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21 October 2012

New invention promises dramatic turn for farmers' fortunes

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A scientific breakthrough promises to help save crops from a deadly fungus that causes billions of dollars in damage to global agriculture each year.

By K. R. Chowdhury

Dhaka: Atiqur Rahman, a farmer in the northwestern Naogaon district, knows all too well how a deadly fungus known as pachamina can destroy crops and undermine his livelihood.
"It infects one plant after another," he told Khabar South Asia. "I incurred huge losses last year due to the outbreak of the disease. No pesticide could stop the rotting of the plants."

A September announcement by a team of Bangladeshi scientists, led by Maqsudul Alam, professor of Microbiology at the University of Hawaii, promises to bring relief to farmers like him. Alam's team said it has decoded the genome of the deadly fungus, also known by its scientific name, macrophomina phaseolina.

The announcement has rekindled hope for countless farmers like Rahman – both in Bangladesh and around the world – who struggle against blight caused by the fungus. It has long wreaked havoc on global jute and soybean production, causing billions of dollars in losses each year. In the Bangladesh jute industry alone, it is responsible for around Tk 4,000 crore ($490.6m) in annual yield losses.

"Macrophomina phaseolina can reduce the yield of jute production by at least 30%," Monjurul Alam, a researcher at the Bangladesh Jute Research Institute (BJRI), where the decoding was done, told Khabar.

Maqsudul Alam, the lead scientist, said the gene sequencing could help in several ways.
"This (the decoding) will serve in designing appropriate strategies for disease control [and] the development of fungus-resistant crops, essential to ensure healthy agricultural production and food security," he told Khabar.

Mohammad Kamal Uddin, director of the project, also pointed to the potential benefits. "Now we can easily develop a new variety of jute resistant to the fungus. This will save farmers from huge economic losses," he told Khabar.

Bangladesh is the world's second-largest producer of jute, behind India, and the biggest exporter of the natural fibre.

Abdur Rahman, a farmer in Modhukhali, Faridpur, told Khabar that combating the fungus effectively would be a major boon.

"This will be a great relief for the farmers if the fungus can be killed before it infects the plants," he said.

The breakthrough was big enough news in Bangladesh that Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina interrupted scheduled parliamentary proceedings to personally make the announcement.
"This is a great day for all of us. We used to gain knowledge from all over the world but now we're in a position to provide new knowledge to the rest of the world," she told Parliament, announcing the breakthrough to thunderous applause.

(Courtesy: Khabar South Asia)

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