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TWAS Newsletter
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Can bioscience help feed Africa?

Can bioscience help feed Africa?

Segenet Kelemu, an influential African science leader, will lead TWAS' roundtable at Trieste Next 2015. Joined by two Italian scholars, the roundtable will explore how innovation in bioscience can help feed Africa and other developing regions.

Should governments adopt multiple strategies, including genetic modification of crops, to boost agricultural production and economic growth in Africa and other developing countries? Segenet Kelemu, the director general and CEO of the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology's (icipe) in Nairobi, Kenya, has a keen perception of the problems and potential solutions that may help shape the future of African agriculture.

Kelemu is one of the three prominent scientists attending TWAS’s roundtable at the annual science festival Trieste Next on Friday 25 September. Her speech will focus in particular on biosciences for Africa’s development. It will begin at 6:00 p.m. in the main hall in Regional Offices of Friuli-Venezia Giulia, Piazza dell'Unità d'Italia, 1.

The roundtable will also feature Michele Morgante from Udine and Alessandro Vitale from Milan, to offer new perspectives on the future of agriculture both in developed and developing countries. Together, the scientists will discuss the frontiers of agricultural biotechnology, addressing the role of agribiotech 40 years after the beginning of the recombinant-DNA era.

Trieste Next is the annual European Fair of Scientific Research that will be held in Trieste, Italy, from 25 to 27 September. TWAS is among the local scientific institutions sponsoring an event.

For this year's edition, the Academy is organizing the roundtable, "Ask Africa - Can agribiotech make a difference for developing countries?" The free-admission event is expected to be one of the centerpieces of the festival, as it will host three high-profile scientists in one of the most beautiful buildings in Trieste, the historical Palazzo del Lloyd Triestino in Piazza Unità d'Italia.

Michele Morgante is a professor of genetics at Udine University, with broad experience in mapping vegetable genomes and in the analysis of DNA regions. He will describe new biotech methods to improve the quantity of crops, explaining how this can be beneficial for developing countries.

Alessandro Vitale is a plant molecular biologist from the Italian National Research Council's Institute of Agricultural Biology and Biotechnology (IBBA-Consiglio Nazionale delle Ricerche). His field of expertise is protein synthesis and plant cell biology. He will address quality amelioration of crops, also sharing some considerations on how varied is public perception about agribiotech.

Kelemu is the 2014 L’Oréal-UNESCO for Women in Science Awards Laureate for Africa and the Arab States, and one of the 2013 elected Fellows of the African Academy of Sciences. She formerly served as vice president for programmes at the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa (AGRA) and director of the Biosciences eastern and central Africa (BecA) hub of the International Livestock Research Institute.

During the three-day fair, Trieste Next is expected to attract several thousand visitors from Italy and abroad. This year the event is titled "BIOlogos - The Future of Life". Visitors will be exposed to the latest data and insights about sustainable food production, the frontiers of biomedicine and bioinformatics. TWAS’s round table will offer the audience a high-level discussion and direct participation in the debate about sustainable food production in the years ahead.

Genetically modified crops, or biotech crops, hold great potential for economic growth of developing countries. A recent study has confirmed that yield grains of biotech crops "are significantly higher in developing countries than in industrial countries, due to the fact that crops in developing countries suffer more from pest damage due to resources constraints experienced by small farmers".

Such potential can be underestimated, and is often feared. While 27 nations worldwide, including 19 developing countries, have adopted genetically modified agricultural varieties, and more than 175 million hectares worldwide planted with GMOs as of 2013, GMOs elicit fierce debate and a continuing conflict.

GMOs’ supporters – including much of the global scientific community – maintain that genetic engineering is an efficient, safe technology to address the increasing demand for food that the world is facing. Their opponents, on the other hand, blame agribiotech for jeopardizing biodiversity while posing a threat to human health.

TWAS' roundtable at Trieste Next will shed light on a matter of vital importance today and for generations to come.

Cristina Serra

Who's who

Segenet Kelemu

Segenet Kelemu is the fourth chief executive officer, and the first woman to lead icipe. She is the 2014 L’Oréal-UNESCO for Women in Science Awards Laureate for Africa and the Arab States, and also one of the 2013 elected fellows of the African Academy of Sciences. She is one of the top 100 most influential African women listed and featured in the May 2014 edition of Forbes Africa. More recently, Kelemu has been listed in the 10 most influential African women in agriculture by the Journal of Gender, Agriculture and Food Security. She has also received other awards, including the prestigious Friendship Award granted by the People's Republic of China. The award is granted to foreign experts who have made outstanding contributions to China's economic and social development. She shared the 2011 TWAS prize for agricultural sciences, the first African to win the prize for agricultural sciences since its inception. Kelemu has also a prominent role in the recent documentary Seeds of Science that TWAS and the Italian RAI television network have co-produced. The film shows the work done in Kenya by TWAS-supported scientists and illustrates how scientific research applied to the right targets may increase the quality life of many people.

Michele Morgante

Michele Morgante is the scientific director of Institute of Applied Genomics (IGA) in Udine, Italy, and is full professor of genetics at the University of Udine. He was educated as a geneticist and then worked for five years at DuPont Crop Genomics as senior scientist. His research group has been instrumental in establishing a number of genetic technology platforms that are now being widely deployed in plant genomic research (e.g., microsatellites, fluorescent BAC fingerprinting). He has investigated the genome of Zea mais, giving contributions to the sequencing of other plant genomes such as: peach, citruses, spruce and others. He is a member of the scientific board of the National Research Council of Italy and associate editor of Theoretical and Applied Genetics and Tree Genetics and Genomes. He is also a member of the Italian Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei.

Alessandro Vitale

Alessandro Vitale is scientific director in the Italian National Research Council Institute of Agrarian Biology and Biotechnology. He investigates molecular and cell biology of plants. He is one of the “Top Italian Scientists” listed by the Virtual Italian Academy network. In 1998, he was awarded the Assunta Baccarini-Melandri Prize from the Italian Society of Vegetal Biology, and in 2008 the Corresponding Membership Award of the American Society of Plant Biologists. Vitale is co-author of a chapter in the new edition of the textbook “Biochemistry and Molecular Biology of Plants” (Buchanan, Gruissem, Jones Eds.). He has served as a member of the scientific council of the agrofood department of CNR (2006-12) and as decision editor for manuscripts submitted to The Plant Cell (Co-editor 1999-2004) and PNAS (Guest decision editor for specific manuscripts, 2011-present). Since 2009, he has served as an executive committee member in the Italian Society of Vegetal Biology.