffic. The young scientists who struggled at the bioinformatics webinar last week will, in future, receive the bandwidth they require, but this will be at the expense of others. These measures offer only limited respite and soon we’ll have to upgrade our bandwidth capacity.

‘I totally sympathise with the scientists, especially the bioinformatics team who need to regularly update their huge datasets. If we were located in a region with fast internet 2 connectivity for research and education establishments, like GEANT in Europe or APAN in Asia, then Etienne (de Villiers) and his team would be able to download a dataset within a matter of hours. At the moment, it’s quicker for them to receive datasets on removable media via DHL, rather than attempting to download them through our internet connection.

To cater for the new generation of scientists, make use of the new communication and collaboration tools, not to mention the resources required to carry out research on the internet, we DO need more bandwidth. So ILRI scientists and management have to weigh up if the savings and improved productivity that can be gained from a non-contested internet connection is worth the increased investment in bandwidth and whether this investment should be made immediately or whether ILRI can afford to wait for the faster fibre optic cables to be commissioned.

‘The existing internet connection is funded almost entirely from unrestricted core funds recovered through the ICT service charge. But this is not sustainable and in the future more funds need to be built into restricted grants especially by those who need the additional capacity. So we need to do an assessment with scientists and figure out the best way to go.

Is it possible to ‘stay in the game’ if we don’t have high bandwidth?

Erik believes that productivity improvements and other costs savings can be made by upgrading now: ‘Huge amounts of money can be saved by increasing bandwidth. I’m chairman and board member of two international bioinformatics groups. We meet once a year face to face, but hold monthly meetings over the internet using a webcam, microphone, freely available video conferencing tools and a good internet connection. This saves us at least Euros 100,000 a year in travel costs AND reduces our carbon footprint! We talk to people in China, Brazil, South Africa and all over the world. We can have rapid questions and answers and this saves us weeks, if not months, of time! We also give teaching courses through this system.

I believe the future of science is in building gigantic wiki-like systems where whole communities collectively write datasets and these datasets will, of course, be open source!

‘We already have two examples – Wikigenes and BioGPS. It’s amazing how much data is there already. Yes, it’s primitive at the moment but so was Wikipedia when it started and just look at it now! There are few scientific articles today that don’t cite [our friend] Wikipedia as a source! [Tip for scientists: Check out Wikipedia’s page on your research topic and make sure your research is cited! And if there isn’t a page – just create one!]

Erik concludes: ‘So is it possible to do research with the latest technologies if you don’t have high bandwidth? No, it is not possible any more! No research can work by itself. Today’s science is network-based using a plethora of internet-based tools.

Scientists need to be prepared for collective working. And a lack of bandwidth will hinder real progress. If you don’t practice and use the tools, then you will be left behind! This new way of working is here now and it’s already ongoing.’

So do you agree with Erik’s views on where science is going? What are your experiences? Can you provide examples of this new networked science and how it’s working in your area? Please post your comments below.

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Article by: Margaret Macdonald-Levy with thanks to Erik Bongcam-Rudloff, Ian Moore and Etienne de Villiers.

Find the full call for articles and papers for the December 2009 issue of the Knowledge Management for Development Journal at km4dj_call_for_papers-december-20093

Volume 5, Issue 3, to be published in December 2009, will focus on the effective (and potential) contribution of approaches to learning, collaboration and knowledge management (KM) to the water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) sector, and the integrated water resource management (IWRM) sector. The issue will introduce various academic and practitioner perspectives, thought pieces and case studies on the possibilities and concrete applications of learning, collaboration and knowledge management strategies, activities, processes and systems to address the critical issues of the water sector in a context-specific way.

The contributions are highly encouraged to explore the following questions:

  • ·How can knowledge management, collaboration and learning contribute to addressing the challenges of the water sub-sector, to achieving sectoral goals, to innovating and to reducing fragmentation?
  • What thinking / concepts guide the KM frameworks, approaches and tools in the water sub-sectors?
  • Where is the current thinking on learning headed in the water sub-sector?
  • Which frameworks, strategies, approaches and tools are being used in the water sub-sector?
  • Which promising learning, collaboration and knowledge management-related developments could have a significant effect on the way water sector actors operate and co-operate?
  • How does the call for increased networking and knowledge management materialise on a personal, organisational and institutional context?
  • Is there a need for a more systemic ‘sub-sector learning’ initiative in the countries and, if so, how could it shape up?

We invite practitioners and academics to submit, in the first instance, an abstract of a full paper, case study, story and or opinion piece by 11 May 2009.

As this is an English language journal, we would, if possible, like potential authors to submit proposals and contributions in English.

Submissions deadlines

Submission deadline for the title and abstract    11 May 2009

Acceptance of paper proposal                                   29 May 2009

Submission of paper                                                       26 June 2009

Peer-review completed                                                17 July 2009

Final version of paper submitted                              14 August 2009

Publication date                                                               31 December 2009

If you would like to submit a paper, or be actively involved in this initiative in any other way, please send your abstract (minimum one paragraph – maximum one page) or your message by e-mail to km4dj-editors@dgroups.org

With best wishes,

Ewen Le Borgne and the guest editorial team (Jaap Pels, Russell Kerkhoven, Nadia Manning)

Over the weekend, a popular film actor, Hugh Jackman (of X-Men fame), posted an interesting challenge to charitable organizations. He pledged to give USD 100,000 to anyone who could convince him as to why their charity deserved the money. But wait, there’s a catch. The person would have to use Twitter!

twitterTwitter, a microblogging service, allows users to write brief text updates within a 140 character limit (see recent post on microblogging). Which got me thinking of how the WorldFish Center a long time ago decided to revamp and create a meaningful and easy-to-understand Mission statement. The DG, Dr. Stephen Hall, recommended that the statement should in effect be the ‘elevator spin’ for what WorldFish stands for, but in as few words as possible. This exercise drove home the point that sometimes, short, sharp keywords had more impact than lengthy paragraphs.

But are we looking at a sea-change here? Will people now expect us to give a ‘ Twitter-spin’ to grab their attention?  Are investors moving in this direction? (Btw, these 3 questions already take up 154 characters)

One hundred and forty characters to summarize why an investor should pick us – what do you think, feasible idea or ridiculous? Anybody up for the Hugh Jackman challenge? 

Here are a few examples of how several investors and organizations are using Twitter to reach a wider audience:  UK DFID, USAID, Oxfam International.