HarvestPlus, World Food Programme Release Joint Brief on Biofortification

HarvestPlus and the World Food Programme (WFP) have released a joint brief that highlights the significant role of nutrient-enriched biofortified crops in improving global nutrition and food security, especially for the world’s most vulnerable households. 

The brief, Biofortification: A Food Systems Approach to Ensuring Healthy Diets Globally, comes as HarvestPlus and WFP are working to “leverage one another’s expertise, experience, and reach to improve nutrition and food security” and “increase the uptake of biofortified crops and foods,” writes Valerie N. Guarnieri, Assistant Executive Director for Programme and Policy Development at WFP, and Arun Baral, CEO of HarvestPlus, in the brief’s Forward. 

The document showcases examples of WFP/HarvestPlus collaborations in supporting country-level initiatives to scale up biofortified seeds, crops, and foods, and identifies opportunities to integrate biofortified crops and foods in the global agency’s procurement policies and in other relevant WFP programs.    

The brief provides basic information about biofortification and how it plays a central role in global efforts by the CGIAR (of which HarvestPlus is a part) to improve the nutrition and health of vulnerable populations in low- and middle-income countries. It highlights the robust evidence based on the agricultural benefits of biofortified crops, their acceptance by farmers and consumers, and the crops’ nutritional and health benefits. Drawing on this evidence, the brief shows how “nutrient-enriched crops can help sustainably transform food systems to deliver healthier diets.” 

Biofortified crops promoted by HarvestPlus are currently available in 30 countries and are benefiting nearly 10 million smallholder farming households who are growing, consuming, and trading in these crops. The crops promoted by HarvestPlus include vitamin A maize, sweet potato, and cassava; iron bean and pearl millet; and zinc wheat, rice, and maize. 

UN Report Tallies Increased Food and Nutrition Insecurity Amid COVID-19; Notes Value of Biofortification as a Response

An influential UN report on global food and nutrition security shows how the combination of conflict, climate change, economic stresses, and the COVID-19 pandemic led to a significant increase in global hunger and malnutrition during 2020. The report estimates that nearly 10 percent of the world population (or about 811 million people) was undernourished last year, up from 8.4 percent in 2019. 

The 2021 edition of the State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World (SOFI) report also projects that, if current trends were to continue, the global community would fall well short of the Sustainable Development Goal 2 (SDG 2) of ending hunger by 2030, with nearly 660 million people still experiencing hunger by then. Of that total, the report says about 30 million cases would link directly to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

This year’s SOFI also highlights the urgent need to ensure that nutritious diets are both accessible and affordable to everyone. It recommends five policy response areas for doing so—including micronutrient enrichment of staple crops through the process of biofortificationThese micronutrients are now more relevant than ever as they are needed for healthy immune systems – the first line of defense against health threats, including viruses such as COVID-19. 

The SOFI is a flagship publication series that monitors progress towards globally agreed food security and nutrition targets. It is jointly produced by five UN agencies*. and is widely recognized as a valuable resource to drive informed decision-making for policy actors striving to formulate policies on SDG 2, i.e., to end hunger, achieve food security, end all forms of malnutrition, and promote sustainable agriculture.

Regarding biofortification, the SOFI report states that it has been used along with large-scale food fortification as a cost-effective measure to reduce micronutrient deficiencies while increasing the availability—and lowering the cost—of nutritious foods.” 

The report calls for a value chain-based approach “to increase the availability of safe and nutritious foods and lower their cost, primarily as a means to increase the affordability of healthy diets,” using incentives such as diversification of diets toward more-nutritious foods such as fruits, vegetables, and animal source foods, as well as promotion of biofortified crops. 

The report cites the example of Rwanda, where HarvestPlus and partners introduced iron-biofortified beans which were rapidly adopted by farmers. “By the end of 2018, it was estimated that 20 percent of beans produced in the country were iron-biofortified, and 15 percent of the population was consuming these. Regular consumption of fortified beans can provide up to 80 percent of daily iron needs. Iron-biofortified varieties have also produced yields with iron levels that are 20 percent above those of other varieties, turning them into an attractive alternative for farmers,” the report noted. 

HarvestPlus leads a global movement to scale up production and consumption of biofortified staple crops, notably iron beans and pearl millet, zinc rice, maize, and wheat, and vitamin A cassava, maize, and sweet potato. As of the end of 2020, more than 260 biofortified varieties of these crops were available to farmers in 30 countries across Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Biofortified crops are designed specifically for smallholder farming families who primarily consumer what they grow themselves and rely heavily on staples for their diets. 

For the first time, the SOFI report shows that recent increases in the unaffordability of healthy diets are associated with increased food insecurity. The report estimates that more than 2.3 billion people (or 30 percent of the global population) lacked year-round access to adequate food in 2020. This indicator (also known as the prevalence of moderate or severe food insecurity indicator) increased in one year as much as in the preceding five years combined. This alarming increase reflects the cumulative negative impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on food security in 2020.

We are now at a critical moment in time that requires new food system approaches and urgent actions at scale to get back on track towards achieving SDG-2 and other SDGs. Biofortification is a particularly relevant approach now, as the severe disruptions and economic tolls of the COVID-19 pandemic—and efforts to contain it—cut many families’ incomes and force them to rely more on relatively cheap lower-nutrient staples such as rice, wheat, beans, and maize. 

Scientists convert plastic waste into vanilla flavoring

In the future, your vanilla ice cream may be made from plastic bottles. Scientists have figured out a way to convert plastic waste into vanilla flavoring with genetically engineered bacteria, according to a new study.

Vanillin, the compound that carries most of the smell and taste of vanilla, can be extracted naturally from vanilla beans or made synthetically. About 85% of vanillin is currently made from chemicals taken from fossil fuels, according to The Guardian

Vanillin is found in a wide variety of food, cosmetic, pharmaceutical, cleaning and herbicide products, and the demand is “growing rapidly,” the authors wrote in the study. In 2018, the global demand for vanillin was about 40,800 tons (37,000 metric tons), and it’s expected to grow to 65,000 tons (59,000 metric tons) by 2025, according to the study, published June 10 in the journal Green Chemistry.

The demand for vanillin “far exceeds” the vanilla bean supply, so scientists have resorted to synthetically producing vanillin. For the new study, researchers used a novel method to convert plastic waste into vanillin, as a way to both supply vanillin and reduce plastic pollution.

Previous studies showed how to break down plastic bottles made from polyethylene terephthalate into its basic subunit, known as terephthalic acid. In the new study, two researchers at The University of Edinburgh in Scotland genetically engineered E. coli bacteria to convert terephthalic acid into vanillin.  Terephthalic acid and vanillin have very similar chemical compositions and the engineered bacteria only needs to make minor changes to the number of hydrogens and oxygens that are bonded to the same carbon backbone. 

The researchers mingled their genetically engineered bacteria with terephthalic acid and kept them at 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit (37 degree Celsius) for a day, according to The Guardian. About 79% of the terephthalic acid subsequently converted into vanillin. 

The global plastic waste crisis is now recognized as one of the most pressing environmental issues facing our planet,” the authors wrote in the study. About 1 million plastic bottles are sold every minute around the world, and only 14% are recycled, according to The Guardian. Those that are recycled can only be turned into fibers for clothing or carpets. 

“Our work challenges the perception of plastic being a problematic waste and instead demonstrates its use as a new carbon resource from which high-value products can be made,” co-author Stephen Wallace, a senior lecturer in biotechnology at The University of Edinburgh, told The Guardian.

Now, the study authors hope to further improve the bacteria to be able to convert even more terephthalic acid into vanillin.

Read more about this technology in The Guardian.

Originally published on Live Science.

T-Mobile Uses 5G-Enabled Robot Arm to Draw World’s-First Remote Tattoo

In a collaboration between a telecommunications company, a roboticist, a tattoo artist, and a very brave tattoo recipient, a team sponsored by T-Mobile Netherlands successfully conducted the world’s first remote tattooing using a 5G-enabled robotic arm.

As part of a marketing initiative to demonstrate the low latency of 5G, T-Mobile engaged British technologist Noel Drew to build and program the robotic arm to mirror, in real-time, the needlework performed by Dutch tattoo artist Wes Thomas on a mannequin arm.

As Thomas drew on the mannequin’s synthetic skin, Dutch actor Stijn Fransen received a tattoo from the robot in another location. The robot arm used machine learning to monitor the position of Fransen’s arm and plot the tattoo pattern onto her skin.

Built from the ground up using 3D-printed parts, the robotic arm required multiple tracks of development and constant iterations of designs and prototyping.

“This project has so much going on,” Drew says in the video. “We’ve got real-time human hand tracking, we’ve got precise control over a robot, we’ve got the tattooing, and the power of 5G [with a huge] amount of data to transfer from one end to the other.” Drew also had to recreate – in a robot arm – the subtle human nuances of the artist.

“I’m a little nervous,” says Fransen in the video. This is something of an understatement, as one of the main concerns was that the robot-controlled needle would go in too deep and penetrate or cut the skin.

The video includes footage of the needle violently plunging into the skin of a tomato and gauging deep tracks in butternut squash. In the end, a potentiometer monitored Fransen’s skin surface to ensure the needle didn’t penetrate too deeply.

he project, dubbed “The Impossible Tattoo,” was made to demonstrate the low latency of 5G, or the speed at which the network can process a very high volume of data messages. 5G is capable of delivering as little as a two-millisecond lag between devices located thousands of miles apart.

The creative production studio behind the campaign, The Mill, explains more on its website:

“With the new benefits of the 5G network, there is virtually no delay, which means an action with millimeter accuracy can be performed no matter the distance. ‘The Impossible Tattoo’ convincingly shows what speed, greater reliability and low latency mean in the real world.”

For ink enthusiasts, this technology could soon mean they could get a tattoo from a famous artist located thousands of miles away.

Credit: Thomas Insights

World’s First Rechargeable Cement Battery Could One Day Power Cities

The cement batteries have an iron-coated carbon fiber mesh that acts as the anode layer on top of a conductive cement-based mixture sandwiched by a nickel-coated carbon-fiber mesh cathode layer. The team added a small amount of short, electroplated carbon fibers to the cement mix to make it conductive.  

For many years, researchers have pushed for more sustainable building materials, but the Chalmers group started working on futuristic building materials several years ago. 

Research of concrete batteries is rare. The few previous efforts to make cement-based batteries weren’t rechargeable, and the output was meager. 

The batteries from Chalmers have a lower average energy density than commercial batteries, 7 watt-hours per square meter (or 0.8 watt-hours per liter). However, the researchers believe their battery still outperforms previous concepts by more than 10 times.

The applications are many, including powering LEDs, providing 4G connectivity in remote areas, and even supporting infrastructure monitoring systems. For example, they could use solar panels to power sensors used to detect cracking or corrosion.  

The ability to help monitor infrastructure seems particularly timely as a massive crack in the Interstate 40 bridge linking Arkansas and Tennessee shut down the major thoroughfare. Luckily, a routine inspection caught the “significant fracture,” but concrete batteries could one-day power sensors on parts of the bridge that are crucial for its integrity.

The proof of concept was still relatively small. The sample size was smaller than the multimeter, so it will take a bit of scale to get it to a 20-story building. 

When it comes to alternative energy, what is one of the biggest arguments? Where are you going to store peak time power to be used during downtimes? The answer could be as simple as a massive battery building created to power our concrete jungles. 

The Swedish Energy Agency funded the research, and the findings were published in the scientific journal Buildings.

Image Credit: iStock

Credit: Thomas Insights

NASA’s S-MODE Takes to the Air and Sea to Study Ocean Eddies

Using scientific instruments aboard a self-propelled ocean glider and several airplanes, this first deployment of the Sub-Mesoscale Ocean Dynamics Experiment (S-MODE) mission will deploy its suite of water- and air-borne instruments to ensure that they work together to show what’s happening just below the ocean’s surface. The full-fledged field campaign will begin in October 2021, with the aircraft based out of NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California.

“This campaign in May is largely to compare different ways of measuring ocean surface currents so that we can have confidence in those measurements when we get to the pilot in October,” said Tom Farrar, associate scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts and principal investigator for S-MODE.

The S-MODE team hopes to learn more about small-scale movements of ocean water such as eddies. These whirlpools span about 6.2 miles or ten kilometers, slowly moving ocean water in a swirling pattern. Scientists think that these eddies play an important role in moving heat from the surface to the ocean layers below, and vice versa. In addition, the eddies may play a role in the exchange of heat, gases and nutrients between the ocean and Earth’s atmosphere. Understanding these small-scale eddies will help scientists better understand how Earth’s oceans slow down global climate change.

Sub-mesoscale ocean dynamics, like eddies and small currents, are responsible for the swirling pattern of these phytoplankton blooms (shown in green and light blue) in the South Atlantic Ocean on Jan. 5, 2021.
Credits: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center Ocean Color, using data from the NOAA-20 satellite and the joint NASA-NOAA Suomi NPP satellite.

The team is using a self-propelled commercial Wave Glider decked out with scientific instruments that can study the ocean from its surface. The most important gadgets aboard are the acoustic Doppler current profilers, which use sonar to measure water speed and gather information about the how fast the currents and eddies are moving, and in which direction. The glider also carries instruments to measure wind speed, air temperature and humidity, water temperature and salinity, and light and infrared radiation from the Sun.

“The wave glider looks like a surfboard with a big venetian blind under it,” said Farrar.

That “venetian blind” is submerged under the water, moving up and down with the ocean’s waves to propel the glider forward at about one mile per hour. In this way, the wave glider will be deployed from La Jolla, California, collecting data as it travels over 62 miles (100 kilometers) out into the ocean offshore of Santa Catalina Island.

Composing thoughts: mental handwriting produces brain activity that can be turned into text

The study, published in Nature, was funded by the National Institutes of Health’s Brain Research Through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies® (BRAIN) Initiative as well as the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS) and the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD), both part of the NIH.

Researchers focused on the part of the brain that is responsible for fine movement and recorded the signals generated when the participant attempted to write individual letters by hand. In doing so, the participant, who is paralyzed from the neck down following a spinal cord injury, trained a machine learning computer algorithm to identify neural patterns representing individual letters. While demonstrated as a proof of concept in one patient so far, this system appears to be more accurate and more efficient than existing communication BCIs and could help people with paralysis rapidly type without needing to use their hands. 

“This study represents an important milestone in the development of BCIs and machine learning technologies that are unraveling how the human brain controls processes as complex as communication,” said John Ngai, Ph.D., director of the NIH BRAIN Initiative. “This knowledge is providing a critical foundation for improving the lives of others with neurological injuries and disorders.”

When a person becomes paralyzed due to spinal cord injury, the part of the brain that controls movement still works. This means that, while the participant could not move his hand or arm to write, his brain still produced similar signals related to the intended movement. Similar BCI systems have been developed to restore motor function through devices like robotic arms.

“Just think about how much of your day is spent on a computer or communicating with another person,” said study co-author Krishna Shenoy, Ph.D., a Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) Investigator and the Hong Seh and Vivian W. M. Lim Professor at Stanford University. “Restoring the ability of people who have lost their independence to interact with computers and others is extremely important, and that is what is bringing projects like this one front and center.”