Going beyond food miles

Exporters who cater for the UK know the importance of food miles to British consumers. But trade minister Sir Digby Jones says these measures may not be enough to satisfy UK shoppers. Alan Harman reports.
Issue date : 18 July 2008

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Trade minister Sir Digby Jones says the sustainability debate in the UK is moving from food miles to emissions in a product’s full life cycle. He told the New Zealand Business Council for Sustainable Development that the government is developing a methodology for product labels that will offer huge opportunities for products that are efficiently produced and transported.
K authorities will consider research from New Zealand into the product-labelling concept, says Sir Digby, including findings that Zealand’s exports are produced more efficiently than competing British goods.

K farm lobby groups launched the “food miles” campaign, arguing that buying local produce has a smaller carbon footprint than food shipped from overseas. Sir Digby says supermarket customers are increasingly looking at the labels on products. “Food miles was the immediate response, but it is now seen as inadequate,” he says. “We need more robust measures and labels which show the embedded emissions in the full life cycle of the product. Not understanding this allows non-accountable, opaquely funded organisations to exploit the carbon footprint debate.” |fw

New strides in hi-tech irrigation planning

Scientists from the US Agricultural Research Service (ARS) are using everything from laser beams to wireless infrared thermometer systems to determine when, where and how much to irrigate. Alan Harman reports.

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The US Agricultural Research Service (ARS) is developing a system that automatically turns irrigation water on and off according to leaf temperature. Soil scientist Dr Steven Evett’s time-temperature threshold (TTT) technology is based in part on a discovery by his colleagues that each crop species is biologically programmed to grow best at certain temperatures – a narrow temperature window that varies from crop to crop. TTT thus makes crop water use more efficient.

Until recently, TTT was suitable only as a research tool because of the long strands of wires needed to connect infrared thermometers in the field and mounted on irrigation centre pivot arms to computers. Now ARS agricultural engineer Susan O’Shaughnessy and colleagues have developed the circuitry necessary to link the thermometers to commercially purchased wireless modules. O’Shaughnessy mounted 16 wireless infrared thermometer sensors on the arm of a centre pivot system that irrigated cotton this past season.

Next, she will test improved wireless modules that will prevent interference with the data transmission. She is also testing photo diode sensors that, by detecting reflected light, can help determine whether plants are stressed by lack of water or by disease. They can also distinguish bare areas where no plants are growing. This will help growers determine whether to skip watering parts of a field. Eventually the photo diode sensors will be mounted alongside the thermal sensors on the centre pivots. Meanwhile, ARS agricultural engineer Dr Prasanna Gowda is researching the evapotranspiration (ET) rate for each crop.

ET is the total amount of water evaporated from soil and from plant leaves, including water taken in through plant roots. Dr Gowda uses a scintillometer that employs laser light to measure the turbulence caused by heat waves over crops. These are the wavy currents of air you see on hot days, especially over paved areas, but they also occur over plants and warm soil.

Heat waves are a function of temperature and humidity fluctuations in the air, and thus indicate heat changes that help determine how much water the crops are using. The more turbulent the heat waves, the higher the water use. ARS engineers eventually want to give farmers daily ET rates via the Internet, using scintillometers, satellite sensors, and remote-sensing computer models. E-mail Dr Steven Evett at [email protected]. |fw

Egypt to grow GM Maize

SA has been Africa’s only commercial grower of GM crops, but in April, Egypt approved the commercial release of Bt insect-resistant maize. Enough seed to plant over 1 000ha is being imported from SA. The hybrid Ajeeb-YG is a cross between an Egyptian variety and SA GM material, and has resistance to three major stalkborer pests.

Egypt has a functional regulatory framework for the research, development and the application of modern crop biotechnology that includes biosafety assessments and an approval system, although there is not yet a specific GMO law. Trade in GM seeds is regulated by ministerial decrees.

Egypt’s Agricultural Genetic Engineering Research Institute (AGERI), has been doing advanced research into the genetic modification of several crop species. Ongoing field trial crops include stalkborer-resistant Bt maize, potato tuber moth-resistant potatoes and bollworm-resistant cotton.

The need for extensive trials has delayed commercial application, but uncertainties about trade issues arising from EU division on GM crops might have added to the delay. The new Bt maize hybrid resulted from collaboration between SA and Egyptian seed companies. Such collaboration also extends to other stakeholders and is strengthened by the North African Biosciences Network (NABNet). It is expected that SA will continue to supply seed until Egypt can meet farmer demand. – Wynand van der Walt ([email protected]). • Source: SciDevNet, May 2008. |fw