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Biofortification: Combat World Hunger Crisis by breeding nutrient-packed Crops that will fill Stomachs and lessen Effects of Malnutrition

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Scientists are creating seeds with more nutrients to help fight world hunger. HarvestPlus, a Washington-based nonprofit, has been fortifying sees with vital nutrients since 2003. VOA
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Scientists are helping to combat the world hunger crisis by breeding nutrient-packed crops that will fill stomachs and lessen the effects of malnutrition.

It’s called biofortification.

It sounds complicated, but the concept is simple: create smarter seeds that grow into more nutrient-dense staple crops than regular ones. Then distribute the seeds on a large scale to farmers in developing countries, so they can grow crops that are more nutritious.

Seeds with more nutrients

This is what researchers at HarvestPlus, a Washington-based nonprofit, have been doing on a large scale since 2003, feeding an estimated 20 million people in 30 countries.

Their biofortified seeds pack one or more vital nutrients, such as iron, zinc and Vitamin A, said Bev Postma, HarvestPlus’ CEO.

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“It’s very important that the seeds are not just high in nutrition, but that they are still high-yielding, they are pest resistant, they are climate resistant — because these are the things a farmer still wants more,” she said.

Deficiencies of these nutrients can leave people more vulnerable to illness and infections, and in extreme cases cause blindness and stunt growth. Children are especially affected.

The organization’s research has found that many of these effects can be reversed in a matter of months once nutrient-packed foods are introduced into the local diet.

150 varieties of 12 staples

HarvestPlus scientists have produced 150 varieties of 12 staple foods, including corn, beans, rice, lentils and wheat.

In 2003, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation gave the organization a $25 million grant over four years to help them scale up. This year, they are one of eight finalists for a $100 million grant from the MacArthur Foundation, which could help them realize their goal of reaching 1 billion people with biofortified crops by 2030.

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“We’re not trying to change behavior, we are looking to see what people are eating and we are just switching out to make that food more nutritious,” Postma said.

Biofortified seeds are produced in a traditional manner, and they are not genetically modified.

Seed distribution

The seeds are distributed through seed companies and sometimes directly to farmers.

“We’ve learned that in some countries, if we give the seed away, we can encourage the farmers to not just grow this new variety, but then ask them to give the next year’s seed that they harvest to four new farmers,” Postma said.

In other instances, she said, they work with seed companies to persuade them to adopt biofortified seeds and sell them as part of a package of options to farmers.

“We find in some instances it is better if farmers are paying for these seeds, because then there is a perceived value and adoption is higher,” she said. Postma said they try to make sure that their seeds are not more expensive than regular varieties.

The organization works with government agriculture and health ministries in developing countries to encourage them to adopt biofortified seeds as a cost-effective way to solve some of their major health problems. (IANS)

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Invasive Species May Not Be All Bad: Scientists

An active debate among biologists about the role of invasive species in a changing world is going on

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Invasive Species
The invasive European green crab is tearing down ecosystems in Newfoundland and building them up on Cape Cod. VOA

Off the shores of Newfoundland, Canada, an ecosystem is unraveling at the hands (or pincers) of an invasive crab.

Some 1,500 kilometers (930 miles) to the south, the same invasive crab — the European green crab — is helping New England marshes rebuild.

Both cases are featured in a new study that shows how the impacts of these alien invaders are not always straightforward.

Around the world, invasive species are a major threat to many coastal ecosystems and the benefits they provide, from food to clean water. Attitudes among scientists are evolving, however, as more research demonstrates that they occasionally carry a hidden upside.

“It’s complicated,” said Christina Simkanin, a biologist at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, “which isn’t a super-satisfying answer if you want a direct, should we keep it or should we not? But it’s the reality.”

Simkanin co-authored a new study showing that on the whole, coastal ecosystems store more carbon when they are overrun by invasive species.

Good news, crab news

Take the contradictory case of the European green crab. These invaders were first spotted in Newfoundland in 2007. Since then, they have devastated eelgrass habitats, digging up native vegetation as they burrow for shelter or dig for prey. Eelgrass is down 50 percent in places the crabs have moved into. Some sites have suffered total collapse.

That’s been devastating for fish that spend their juvenile days among the seagrass. Where the invasive crabs have moved in, the total weight of fish is down tenfold.

The loss of eelgrass also means these underwater meadows soak up less planet-warming carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

In Cape Cod, Massachusetts, the same crab is having the opposite impact.

Off the coast of New England, fishermen have caught too many striped bass and blue crabs. These species used to keep native crab populations in check. Without predators to hold them back, native crabs are devouring the marshes.

But the invasive European green crab pushes native crabs out of their burrows. Under pressure from the invader, native crabs are eating less marsh grass. Marshes are recovering, and their carbon storage capacity is growing with them.

Invasive species
In this May 8, 2016 photo, eelgrass grows in sediment at Lowell’s Cove in Harpswell, Maine. VOA

Carbon repositories

Simkanin and colleagues compiled these studies and more than 100 others to see whether the net impact on carbon storage has been positive or negative.

They found that the ones overtaken by invasive species held about 40 percent more carbon than intact habitats.

They were taken by surprise, she said, because “non-native species are thought of as being negative so often. And they do have detrimental impacts. But in this case, they seem to be storing carbon quicker.”

At the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center where she works, the invasive reed Phragmites has been steadily overtaking a marsh scientists are studying.

Phragmites grows much taller, denser and with deeper roots than the native marsh grass it overruns.

But those same traits that make it a powerful invader also mean it stores more carbon than native species.

“Phragmites has been referred to as a Jekyll and Hyde species,” she said.

Not all invaded ecosystems stored more carbon. Invaded seagrass habitats generally lost carbon, and mangroves were basically unchanged. But on balance, gains from marsh invaders outweighed the others.

Invasive species
Phragmites plants growing on Staten Island draft in a breeze in the Oakwood Beach neighborhood of Staten Island. VOA

Not a lot of generalities

To be clear, Simkanin said the study is not suggesting it’s always better to let the invaders take over; but, it reflects an active debate among biologists about the role of invasive species in a changing world.

“One of the difficult things in the field of invasion biology is, there aren’t a lot of generalities,” said Brown University conservation biologist Dov Sax, who was not involved with the research. “There’s a lot of nuance.”

The prevailing view among biologists is that non-native species should be presumed to be destructive unless proven otherwise.

When 19 biologists wrote an article in 2011 challenging that view, titled, “Don’t judge species on their origins,” it drew a forceful rebuke from 141 other experts.

Sax said the argument is likely to become more complicated in the future.

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“In a changing world, with a rapidly changing climate, we do expect there to be lots of cases where natives will no longer be as successful in a region. And some of the non-natives might actually step in and play some of those ecosystem services roles that we might want,” he said.

“In that context, what do we do? I definitely don’t have all the answers.” (VOA)