14 July, 2010

Stem rust - a serious threat to wheat production

Stem rust is threatening the production of wheat in Africa and Middle East, according to a recent article in the Economist. To summarize the content briefly: stem rust, a devastating plant disease that was the worst wheat disease in the first half of the 20th century, is back and badder than ever. It was thought to have been wiped out in the 1970s as Norman Borlaug discovered a gene that resisted the aforementioned disease. Unfortunately, stem rust evolved to another form, now dubbed Ug99 by FAO (Ug for Uganda, the country of origin; 99 for the year). Ug99 bypasses the previous gene protection and has destroyed even as much as 80-100% of crops it has afflicted in Africa.

So far, it has spread to Middle East and advanced to southern Africa as well. As the picture below portrays, there is a severe risk of stem rust jeopardising the entire wheat production in Africa and severely afflicting Middle East, being a threat even to Pakistan, one of the top 5 wheat producers. With time and a little bit of bad luck, the spores might even be carried with the winds to Australia, the third biggest wheat exporter in the world. Clearly, something most be done to 1) stop this crisis and 2) to prevent future disasters.

Labs around the globe are putting in hours to develop any kind of cure for Ug99, but so far there has been limited success. Even though nine rust-resistant breed have made it into production and distribution, the problem of logistics remains.

Producers in Africa and Asia are poor families with little or no leverage to invest. The cure has to be distributed to them in some way. They cannot afford to buy it from the private sector, and in many places there really aren't any public organizations capable of administering the solution. So far, only 0.1% of wheat area in countries FAO has deemed to be under threat has been planted with rust-resistant varieties.

This really calls for multinational action. Perhaps FAO could organize the distribution itself? After all, Borlaug's new breed spread relatively fast, so it should be possible to achieve a similar result this time. Stem rust threatens as many as 26 countries at the moment - countries that make up about 1/3 of the wheat production in the whole world. I don't care who does it or how it's done, but this crisis has to be stopped before it escalates into full-blown hunger!

Preventing future disasters is a completely different matter. There have been claims for more diverse farming. It is true that the current monoculture enables fast spreading of such diseases, as cops usually involve the same grain and are very large areas. However, there have been also some contradictory opinions especially regarding the development of Ug99. Reader northoldmoss expressed this view in the discussion regarding the source article:
"While Ug99 was discovered in Uganda, it almost certainly did not evolve there. Most probably it originated in the hotbed of wheat variation in traditional farming in Ethiopia - long known for its rich crop genetic resources."
However, the research (that I know of) is not yet decided on the matter. Personally, I'd currently vote for diversity but I guess that's not really a very educated opinion. If anyone has any insight on this matter, I'd be delighted.

05 July, 2010

The attic of my mind

The attic. The place where we take all our junk. All the things that now seem so useless, so unworthy of our care. We don't want to look after them anymore, because they have been replaced by something else. Something, which glimmers betters in the sun, smells nicer or looks less rugged. We grasp that new shiny wonder and throw our old stuff away from sight, away, to be forgotten.

But sometimes we climb up the stairs to the top floor, take the ladder from the closet, open he hatch and climb up to the attic.

We casually browse the contents of the boxes, occasionally picking up something. Almost everything reminds of something and brings back a wave of memories. Look, there's the old tea set you got from your aunt, and there's that old toy you played with as a kid. Sometimes we can't remember why we tossed something away in the first place. "This shouldn't be here, I can still use it", we catch ourselves thinking. We keep it in our hand, holding on to it tightly almost as if it could run back to the box and lock itself in. Carefully, we carry it back down and place it in our favorite spot above the fireplace, where we can see it every day.

The same is true of ideas.

01 July, 2010

Science has paradigms, too

Yesterday I was following a big debate on the web about the claim that school doesn't teach us enough about how to distinguish science and good reasoning from fluff, unscientific mumbojumbo or pure fraud. I agree with the notion, no question about it. But in the debate, there were quite a few comments which portrayed science as a paradigmatic system that leaves out something. Not quite so sure what to say about that.

Comparing science with religion there are some obvious differences. In science things are pretty much open for debate. You can try to topple any theory, but you're going to need some proof. An opinion is just an opinion, there's got to be serious evidence. In religion, this isn't the case, more or less. There is some room for debate (consider the relation of church to gay rights, for example). And there are some acceptable arguments, like the Bible, for example.

Religion has a clear paradigm. In Christianity, it is the Bible and other texts from the past. The paradigm includes the idea that religion makes sense (even though not explicitly rationally) and is useful. In science there are paradigms too. Scientists always assume, that for something to exist it must be measurable. If we accept the fact that telepathy is a good explanation of our world, it must be measurable in some way, for example by putting a telepathic person in a room and making him move objects that are not going to move in any other way.

Now the realization that science has paradigms as well is very important. That so, because the paradigmatic foundation always has to leave out something. The paradigm of linear causality leaves out phenomena that work (or could work) with nonlinear causality. It's very hard for me as a scientist to accept, but this is the only logical conclusion. It is possible that there is something outside the world of science. I'm not saying that there certainly is, I'm just saying that it's possible.

One final note: all the above does not mean that science doesn't work. Science is about linear causality and probabilities. When linear causality can be established between two events, it is almost sure that it will go as it's supposed to. But I guess there's always a tiny chance of God intervening...