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  • UK gives US$14 million boost to agriculture research


[LONDON] The United Kingdom's development aid agency has linked up with one of its largest research councils to boost research into sustainable agriculture in developing countries.

The US$14 million, four-year research programme — launched jointly by the UK Department for International Development (DFID) and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) in London yesterday (21 February) — will explore ways in which modern biological techniques can be applied to agriculture.

DFID is providing US$10 million, with the BBSRC providing the remainder of the funding.

The initiative is one of the fruits of a commitment by DFID to double its research budget over the next ten years, and to do this partly through supporting collaborative efforts between scientists working in the United Kingdom and those in developing countries.

"We hope that this flagship initiative shows that the pursuit of the economic and social benefit from science [by British scientists] does not have to equate with making money for UK plc," Alf Game, deputy director of the BBSRC, said at the launch.

Among the 12 projects to be supported is an investigation into ways of identifying varieties of staple crops that are resistant to the parasitic plant 'witchweed', which cripples otherwise healthy plants in 40 per cent of the cereal-producing areas of Sub-Saharan Africa.

The collaborative research will be led by the UK-based University of Sheffield, with scientists from the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics in India and the African Rice Centre in Senegal.

The research aims to identify the genetic basis of the ability of some varieties of rice to kill the parasite, and to use this knowledge to explore ways of breeding other cereals with the same characteristic.

Other projects will focus on how fungi can be used as biological control agents to combat the nematode worms that infect the roots of many different crops of vegetables, and how the genetic characteristics of pearl sorghum confer its ability to thrive in the hot, dry conditions that are expected to spread as a result of global warming.

According to Gordon Conway, the chief scientist at DFID, the high level of interest in the new scheme — known as Sustainable Agriculture Research for International Development — is reflected in the fact that more than 200 applications were received from across the world.

He emphasised that projects selected for funding are intended to explore how promising new scientific ideas could be developed and applied to the problems facing farmers in developing countries, rather than to seek novel scientific breakthroughs.

"We are looking for the most appropriate technologies to solve such problems," Conway said.

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