How could life sciences
improve the economic viability of food production?
control: Finding ways to beat a deadly ‘cattle plague’
Rinderpest is one of the most devastating diseases
affecting animals and has been prevalent in Africa since
the end of the 19th century, where it caused considerable
damage during the 1970s and early 1980s. It ruined many
livestock owners in countries where cattle farming was not
only a jewel of national and sub-regional economic life,
but also key to the social and cultural integration of many
Since the 1970s, governments, farmers and animal health
experts have been working hard to design, finance and organise
a massive, continent-wide vaccination campaign to combat
a disease that is no respecter of national borders.
To help continue the fight against Rinderpest, epidemic
surveillance networks were set up in African countries by
the PACE Programme (Pan African Control of Epizootics) in
2000. The programme will run for a period of five years
with financial and technical assistance from the European
Commission and some EU Member States. The aim is to enable
African countries to monitor and control the health of their
management: Making maize immune to fungal infection
Maize grown in all parts of the world is liable
to contamination by a fungal disease before and after it
is harvested. This presents a safety hazard, as the infected
grain is poisonous to both humans and animals. In addition,
the resulting reduction in crop yields aggravates food shortages
in poorer regions and can put local farmers out of business.
A European Commission (EC) supported project, bringing
together researchers from Europe and Africa, aims to develop
new types of maize that will counteract such a fungal disease
without the use of pesticides.
The main focus of this project, ‘Genetic improvement
of maize to enhance food safety by introducing resistance
to Fusarium monilliforme’, is the development
of different strains of maize with genes resistant to the
toxins released by this destructive Fusarium fungus.
The toxin problem begins with fungal infestation of cereals
during the growth phase, while the negative effects are
only found after harvesting and storage, in final food and
animal feed products.
The project – which includes partners from South
Africa, Italy, The Netherlands and Zambia – will begin
in the middle of 2004 and is slated to finish at the end
management: Discovering what keeps a shrimp healthy
farming forms an important part of the economy in tropical
countries in South East Asia, and Central and South America.
Together these regions provide about three-quarters of a
million tonnes of shrimp annually – i.e. roughly 30%
of the world market. However, various viral and bacterial
diseases are now dramatically affecting shrimp production,
with total annual losses due to diseases estimated at about
€3 billion. A European Commission (EC) project aims
to prevent and control shrimp diseases as a way of safeguarding
The four-year project that began in 1997 – ‘Characterisation
of immune effectors in penaeid: application to disease prophylaxis
and selection of resistant shrimps’ – aimed
to characterise the cellular defence mechanisms in response
to disease or stress in shrimps. This focused mainly on
various Penaeus species of shrimps, the ones most commonly
cultured in developing countries. Partner laboratories in
Central America, Europe and Asia have now implemented this
project. It was part of a wider collaborative research programme
also set up by the EC in 1997.
farming: Hunting sweet potato viruses in Africa
Sweet potato is a major food staple in much of
sub-Saharan Africa. Since it is largely propagated vegetatively,
plants are often infected with several viruses, leading
to very large yield reductions. Development of resistance
to viruses is given highest priority by international and
national institutes. However, progress is slowed by the
fact that the majority of the 20+ viruses that are known
to infect sweet potato have been inadequately described
and have not been tested for in Africa.
A project supported by the European Commission (INCO programme)
provides the technical and socio-economic information required
to develop appropriate resistant varieties.
The project – ‘The identification, incidence
and control of sweet potato viruses in east and south Africa,
and assessment of host plant resistance for sustainable
development’ – seeks to develop diagnostic methods,
understand the molecular basis of plant susceptibility,
and combine laboratory research with local plant breeding
knowledge and management techniques for the control of sweet
potato: Engineering viral resistance in China
produces 90% of the world's annual harvest of sweet potatoes.
The crop is grown mainly by poorer farmers for food and
feed for livestock. One of the major challenges facing sweet
potato cultivation is the crop's susceptibility to a family
of viruses (potyviruses) that cause plant disease and drastically
The European Commission (EC) is supporting a project that
aims at improving the adaptation of sweet potato to virus
infection, thus contributing to a more environmentally friendly
agricultural production method, as well as increasing the
revenue of small farmers.
The project, ‘Development of advanced sweet potato
genotypes resistant to the complex poly viruses infecting
sweet potato in China’, is funded by the European
Commission’s INCO programme. It aims at overcoming
that bottleneck by harnessing two complementary approaches:
the detection and characterisation of resistance sources
among existing or old varieties of the crop, wild forms
of the same species, or closely related species; and by
developing engineered resistance to the complex of Potyviruses
prevailing in China.