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terminator seeds threaten sustainable farming methods
One of the ways that companies that create genetically modified seeds protect their intellectual property is with terminator seeds, ensuring that farmers cannot save seeds from past harvests and need to buy new seeds every year. Because of this practice, terminator seeds threaten sustainable farming methods and make farmers reliant on the biotechnology companies producing the seeds.

What Is a Terminator Seed?

A terminator seed, also called a suicide seed, is a seed that is genetically modified so that any crops grown from it do not produce fertile seeds. Because the crops produce sterile seeds, farmers need to buy a new batch of seeds every year rather than using the traditional farming method of saving, reusing and sharing seeds.

Some biotechnology firms use seeds that require the farmers to use a special compound to activate the seed so that farmers that are using genetically modified seeds become dependent on the biotechnology firm if they want to plant the seeds from their crops.

Any technology that the biotechnology firms use to prevent the farmer from saving, sharing or reusing seeds and control the reuse of seeds threatens both biodiversity and sustainable farming methods in developing countries.

How Do Terminator Seeds Work?

Terminator seeds contain a repressor gene that kills the embryo in any seed that a genetically modified plant protected by terminator technology produces. Even though the seeds produced by the plants look normal, they are not viable and cannot be used to plant more crops, which forces the farmer to buy new seeds from the biotechnology firm selling the genetically modified plant.

Since saving and cross-breeding seeds is an integral part of traditional African practices, farmers in African countries are much less likely to use terminator seeds than farmers in other third world countries. In Africa, farmers use many varieties of seeds and are less likely to use biotechnology because the farming methods in Africa have been shown to be more sustainable than the solutions offered by biotechnology firms.

The Financial Impact of Terminator Seeds

Since biotechnology firms cannot use the law to stop farmers from reusing seeds, they are relying on science to stop farmers from reusing seeds. About 10 farmers a day commit suicide in India because the exorbitant prices of seeds produced by biotechnology companies are putting the farmers into a cycle of debt and despair that leads them to suicide.

Terminator seeds provide a viable way of protecting plants that cannot be protected by patent laws, and terminator technology is being used to ensure that farmers cannot reuse seeds that cannot be protected by other legal methods to regulate the use of new technologies that are sold by many of the world’s leading biotechnology firms. Technologies such as terminator seeds make it next to impossible for impoverished farmers to break out of the cycle of poverty.

Because terminator seeds threaten sustainable farming methods, many third-world farmers are starting to use organic and chemical-free methods to control pests and are starting to replace terminator seeds with seeds that are free to save and to share with other farmers. These practices can break the hold that terminator seeds terminator seeds have over farmers, while also helping them practice sustainable farming methods and become more self-sufficient.

– Michael Israel

Photo: Flickr

Combating the Zika VirusThe Zika virus is a widespread virus that had previously affected parts of Africa and Southeast Asia but is now impacting parts of South America, Central America and Mexico. The World Health Organization (WHO) officially declared the Zika virus an international health emergency on Feb. 1, 2016.

As one of the countries hit hardest by the Zika virus, Brazil is implementing creative, experimental methods to help combat the spread of the virus. According to the Guardian, Brazil is using an irradiation process where they are “zapping millions of male mosquitoes with gamma rays – sterilizing them to stop the spread of the virus.”

Kostas Bourtzis, a molecular biologist with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), stated: “It’s a birth control method, the equivalent of family planning for humans.”

Another method that Brazil is using to combat the Zika virus involves radiation. The Fiocruz biomedical research institute has released 30,000 sterile mosquitoes on Fernando de Noronha, an island 217 miles off the coast of north-east Brazil. Fiocruz researcher Alice Varjal said, “The pilot project seeks to replicate lab results in which 70 percent of the eggs laid by the females were sterile.”

An additional method that is being used in Brazil involves mosquitoes being genetically modified so their offspring will die before reaching adulthood, which reduces the chances of mosquitoes being able to reproduce. Biotechnology company Oxitec developed this technique.

So far in the U.S., approximately 50 cases of the Zika virus have been reported. President Barack Obama sent a request to Congress for close to $2 billion to contribute to combatting the continuous spread of the Zika virus.

In an interview done by CBS News, President Obama said, “The good news is, this is not like Ebola. People don’t die of Zika, a lot of people get it and don’t even know that they have it.” President Obama continued to discuss plans for the Zika virus, stating: “We’re going to be putting up a legislative proposal to Congress to resource both the research on vaccines and diagnostics, but also helping in terms of public health systems.”

Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada said, “It is critical that we approve the funds immediately and give our government the resources it needs to fight the virus.” He continued to say, “We also need to make sure that our nation’s response to the virus includes increasing access to contraceptives for women in Zika-affected regions who choose to use them.”

Once the funding is approved by Congress, it is estimated that $200 million would go toward vaccine development, $335 million toward foreign aid and $250 million would be distributed to Puerto Rico.

WHO has asked for $25 million, which would be contributed toward fast-tracking vaccines and virus control. Right now, there is no cure for the Zika virus but there are several plans underway to help slow down or stop the spread of the virus.

Aleia Bynum

Sources: NY Times, Huffington Post, CNN, The Guardian
Photo: Flickr

eradicating_malaria
Every minute, a child dies from malaria. 90 percent of the deaths from malaria occur in the poorest African countries. Malaria is a preventable, treatable disease; yet, more than half of the world’s population continues to be at risk for malaria.

Malaria has long been established as a poverty-related disease. Poverty is both a cause and effect of this potentially lethal disease: poorer people can often not afford preventive measures, and the contraction of disease leads to further economic loss. Consequentially, a substantial investment of time and resources into finding a solution is necessary to interrupt this vicious cycle.

The most successful method to combat the problem has been vector control- that is, to eradicate the mosquito transfer agent. Traditionally, the efforts have been to implement better preventative measures, primarily through insecticides, which are both expensive as well as environmentally harmful.

A more modern approach to the problem is to employ biotechnology to eliminate the mosquito vector more economically and effectively. This encompasses targeting the mosquito at a subcellular level by using a cytotoxic agent- that is a chemical that disrupts the mosquito’s cellular machinery.

Of these methods, the use of silver nanoparticles is becoming increasingly popular as nanotechnology advances. Silver nanoparticles are miniscule, nanoscale pieces of silver, which is highly toxic at cellular levels. This toxicity is being explored in its usages as antimicrobial and pesticidal agent.

Silver nanoparticles are traditionally synthesized using laboratory-grade reagents, which tend to be expensive and not readily available. Many researchers are now looking to phytosynthesis as an answer. The process of phyto-synthesis manipulates the ability of plants to carry out reactions to use in chemical synthesis. For instance, the phytosynthesis reaction of plants can be alternatively used to reduce silver ions to silver atoms.

Recent endeavors to utilize the phytosynthesis capabilities of plants have centered on the use of plant waste products to maximize productivity and minimize cost. In a recent study, researchers used the husk of coconut plant- abundant in the tropical regions plagued by malaria. They used the husk of coconut, which is a waste product from the fruit, to synthesize silver nanoparticles from silver nitrate. The synthesis eliminated the use of a synthetic reagent, and achieved successful results.

The nanoparticles produced were then used by the researchers to treat larval Culex quinquefasciatus, a species of mosquitos found in sub-tropical regions which is similar to the malaria mosquito in its transmission mechanism. The nanoparticles were observed to have significant larvicidal effect on the mosquito.

The study indicates the great potential of phytosynthetic methods to produce cheap and effective insecticides. By using plants indigenous to the tropical areas where malaria is most prevalent, the insecticidal measures of prevention can be made more accessible to the people. The use of waste products of coconut in the process is considerably cost-effective and eco-friendly.

Although the implementation of these innovative techniques may be some way in the future, ingenuity in research offers promising new horizons for a better, healthier world. To borrow Einstein’s words, it is time our technology caught up with our humanity.

– Atifah Safi

Sources: WHO 1, WHO 2, Science Direct
Photo: Flickr

China_funds_research_centers_in_the_Africa
For a variety of reasons, China has become known for its “interactiveness” with the global south. This “interactiveness” has included construction projects, student scholarships, and sending  doctors.

Recently, China began to fund five research centers in Africa and the global south in order to increase collaboration between Chinese and African scientists. The topics of focus for the scientists will include the climate, water, environmentally friendly technology, biotechnology, and space technology.

Using the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), $6.5 million will be distributed to the research centers over the course of the next three years. These funds will work to improve China’s soft power in the global south by conducting joint research projects between the CAS and the research centers.

Currently, there is a CAS network known as The World Academy of Sciences (TWAS) that will also benefit from this Chinese outreach to the global south. Along with the research projects, the funding will also provide for an increase in workshops, training, and PhD programs.

According to Salim Abdool Karim, director of the Centre for the AIDS Programme of Research in South Africa and a TWAS member, “The five centers will play an important role in global scientific collaboration by increasing South-South training opportunities.”

This collaboration is expected to increase climate change research. Yongqiang Liu, a research meteorologist at the USDA Forest Service’s Center for Forest Disturbance Science sees it as a good way to “prepare future leaders to lead climate change research for developing countries.”

Action through research investment should improve China’s image in the world. Currently, China stands at 50% favorable and 36% unfavorable among populaces from around the world. Comparably, the US was seen as favorable by 63%, and unfavorable by 30%. More specifically, when people were asked if they thought China considered their country’s interests, 27% thought a great deal with 63% saying either not too much or not at all.

There is still a great deal of room for China to improve its international appeal. By working with developing nations to improve research in sustainable technology and other important sciences, China can build off the work of TWAS and foster support from citizens in these countries.

Once the three years comes to an end, the education and collaboration should improve the environmental technology sector, as well as build the capacity for a future scientific community with various projects and goals. If successful, this move may be beneficial in regards to China’s popularity as well.

– Michael Carney
Sources: SciDev.Net, Pew Global