Monthly Archives: April 2020

Flowering plants for the fight against malaria

Each year, more than 200 million people suffer from malaria around the world and every two minutes, a child dies from the disease. Globally, an estimated 3.4 billion people in 92 countries are at risk of being infected with malaria and developing disease. In conjunction to World Malaria Day, marked each year on 25 April, SLU Global highlights the importance of research by asking Professor Rickard Ignell about his ongoing and novel research to fight malaria.

Professor Rickard Ignell photographing one of the plants that are included in the study of potential sources of nectar at the Ifakara Institute, Tanzania. Photo: Sharon Hill

Please tell us about yourself, Rickard.

I am professor in chemical ecology, and have been working on disease vectors, predominantly on mosquitoes that transmit malaria, dengue and other arboviruses, since 2005. My group has a keen interest in understanding the ecology and evolution of olfactory (editor’s note: the sense of smell) communication in disease vectors, and we use a cross-disciplinary approach to assess how behaviours of these insects are shaped by various factors. Our fundamental research has been a spring board for us to identify novel tools that can be used to complement current integrated vector management methods. In relation to e.g., malaria control, we have expanded our work in sub-Saharan Africa over that last few years in order to increase the impact of our results.

You have recently received a large grant from The Swedish Research Council for research about utilisation of flowering plants for the fight against malaria. That sounds very interesting! What is it about?

Malaria mosquitoes, along with most other species of mosquitoes, require sugar and other nutrients for survival and reproduction, and obtain these through e.g., floral nectar. Mosquitoes prefer to feed on different flowers, and locate these using their sense of smell. Ongoing research has shown that we can harness the properties of attractive plants for the development of odour-bait technology to be used against both males and females of a wide range of mosquito species. We have also shown that toxic metabolites in floral nectar can have damaging effects on the development and survival of malaria parasites. Using a forensic approach, we will now expand our understanding of which plants are fed upon by malaria mosquitoes in the wild to assess if mosquitoes carrying malaria parasites change their floral preference in a way to self-medicate.

Why is this research important and what do you hope to achieve?

Malaria prevention and control strategies have resulted in a remarkable reduction of malaria mortality and morbidity throughout most of sub-Saharan Africa over the past two decades. However, over the last five years this impact has stalled, and we are now witnessing an increase in malaria in part of sub-Saharan Africa. Factors contributing to this include both physiological and behavioural resistance among the malaria mosquitoes, which has led to a need to control mosquitoes outside for which there currently are limited tools available. We have in a recent study shown that we can drastically reduce malaria incidence through mass trapping of mosquitoes by using an attractant that targets a broader spectrum of female mosquitoes. The floral attractant, which we now have available, increases this spectrum to include males, and we thereby have a better way of controlling the entire population of mosquitoes at a local scale. While the work we will do on toxic metabolites is still at an early stage, we hope that this research in the long run could provide leads for the development of drugs for the treatment of malaria.

How does this research differ from other research on combating malaria?

Until now the only viable option for controlling malaria has been to target the mosquito vector, partly due to the rapid development of resistance of the malaria parasites. The novelty of our research is that we embrace the natural ecology of the malaria mosquitoes in our efforts to identify novel tools for their control.

Anything you would like to add?

We are grateful for the support from various funding sources, including e.g. the Swedish Research Council (VR), which continues to support us over the years. This long-term funding has allowed us to generate a much-needed understanding of the ecology of malaria mosquitoes, which we now can use and share with our collaborators. There is, however, a need to increase our efforts, which we hope to achieve through increased collaboration both within SLU and other partners, but within academia and industry.

Thank you Rickard and good luck with your research!

Written by Malin Planting, communication officer, SLU Global.

Agroforestry – an act to fight climate change?

Written by: Agnes Bondesson, communication officer at SLU Global, Swedish University of Agricultural Sceinces

Agroforestry - pines and cotton
Agroforestry with pine and cotton
Photo: National Agroforestry Center/Wikimedia commons

22nd of April is every year dedicated to our beloved earth, so called Earth day. SLU has research projects in a wide range of areas and today it is time to give attention to one of them, agroforestry. This is a method where trees are planted among crops and animals and it is seen as a sustainable nature-based solution which can contribute to several of UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

Agroforestry provides various ecosystem services which are beneficial both locally and globally in the fight against climate change. This way of farming can limit the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere by binding carbon and nitrogen in vegetation and soil. At the same time, the cultivation system contributes to positive effects in the local area, as trees shade, bind soil and increase resistance to pests, drought and floods, as well as providing access to firewood and a variety of nutritious food. It creates a favourable microclimate around the trees for a variety of flora and fauna.

SLU has several research projects running about agroforestry, many in collaboration with other universities and organisations around the world. SLU Global asked Ulrik Ilstedt, researcher at SLU, a few quick questions about agroforestry.

1. How does SLU work with research in agroforestry?

There are many people at SLU who work with different aspects of agroforestry in low-income countries, both from economic, social and environmental aspects. I myself have worked mostly with how agroforestry can contribute to carbon binding and how it also affects the water balance. Especially the water balance has been a much debated issue where hydrologists have previously thought that all trees – in forest or agricultural land – have a negative impact on water supply as trees use more water than grass and crops.

For tree planting organisations and the general public it has been difficult to realise that forests are bad for water supply. Many people think of the forest as a sponge that sucks in water. Instead, we have developed a new theory in which we believe that indeed the trees’ soil-improving ability can contribute to more water entering the soil and groundwater but up to a certain limit. If the trees grow too fast and too dense, their water consumption will take over and there will be water loss compared to pure agricultural land.

2. What are the benefits in a global sustainability perspective?

You can get a productive and sustainable cultivation system that can at the same time maintain many environmental values, such as biodiversity, water regulation and carbon storage. Because the trees contribute to soil improvement, farmers who are poor can cope with less or no commercial fertilizer. There are also advantages to being able to get different alternative products from the same fields and to spread risks.

3. What projects are SLU currently running?

One of the larger collaborative projects led by one of my colleagues, Gert Nyberg, where several researchers from SLU work together with other universities, is about studying different aspects of an area in Kenya. The organisation Vi-agroforestry previously used the area to influence how the pasture was organised. Through a better organisation of the pasture with fences, grass and trees could come back into the area and the pasture became more productive. This collaboration project is now being developed in other areas with both Swedish and international partners.

I myself would be particularly interested in continuing with the water issue. We now know that it is possible to grow trees and at the same time increase the water supply. Can we improve the groundwater supply further through maintenance with for example what kind of trees we use, if we prune them and how the trees are spread.

4. If you mention some positive effects with agroforestry, what would it be?

Agroforestry can contribute to many of the Sustainable Development Goals, for example to combat poverty and hunger (# 1 and # 2), better access to water (# 6), to help us combat and manage climate change better (# 13) and to contribute to higher biodiversity (#15). Agroforestry can also contribute to give women more time and opportunity to develop and take control of resources.

More information:
News page at SLU website
Debate article at Aktuell Hållbarhet (Swedish)

Migrant workers exposed during Covid-19 crisis

Written by Alin Kadfak, SIANI-SLU Global Communicator and Researcher at the Department of Urban and Rural Development at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, SLU. This blog post was originally posted at SIANI website.

Photo: SeaDave/Wikimedia Commons

The ongoing global pandemic may increase job insecurity and ruin rudimentary social welfare structures, amplifying the vulnerability of migrant workers.

I could not see many signs of concern when I was doing my fieldwork in Thailand and Myanmar in February – March 2020. Migrant workers in a Thai border city of Ranong were more concerned about such everyday struggles as ‘When to extend the work permit?’, ‘Where to find work today?’ or ‘How to send kids back to Myanmar when a few Burmese schools were forced to close down?’.

The fear of catching the virus was not a major concern. Due to the nature of temporary and short-term employment, migrant workers are more worried about losing their source of income than about health.

The ongoing pandemic, and the economic slowdown that’s likely to follow, will hit the poor harder than the rich, increasing the already stark inequality. Migrant workers are on the frontline of this crisis. Here is why:

Restricted mobility – Lack of movement may result in unemployment. Many countries are going into lockdown, so workers, the new and the returning, cannot travel to their destinations during the crisis. At the same time, millions of workers are looking forward to celebrating New Year with their family (Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar share the same new year celebration mid-April every year). Like everybody else, migrant workers are advised against traveling home. If they do, they have to self-quarantine for 14 days upon their return. Two weeks of self-isolation is un-achievable when you and your family depend on daily wages and receive no compensation for the sick days.

Lack of social support – Social support and networks are crucial determinants of resilience. The importance of social capital is especially high in the time of crisis. Social exclusion is common to migrant workers, they rarely have social support networks in their host-communities, so accessing help in times of need is tough. For example, many migrant workers don’t speak Thai and don’t interact with their host communities on a daily basis, so they may stay behind on the up-to-date information about the COVID-19 spread and be unaware of the suggested precaution measures. What is more, even when migrant workers manage to build social relations in their host community, the crisis may disrupt collective memory production and weaken the capacity of newly formed social networks, meaning migrants members may be the first to get a cold shoulder.

Limited welfare – In Thailand, migrant workers have only recently started to receive a minimum wage, social security and health insurance. However, as the resources for testing and treatment of the virus are limited, migrant workers won’t be the first to access health services. At the same time, because of the short-term employment contracts and legal status in the host country, migrant workers will be the first to face layoffs too.

Living in limbo – Informal border crossing and illegal status provide migrant workers with an opportunity to earn a living without having to pay the fees for recruitment agencies or visas. However, living in the legally grey area may push workers into extremely vulnerable situations when crossing borders –  not only won’t they be covered by healthcare in origin and host countries, but also risk facing charges due to their illegal status. For example, it is still impossible to hold a record of how many migrant workers have lost their lives in Thailand after the tsunami of 2004.

What is social distancing? – Nearly 4 million Burmese, 2 million Cambodian and million Laotian labourers are working in Thai factories, construction sites, farms and fishing boats. These physical jobs require close contact. Minimum wages mean that migrant workers usually live in simple congested housing and in densely populated areas. The concepts of ‘social distancing’ or ‘working from home’ are far away from their everyday reality.

The COVID-19 crisis has not only accelerated the existing problems but also created many catch-22 situations for migrant workers in Southeast Asia and around the world.

These issues are complex and don’t have an easy answer, but one can start from granting migrants a legal status, allowing their families to be documented too. The implementations of the legalisation process should also reflect the reality of everyday life and the movement of migrants.

For instance, due to the nature of short-term employment, many migrant workers live by the border and move between Myanmar and Thailand every three weeks for 40 years and don’t get to live with their family. Besides, immigration regulations keep changing every year, which complicates any long-term planning, like education for their kids. And without basic education from either side of the border, the children of migrant workers have no means for upward mobility, so they follow in the footsteps of their parents, taking on low-paid unskilled jobs.

Additionally, the length of stay in a country for migrants is often attached to their employment status, which creates unbalanced power dynamics, favouring employers. However, one can promote labour rights by permitting migrant workers to unionize. This could allow for some forms of representation and negotiation between workers and employers. In the long term, improving legal status and worker representation will result in better welfare and improved living conditions.