Sunday, 12 April 2015

Global agencies call for urgent action to avoid irreversible groundwater depletion

Photo: ©FAO/Olivier Asselin

A Senegalese farmer transfers well water into a holding container.
10 April 2015, Daegu/Rome/Washington, D.C. - FAO, UNESCO, the World Bank, GEF and the International Association of Hydrogeologists have today called for action by the global community to manage the increasingly urgent depletion and degradation of limited groundwater resources.

Ahead of the 7th World Water Forum in South Korea (12-17 April), the five organizations have proposed a set of principles governments can use for better groundwater management. The2030 Vision and Global Framework for Action represent a bold call for collective, responsible action by governments and the global community to ensure sustainable use of groundwater.

For too long, groundwater governance has been an area of policy neglect, resulting in the degradation and depletion of this critical resource. Global groundwater withdrawals have tripled over the past half century -- more than a fourth of current withdrawals are non-sustainable. Widespread groundwater pollution is threatening humans and the environment. Most urban aquifers suffer from sanitation issues while coastal aquifers are exposed to saline water intrusion. Industrial pollution, pesticides and fertilizers also find their way into reservoirs.

The amount of renewable groundwater is unevenly distributed across regions. Some areas, especially those with low rainfall, are at risk more than others. Withdrawal intensity is highest in large parts of China, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Iran, the United States, Mexico and Europe. This could result in lost freshwater reserves at a time when groundwater storage is critical for sustaining water security and adapting to climate variability.

"Since time immemorial humans have sought water from the soil. But we have moved from a village being based around a well to whole cities and industries being built around groundwater," said Junaid AhmadSenior Director of the World Bank Group Water Global Practice. "We have learned how to dig ever deeper, pump ever harder, and how to turn deserts into breadbaskets. But we have not also increased the rate at which our groundwater is recharged, and so we should not be surprised when our wells run dry. Much as we have invested in pumps and crops, so now we must invest in groundwater governance." 

Groundwater is indispensable to poverty reduction and shared prosperity. It accounts for more than a third of municipal and industrial supply and services some 40 percent of the planet's irrigated agriculture. Groundwater has the potential to provide an improved source of drinking water for millions of urban and rural poor people. Many poor farmers and their families depend on it to irrigate their crops and sustain their livelihoods.

The 2030 Vision and Framework for Action provides an enabling framework and guiding principles for coordinated action among governments and organizations.

"Sustainable management of groundwater is key to maintaining ecosystems and adapting to climate change," saidNaoko Ishii, CEO and Chairperson of the Global Environment Facility (GEF). "We can no longer take this invisible but vital source for granted; urgent action is needed to ensure its long term availability. We look forward to joining hands with partner agencies and countries to ensure water for drinking, food, cities, energy and industrial uses is available for generations to come."

In response to the urgency of the situation and a product of four years of consultations with stakeholders from more than 100 countries, these principles focus on legal and institutional frameworks, policies, and plans as well as information and incentive structures for sound and effective groundwater management. 

This process signals strengthened collaboration across the international community to understand the barriers to better groundwater governance and address key regional challenges. 

"Collective and coordinated action is urgently needed to protect and prolong the integrity of our aquifers," said Moujahed Achouri, Director of the Land and Water Division of the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). "The cost of inaction can be enormous. This vision and framework is an urgent call to decision-makers to act now with the right political decisions to help reach globally shared goals of social and economic development".

"To make groundwater governance a reality, it is necessary to foster cooperation among countries, especially on transboundary aquifers,” said UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova. "Water directly influences our future, we must work together to manage this precious resource more sustainably.Original Article.

Bundle Of Joyful Microbes: Mom's DNA Alters Baby's Gut Bacteria

Right after birth, trillions of microbes rush into a baby's gut and start to grow. Most of these critters come from the mom's skin, birth canal and gut.
But exactly which types of bacteria take up residence in an infant's gut can depend on the mother's DNA, scientists reported Thursday.
The study, published in the journal Microbiome, focuses on a microbe calledBifidobacterium that potentially benefits babies.

Bifidobacteria are among the first microbes to show up in a baby's intestinal tract after birth. Some studies suggest a particular type of Bifidobacteria can prevent infections and help establish the newborn's immune system.
"It plays a role in preventing infections," says Zachery Lewis, a graduate student in microbiology at the University of California, Davis, who contributed to the study. "Bifidobacteria sort of push other bacteria out. They lower the gut's pH, which a lot of pathogens don't like."
After birth, Bifidobacterium is one of the first microbes to arrive in a baby's gut. But not all infants get the microbe at the same time — or in the same amounts.
Now Lewis and his colleagues have figured out why: A single gene in the mom controls the behavior ofBifidobacterium, and that gene works through breast milk.
Women have a whole suite of genes that control the precise recipes of their breast milk, Lewis says. One gene, called FUT2, manufactures a special sugar thatBifidobacterium loves to eat. But about 20 percent of women have a mutation in this gene. So those women make much less of the special sugar.
Lewis and his colleagues thought perhaps this mutation might affect how muchBifidobacteria live in a baby's gut. And they were right.
The study was small — only 44 women. Twelve had the mutation in the special sugar-making gene and 32 didn't. But the findings were clear.
Babies whose moms carry the mutation had about 10 times fewer Bifidobacteria in their guts, on average, than the babies whose moms had a working version of the gene. The former also tended to pick up the bacteria later.
"I think it's exciting how just a single gene is enough to change the baby's microbiome," Lewis says. "It shows that establishing the microbiome is an intricate process, orchestrated by the breast milk."
But the finding comes with many caveats. The team didn't analyze whether the boost in Bifidobacteria had any health effects on the baby. And a whole slew of other factors influence which critters live in a baby's gut. In particular, babies pick up the microbes around them.
"If you're living in an unhygienic home, the baby will have a completely different microbiome than one in a home that gets Cloroxed every day," Lewis says. "Our findings are for babies living in Davis, California. The gene could have totally different effects in other parts of the world."
Lewis says FUT2 is only one of many genes that likely help establish an infant'smicrobiome.
"We definitely don't want any mothers to think that their breast milk is any less healthy or valuable [if they have the mutation]," he says.
And it's not always possible to breast-feed, while some women choose not to. That's one reason why some scientists are studying how breast milk works, Lewis says: to help make better formula.Original article

Commercialisation of agriculture

Crop prices are falling, as opposed to the rising cost of farm inputs. This is eroding farmers’ earnings and savings and is bound to impact the pace of investment required to modernise agriculture and improve productivity, and will make it more difficult for primary commodities to become globally competitive.
It will also result in the cash-strapped government being forced to continue to subsidise the export of surplus wheat and sugar etc, while domestic prices remain higher than the international rates.
In the absence of adequate storage facilities and modern supply chains, a significant quantity of grains stored in open grounds would also be lost. The government has failed to come up with a policy to stimulate the private sector or farmers to invest in logistics.
No doubt, the increase in support prices of wheat — a staple food serving as a benchmark for the pricing of other crops — along with rising bank credit and micro-financing, have raised growers’ incomes. But it has also provided an opportunity to the manufacturers and dealers of fertiliser, seeds, tractors etc to manipulate the rural market at the cost of the farmers.
This has resulted in a significant transfer of resources from agriculture to industry and trade, and provided an impetus to agri-business, as indicated by the number of agri-business companies being registered by the Securities and Exchange Commission of Pakistan (SECP). Yet, the commercialisation of agriculture is slower than is required to put the farm economy at an even keel.
Tough the inefficient mode of crop-sharing between the landed gentry and the peasant-tenant is gradually getting out of fashion, its replacement by cash contracts needs to be speeded up to increase farm productivity through mechanisation. The provincial governments do provide subsidy on tractors, but a whole range of farm implements are required to modernise agriculture.
The rural market cannot be opened up much for private sector/farmers’ investment without the creation of a market for the sale and purchase of agricultural lands for corporate farming. The computerisation of land records can help move in this direction and encourage banks to lend money. But the provincial revenue departments are taking things easy on this front.
However, corporate farming should not come at the cost of small farmers. Sometime back, there was a move to encourage small farmers to join corporate farming, with their equity commensurate to their share in the corporate landholding. But nothing is being heard about it. The proposal should be revived to ensure an inclusive agricultural economy.
Somehow the government’s pro-farmer policies get to benefit big growers much more than the smaller ones. No doubt, some specific schemes have been introduced recently by the State Bank/government for financing small cultivators. But this is not enough. There is a strong need to establish clusters of common facilities in the private sector to provide modern farm implements on rent to small farmers who cannot afford to buy them.
In the realm of marketing, a major barrier to boosting investment and productivity in agriculture is the conflict of interest between farmers, trade and industry — with each trying to benefit at the cost of the other, rather than cooperating mutually to boost ‘agricultural manufacturing’. Forgotten is the message of the IT era: sharing in the value-chain is a win-win for all.
The industry is dependent on agriculture for raw materials and rural markets for the sale of its products. This serves as the basis for cooperation between rural folks and urban dwellers. Currently, agriculture’s share in national income is in the range of 21-22pc, and about 44pc of the country’s population depends on farming and livestock for its livelihood. This indicates the level of rural poverty and the low purchasing power of the rural dwellers.
The prosperity that the industry radiates owes much to agriculture. One of the ways in which the underutilised domestic manufacturing capacity can be utilised is by turning the rural market — which has already become an attractive one for motorcycles and home appliances — more prosperous.
To sum up, the overarching goal should be to establish a modern, prosperous, inclusive, globally efficient and competitive ‘agriculture manufacturing’ economy. Agriculture should be at the centre of the development strategy. The survival and growth of the country’s traditional industries like textiles, sugar and leather goods can be traced to agricultural raw materials.
And now, food processing is coming up fast because of both domestic demand and export potential. In a way, agriculture is serving as the foundation of the industrial economy.
Published in Dawn

Need stressed to develop agriculture, cattle farming

Balochistan Chief Minister Dr Malik Baloch has said that the government will now focus on developing agriculture, livestock and fishery sectors to make the province self-sufficient in these sectors and to end backwardness and poverty in the area.
Addressing a meeting of growers and landlords here on Tuesday, Dr Malik declared 2015 the year of growers, cattle farmers and fishermen and said that a convention of experts of these sectors would soon be held in the provincial capital to create awareness about the issue and to invite experts’ opinions and suggestions for rapid development of these sectors in the province.
He said that all landlords and farmers of the province would be invited to the convention.
He said the province was facing the serious issue of depleting groundwater and farmers needed modern education, techniques and training to grow such their crops and fruits by using less water.
He said that a large portion of population of the province depended on livestock, farm sectors and its allied sectors and the government would take every step to promote agriculture and other sectors and provide guidelines in this connection.
“By acquiring modern training and techniques, we will become self-sufficient in farm production, cattle breeding and meat production and this will help the province and the country to earn foreign exchange by exporting farm products,” the chief minister said.

Malik Baloch meets growers and landlords

He said that a lot of opportunities for investment in these sectors existed in the province and invited the private sector to come to forward and investment in the province to exploit these opportunities.
He said that with the cooperation of Australia, two projects of wool cutting and its qualitative processing and packaging would be started soon in the province.
Dr Malik said the government was doing its best to revive natural pastures and thanked the federal government for offering every help and cooperation for promotion of these sectors in the province.
“Proposals of farmers, cattle breeders and fishermen will be sought to promote agriculture and its related sectors in the province and growers and farmers showing good performance will be given awards,” the chief minister said.
Provincial ministers Abdul Rahim Ziaratwal, Sarfaraz Bugti and provincial assembly member Sardar Dur Muhammad Nasir attended the gathering.
Published in Dawn

How Genes and Environment Conspire to Trigger Diabetes

Diabetes appears to be a disease written deeply in human genes, a feature millions of years old, which can emerge yet also retreat through the influence of environmental forces such as diet, a new study suggests.
Researchers looked at how obesity, in particular, can trigger the onset of Type 2 diabetes in both mice and humans by manipulating how genes are expressed.
They found that obesity, in effect, can change the chemical tags associated with DNA, called the epigenome. These epigenetic changes modify how genes behave and can alter the production of proteins necessary for proper metabolism and secretion of insulin, the hormone that controls blood sugar levels.
The good news is that diseases brought on by such epigenetic changes can be reversed, the scientists at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore said in their study, published Jan. 6 in the journal Cell Metabolism.
The study may help explain why Type 2 diabetes, a disease that was hardly seen a few generations ago, now affects more than 300 million adults worldwide, with some populations far more affected than others — a conspiracy of both genetic and epigenetic factors. [8 Reasons Our Waistlines Are Expanding]
In people with Type 2 diabetes, the body has lost either the ability to produce enough insulin, or the ability to respond to the insulin that is produced. Insulin is the hormone that triggers the body's cells to take up sugar from the bloodstream, so in people with Type 2 diabetes, the level of sugar in the blood rises too high.
It is well established that people who are obese are at increased risk of developing Type 2 diabetes, so the Hopkins scientists first studied obese mice to understand how obesity is related to the disease. The mice in the study were clones — all had identical genetics. The researchers found that the mice placed on a high-fat diet grew obese and diabetic; mice on a regular diet stayed lean and healthy. This much was expected.
Yet although the mice started life with identical genes, it was clear that the lean and obese mice had radically different gene expression as adults. An analysis of DNA isolated from their fat cells revealed changes in the epigenome: at certain sites along their DNA, chemical tags called methyl groups were present in the lean mice but missing in the obese mice; at other sites, vice versa. These methyl groups prevent genes from making proteins.
The scientists then looked at a dataset of obese people who underwent gastric bypass surgery, and, to their surprise, found nearly the exact same pattern of epigenetic changes at key sites in DNA isolated from their fat cells.
"Mice and humans are separated by 50 million years of evolution, so it's interesting that obesity causes similar epigenetic changes to similar genes in both species," said Dr. Andrew Feinberg, director of the university's Center for Epigenetics, who led the study.

The findings mesh nicely with other recent discoveries about the role of diet in the development of diabetes.
A study published in April 2012 in The New England Journal of Medicine found that 75 percent of people with diabetes who underwent gastric-bypass surgery saw a reversal of their disease. The Hopkins study supports this by revealing how the epigenome in obese patients becomes more like the epigenome in lean people after this weight-loss surgery.
A study published in August 2014 in Cell Metabolism found that grizzly bears essentially become diabetic during hibernation, and then "recover" when they awaken. The bears' diabetes is induced by the accumulation of fat in the months preceding their winter sleep. Once in a diabetic state, insulin stops working, and, in the absence of more food while hibernating, the insulin resistance allows the bears to effectively break down their fat stores for energy.
This finding points to the idea that diabetes is a feature encoded in our DNA that can have evolutionary advantages in a feast-or-famine world, the researchers said.
"It's likely that when food supplies are highly variable, these epigenetic changes help our bodies adapt to temporary surges in calories," Feinberg said. "But if the high-calorie diet continues over the long term, the same epigenetic pattern raises the risk for disease."
Feinberg stressed, however, that the new findings highlight the "complementary nature of genetics and epigenetics in disease." Diet is still the main contributor to type 2 diabetes, he said.
Some of the epigenetic changes that the scientists discovered were associated with genes already known to raise diabetes risk. Many more were tied to genes not linked conclusively to the disease but rather metabolism in general.
Together, they offer "new potential targets for treating Type 2 diabetes," said G. William Wong, an associate professor of physiology at Johns Hopkins and a co-author on the paper.  The study also suggests that researchers could develop an epigenetic test to identify people on the path to diabetes much earlier than can now be done.
Follow Christopher Wanjek @wanjek for daily tweets on health and science with a humorous edge. Wanjek is the author of "Food at Work" and "Bad Medicine." His column, Bad Medicine, appears regularly on Live Science


Deforestation, clearance or clearing is the removal of a forest or stand of trees where the land is thereafter converted to a non-forest .The term deforestation can be misused when applied to describe a tree harvesting way in which all trees in an area are removed. Moreover, biodiversity after regeneration harvest often mimics that found after natural disturbance, as well as biodiversity loss after naturally happening rainforest destruction.
Deforestation happens for many reasons: trees are cut down to be used or sold as timber or fuel while clean land is used as plantations of commodities, settlements and meadow for livestock. The deletion of trees without necessary reforestation has caused in damage to biodiversity, loss aridity and habitat. It has adverse effects on bio sequestration of atmospheric carbon dioxide. In war deforestation has also been used to deprive the enemy of cover for its forces and also vital means. Current cases of this were the use of Agent Orange by the British military in Malaya in the Malayan Emergency and the United States military in Vietnam in the Vietnam War. Disregard of ascribed value, lax forest management and deficient environmental laws are some of the factors that allow deforestation to occur on a large scale. In numerous countries, deforestation, both human induced and naturally occurring is a current matter. Deforestation causes extinction, desertification, changes to climatic conditions and displacement of populations as observed through current environments and in the past through the fossil record. More than half of all land animal and plant species in the world live in tropical forests.
By most accounts, deforestation in tropical rainforests adds more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere than the sum total of cars and trucks on the world’s roads. According to the World Carfree Network (WCN), trucks and cars account for about 14 percent of worldwide carbon releases, whereas most experts point upwards of 15 percent to deforestation.
The cause that logging is so bad for the climate is that when trees are cut down they release the carbon they are storing into the air, where it mingles with greenhouse gases from further sources and adds to global warming therefore. The upshot is that we should be doing as much to prevent deforestation as we are to reduce automobile usage and increase fuel efficiency

According to the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), 32 million acres of tropical rainforest were cut down every year among 2000 and 2009—and the pace of deforestation is simply increasing. “Unless we change the current system that results forest destruction, forest clearing will put additional 200 billion tons of carbon into the atmosphere in upcoming eras.
C02 and ethane contribute to the greenhouse result. According to World Rainforest Movement, twenty-five percent of our drugs comes from the forestry. Trees take up water from their roots and then expel it into the air as moisture.This moisture then gets changed into clouds that will bring rain. If we have less trees, the atmosphere will be drier. With less trees, our soil does not have as far support and much silt is released into the waters, causing in more flooding and loss of soil. And, what happens to the wildlife that make a home in our forest? Where do they go?
To keep our woodlands and forests, the wild life that live in them, the waters ,the soil, , the  air that we all breathe, and for all humanity’s health and well-being, we need to  use paper products sparingly and sensibly ; and without doubt we must make sure to recycle paper products.
Try to visualize the earth without our trees, not just because of the things above, however also for the beauty of environment. Practically all of us have walked down a road with the sun beating ruthlessly down on us and desired silently that there were some trees beside that road. There are so numerous things related with trees that affect our senses as well, like the sounds of the wind blowing over the leaves, the sound of the branches swaying in the wind and the ever so sweet chirping of the sparrows at dawn and dusk. Really can we visualize a world without our trees? No, absolutely not. So we must all join hands to stop deforestation, each in our little way. The world did happen before the making of paper. A lot of things like paper facial tissues, kitchen towels, can be avoided if only we are not so obsessed with the word disposable. So go for that which is recyclable and reusable instead. Our trees are our legacy given to us by our ancestors, it’s the legacy we must leave our own.
  • Written by Naveed Mushtaq, **Zoraiz Tanveer and *** Nasir Ahmed Khan, *, ** Department of Plant Breeding & Genetics (PBG), *** Department of Plant Pathology, University of Agriculture, Faisalabad

Do People Expect Too Much From DNA Data?

Sequencing is definitely becoming cheaper and more accessible. One can sequence a couple of full genomes today for less than US$50,000. In 1985, human DNA sequencing cost was thought to be around US$3 billion. I hope that by 2020, drug stores can do genome sequencing for a few hundred dollars.
But, one must be careful – whole genome sequencing is not at all accurate for medical diagnosis. I got my own genome sequenced, but they missed the local rearrangements in my genome – it was not well-curated.
Also, it is common belief that once we can sequence the genome, we can edit it to have babies with higher IQ for example. This is a myth, because it is very rare that one gene corresponds to one property.
What do you think about the prospects of personalised medicine?
I support the cause of personalised medicine. I believe that it has two underlying themes – each one of us has different metabolism and each one of us has a different manifestation of the same disease. My cancer is not the same as your cancer, so the only way one can categorise ultimately is to have a limited number of subtypes and then develop drugs against those subtypes.
But as you can see, big pharma companies of course do not want people to believe in personalised medicine. Otherwise how would they sell their generic drugs? I don’t understand why they don’t realise that clinical trials get easier and much cheaper with subtyping – they do not play this market game well.
What are your views on “big data”?
Big data promises to collect large sets of data and find associations between genes and diseases. There’s definitely something useful in the data collected, but the danger is that we have no clue how to interpret it. Also, you must remember that all statistically significant things are not biologically significant. So, it is definitely not a panacea.
There was a recent controversy about patenting genes. What did you make of that?
I agree with the US Supreme Court decision that one cannot patent anything that exists naturally. Since a gene is a part of the genome, I don’t think one should be allowed to patent it. But companies are allowed to patent some genetic tests that identify risks for certain diseases based on one’s genes.
What problems does science face today?
We are spending money on problems that can have immediate outcomes. Then we are forced to use only our current level of understanding. There is a lot that what we don’t know. Imagine that if we had asked Benjamin Franklin to justify the importance of the “spark” he had found, would we have had electricity today?
Another major problem is the explosion in scientific manpower that has not necessarily led to the betterment of science, especially in biology. In fact, bad material that gets published has increased. In biology, the top journals – Cell, Science and Nature – have created a mess. They tell the authors “give me the headline, not the data”. And then we see retractions and shattered careers and dreams.
What advice would you like to give to young scientists?
Do not blindly believe whatever you read. I often used to give my students papers that said opposite things and then tell them to explain to me how they were consistent, if at all. Also, do not continue science if it does not excite you. Science cannot be a nine-to-five job.
Walter Gilbert does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations

Poultry industry calls for review of FTAs

KARACHI: The Pakistan Poultry Associa­tion (PPA) on Saturday urged Commerce Minister Khurram Dastagir to review the free trade agreements (FTAs) that are hurting more than helping the country.

Khalil Sattar, Chairman Tariff and Taxation Committee PPA, in a letter stated that under the FTA with Malaysia, poultry products are allowed to be imported free of duty and sales tax.
Similarly, poultry items from India are allowed at 5 per cent import duty and from China at 10pc and 16pc, both free of sales tax.
Including poultry products in the above agreements, “the PPA was not taken on board despite repeated requests,” the letter stated.
Pakistan has opened up its market but the trading partners have not yet reciprocated. They use non-tariff barriers to discourage imports from Pakistan, hence “not a single ounce of chicken product has been exported to Malaysia or China”.
India has placed all poultry products under its ‘Sensitive list’ (headings 0207, 1601 and 1602), thus exports to the country was also not possible.
“To produce value-added products, falling under heading 1601 and 1602, raw material at 15-30pc import duty and 17pc sales tax has to be imported,” Sattar said.
The cost of production has gone up because of the duties and on the other hand zero rating has been withdrawn, he lamented, adding: “The FTA countries provide zero rating to their producers and also give export incentives.”
Moreover, since the signing of FTAs, multinationals who were buying poultry products from Pakistan have suspended their purchases.
He claimed that the products being imported did not meet the quality control authority’s standards of Halal chicken. The import policy does not lay down details required in the Halal certification, he added.
He asked the government to allow duty free import of raw materials required for production of value-added chicken products. Poultry processing should be exempted from electricity and gas load-shedding.
He added that the import duty on products falling under headings 0207, 1601 and 1602 should be increased to 50pc, quoting the example of India, which has increased the duty to 100pc.orgional link


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