Wetenschap - 27 november 1997

International Page

International Page

International Page
Transgenic cassava makes sugars for food industry
Advancements in plant breeding can affect the lives of millions of farmers and consumers in developing countries. Dr Munyikwa of Zimbabwe has succeeded in genetically altering cassava to improve its nutritional value. But he cautions that there are formidable risks involved in widespread cultivation of transgenic varieties
Genetically altered cassava has a promising future in developing countries. This according to Dr Tichaffa Munyikwa in his dissertation, with which he received his doctorate degree on 23 December under the supervision of the plant breeder Dr Evert Jacobsen
Cassava is an important food staple for 500 million people in tropical countries. Munyikwa is the first to successfully integrate an agriculturally useful gene in the cassava plant. He added a gene that blocks an important step in the production of starch, allowing the cassava to produce sugars instead. In this way, cassava could serve as a source of sugars to the food industry
In the future, genes for resistance to diseases and for important nutrients such as vitamins could be integrated in cassava. The nutritional value of the fruit can thus be increased, and the new varieties would provide more income to the poor farmers in the south
Need for caution
Nevertheless, Munyikwa also sees disadvantages in introducing transgenic varieties in developing countries, where very little is known on the subject. Unlike in the western countries, little has been said in developing countries about the risks involved in using transgenic varieties. One danger in using transgenic cassava is that its new characteristics could be transferred to related wild varieties. This could lead to new resistant weeds that are difficult to control. Cassava is now cultivated on a small scale using intercropping with beans and cowpeas. Transgenic cassava that is resistant to certain pesticides could change this practice because the other species would remain sensitive to the pesticides. This could lead to mass production of cassava. The introduction of transgenic cassava could drastically alter the lives of millions of farmers. It is therefore important, according to Munyikwa, that governments, research institutions, and nongovernmental organisations inform the farmers and consumers of the advantages and disadvantages of the use of transgenic crops
Flexible lecturers prevent extended study periods
Thanks to flexible lecturers, most students will not be adversely affected by recent changes in the course schedule. Up until last year courses at the Wageningen Agricultural University were given in trimesters of approximately fourteen weeks
This year for the first time subjects will be divided into five approximately eight-week sessions. The number of times that an exam may be taken has been reduced from three to two. Students must now take an exam immediately after completing each course, and they can repeat an exam only once, in August
Foreign students who do not pass an exam the first time can run into difficulties because many of them conduct research elsewhere in August. If instructors strictly enforced the rules, it would create a serious problem for the students, says Kees Eveleens, course director of crop science and ecological agriculture. Fortunately, instructors have been flexible in offering extra exam periods
Advantages
The transition to the new system has had some initial flaws, but the students are generally satisfied with the change. It is hard for me to compare with the situation of the previous years, but I had no difficulties adapting to the new system, says biotechnology student John Dunn. According to him, the greatest advantage of the new system is that the courses are spread more evenly throughout the year. He sees a disadvantage, however, in the decreased flexibility. It is more difficult now to miss a lecture, because so much material is covered in a short time
Martha Bloemberg, course director of the MSc programme Management of Agricultural Knowledge Systems, also sees an advantage in the new schedule, because students now take fewer exams at a time. In addition, since they take the exams early on, foreign students can quickly become accustomed to the Dutch system of exams. How the new schedule will affect exam results is still unknown. I have very motivated students this year, so it is difficult to say whether the new system is responsible for better results or whether it is the students themselves. In any case, I do not expect a negative effect. Students have fewer subjects to concentrate on now
Complaints
Bloemberg's colleague, Eveleens, did receive some complaints about the new system at an evaluation meeting with his students. They found that the pace of especially the more difficult mathematical subjects did not allow them enough time to absorb the material. Furthermore, the scheduling of subjects for the MSc programmes was not always well received. I have the feeling that the MSc programmes had a low priority when the schedule was made. Subjects that are studied by both the regular students and the MSc students were slotted before the regular programmes. This often created a scheduling conflict for MSc students. This is a bigger problem for MSc students than for regular students because they are here for only one year. They cannot postpone taking a course until a following year like the Dutch students can
Student council now represents all WAU students
MSc students may now vote for the student council. The constitution of the council states that every student registered to study at the WAU is entitled to vote, explains WAU attorney Mr Hidzer Gorter, MSc students are included in this group.
In council meetings WAU students discuss the managing of the university. The students have, for example, the right to vote on decisions regarding student statutes and other important issues relating to their education. They also may advise on the university's budget. The student council has existed only since 1 January. The twelve members of the council were elected last summer during the last election of the university council which was disbanded in December. MSc students did not participate in that election. The next election for the student council will be in May or June
Mark Richmond, vice chair of the International Student Panel (ISP), is pleased with the new voting right for MSc students. But he adds that the voting right alone is not enough to hear the voices of the international students. There are too few of them for their votes to make a significant impact. During the past few months, the ISP has lobbied for a guaranteed seat for MSc students on the council. This request was not honored. It would place the foreign students in an exceptional position, Gorter explains. MSc students can be candidates themselves, of course. It has been agreed that a Dutch-speaking MSc student will be present at council meetings to act as an advisor. In addition, agreements have been made for regular discussions between the ISP, the student council and the Board of Directors
It is not what we wanted, but we're pleased we now have a voice, says Richmond. We're recognized. If we hadn't been talking to so many people in the last months, they wouldn't even have considered us.

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