From Food To Biofuels

December 7, 2007

Yesterday, South African automobile drivers suffered the fourth consecutive increase in gasoline prices this year. The price of gasoline, which is controlled by the government and is the same at every pump across the country, increased from roughly $3.80 per gallon to about $4.18 per gallon.

As gasoline prices jumped, CHEMRAWN turned its focus to how South Africa (and the rest of the continent) might harvest some of its fuel from agricultural products.

From the late 1970s to the early 1990s, South Africa was “ahead of its time” in the hunt to find a way to convert cellulosic biomass to fuels and chemicals, according to Emile van Zyl, a Stellenbosch University microbiologist and organizer of the program’s biofuels portion, which is sponsored by the South African National Energy Research Institute. After the end of apartheid, most of these programs were abandoned in favor of funding other, more pressing priorities.

The current resurgence in interest here is underscored by yesterday and today’s packed sessions on biofuels, during which scientists from South Africa as well as Brazil, the U.S., and Europe discussed locally available feedstocks as well as technologies to convert cellulosic biomass to fuels.

Despite the enthusiasm in the room, it seems unclear at the moment whether biofuel production in South Africa will take off. Today the South African government announced that it has decided to scale back its biofuel dreams because of concerns about food security. The new plan limits the number of crops that can be used as feedstocks (ruling out corn, for example) and sets a production target of just 2%.


Wringing More Out Of Rooibos

December 6, 2007

When you consider how important agriculture is for African countries, it’s staggering. ARooibos tea whopping 70% of Africa’s population relies on agriculture for their livelihood, and some 30–40% of the continent’s total GDP flows from agricultural products, Sospeter Muhongo of the African regional office of the International Council for Science told me.

It’s no wonder, then, that Africa’s chemists are eager to eke increasingly more sophisticated and economically valuable products out of the continent’s flora.

These efforts are afoot across the continent, but one local example is Lizette Joubert of South Africa’s Agricultural Research Council here in Stellenbosch. One of Joubert’s prime targets is the indigenous herbal tea commonly known as rooibos.

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Eat Your Vegetables

December 6, 2007

A number of African scientists here at CHEMRAWN hope to use their chemical expertise to strengthen this old adage.

Gabriel Bwembya, a chemist at the University of Swaziland, reported his efforts to profile various nutrients in indigenous leafy vegetables from Swaziland. Bwembya used high-performance liquid chromatography and atomic absorption spectroscopy to analyze the nutrient content of local greens known as ligusha (Corchorus olitorus), inkhakha (Momordica involucrata), imbuya (Amaranthus spinosus), shuchuza (Bidens pilosa), and umsobo (Solanum nigrum).

He concluded that these greens are a terrific source of vitamin A as well as iron, calcium, and zinc. By spreading the word, Bwembya hopes to get Swazis to eat more of these vegetables, which are cheaper than other vegetable sources of these nutrients.

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Maize Gets Help From Its Neighbors

December 5, 2007

In Kenya, a parasitic plant known as witch weed (Striga hermonthica) can cripple a farmer’s maize crop. A remarkably efficient seed producer, a single witch weed plant can produce thousands of seeds—which in turn suppress the growth of maize the farmer has planted.

WEED WHACKERS Witch weed (top, purple flowers) chokes a maize field. When certain witch-weed-fighting legumes are interspersed (bottom), the maize grows tall. (Zeyaur Khan)

Previously, Zeyaur Khan of the International Center of Insect Physiology & Ecology (ICIPE) in Mbita found that interspersing maize with Desmodium legumes, which are commonly grown for fodder, prevents witch weed from taking hold. Salome M. Guchu, a student at ICIPE in Nairobi, described her team’s efforts to track down how these legumes keep witch weed in check.

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Reality Check

December 5, 2007

“Is food security in Africa really a problem that needs to be tackled by science?”

So began today’s most provocative talk, given by Stellenbosch University geochemist Martin Fey. “The cynical answer is yes—if you want to attract research funds,” he continued. “But the real answer surely lies elsewhere. There are many constraints on food security in Africa, the least of these being scientific knowledge.”

Fey pointed out that Malawi’s remarkable turnaround came not by way of some new scientific discovery, product, or advance but simply by providing subsidized chemical fertilizers and good seeds. “I see too much of science being extended as the answer to Africa’s food security,” he added. “But I’m pretty sure that it’s not science we need.”

Later I asked Sospeter Muhongo, regional director of the International Council for Science here in Africa, what he had made of Fey’s argument. “We should not be questioning whether science is key to improving Africa’s food security,” he told me. “To restrict our tools to simple science is shortsighted. Considering our existing food shortages and growing population, we must look to modern and appropriate science and technology—for example, biotechnology—to increase our food supply in the future. There simply is no other way.”

Linking Up Africa’s Scientists

December 4, 2007

Being a chemist in Africa can be isolating at times: Your chemical brethren are scattered far and wide, travel to international conferences is costly, and scientific literature can be expensive to access. To help decrease scientific isolation on the continent, the U.K.’s Royal Society of Chemistry made all of its journal content free last year to scientists at African universities (C&EN, May 15, 2006, page 44). More than 30,000 RSC articles have been downloaded in Kenya alone since the program’s launch, Alejandra Palermo of RSC told me last night. The archive’s popularity “reflects the continent’s strong demand for scientific knowledge,” she added.

RSCRSC hopes the brand-new Pan Africa Chemistry Network will build on the archive’s success. The program aims to promote science and research throughout Africa by catalyzing connections between scientists, researchers, schools, and libraries across the continent. Agro giant Syngenta has committed approximately $2 million over the next five years to help fund the program.

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Cultivating An African Green Revolution With Chemistry

December 3, 2007

CHEMRAWN XII kicked off its scientific program today with a dramatic and recent account of how chemistry can ensure food security for some of Africa’s hungriest villagers, courtesy of Pedro Sanchez, an agronomist at the Earth Institute at Columbia University and an architect of the food component of the United Nations’ Millenium Project.

Africa is the only region in the world in which average per capita food production has fallen steadily over the past 40 years, according to the UN’s Food & Agriculture Organization. The situation is particularly precarious in sub-Saharan Africa, where poverty, nutrient-depleted soil, and an unruly and unpredictable water supply have left millions of people unable to feed themselves.

Chemical fertilizers and improved seed varieties might help. But even though “you can buy a Coca-Cola just about everywhere in sub-Saharan Africa, you simply can’t buy seed and fertilizer,” Sanchez said. Access to and subsidies for seed and fertilizer could lift starving African farmers from hunger, he argued.

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