Scientists create gene-edited animals as ‘surrogate sires’ to boost food production

By Kate Kelland

LONDON (Reuters) – Scientists have created gene-edited pigs, goats and cattle to produce sperm with traits such as disease resistance and higher meat quality in what they say is a step towards genetically enhancing livestock to improve food production.

The animals, created for the first time by researchers in the United States and Britain using a gene-editing tool called CRISPR-Cas9, could be used as “surrogate sires,” essentially sterile blank slates that could then be transplanted with stem cells that produce the desired sperm, the scientists said.

The process could help farmers rear healthier, more productive animals using fewer resources such as feed, medicines and water, they said. It could also give breeders in remote regions of the world better access to genetic material of elite animals from elsewhere, allowing for “precision breeding”.

“With this technology, we can get better dissemination of desirable traits and improve the efficiency of food production,” said Jon Oatley, a reproductive biologist at Washington State University in the United States, who co-led the work.

He said this could have a major impact on addressing food insecurity around the world. “If we can tackle this genetically, then that means less water, less feed and fewer antibiotics we have to put into the animals.”

Yet gene-editing has long been a contentious subject, and the latest advance could face resistance from critics opposed to the genetic modification of animals, which they regard as dangerous tampering with nature.

The researchers stressed that the gene-editing process they used was designed only to bring about changes within an animal species that could occur naturally.

This research was a “proof of concept,” they said, and showed that the technique could work. Current regulations, however, mean that gene-edited surrogate sires could not be used in the food chain anywhere in the world, even though their offspring would not be gene-edited, the researchers added.

Oatley’s team used CRISPR-Cas9 to knock out a gene specific to male fertility in the animal embryos that would be raised to become the surrogate sires. The male animals were then born sterile, but began producing sperm after researchers transplanted stem cells from donor animals into their testes.

“This shows the world that this technology is real. It can be used,” said Bruce Whitelaw, an expert at the Roslin Institute at Britain’s Edinburgh University who worked on the team. “We now have to … work out how best to use it productively to help feed our growing population.”

(Reporting by Kate Kelland; Editing by Pravin Char)

Lightning-sparked fires rage across California, tens of thousands flee

By Steven Lam

VACAVILLE, Calif. (Reuters) – A firefighting helicopter pilot was killed in a crash, and scores of homes burned in California on Wednesday as hundreds of lightning-sparked blazes forced tens of thousands of people to flee their dwellings.

Nearly 11,000 lightning strikes were documented during a 72-hour stretch this week in the heaviest spate of thunderstorms to hit California in more than a decade, igniting 367 individual fires. Almost two dozen of them have grown into major conflagrations, authorities said.

Multiple fires raced through hills and mountains adjacent to Northern California’s drought-parched wine country, shutting down Interstate 80 at Fairfield, about 35 miles (56 km) southwest of Sacramento, as flames leapt across the highway, trapping motorists caught in a hectic evacuation.

Police in the nearby town of Vacaville reported that advancing flames had prompted the evacuation of a state prison there and a medical facility for inmates.

Four residents whose communities were overrun by flames hours earlier in the same area suffered burns but survived, though the severity of their injuries was not immediately known, said Will Powers a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CalFire).

He said thousands of residents were under mandatory evacuation orders in a four-county area stricken by a cluster of nine wind-driven fires collectively dubbed the LNU Complex, triggered by lightning on Monday.

In central California, a helicopter was on a water-dropping mission in Fresno County about 160 miles (258 km) south of San Francisco when it crashed, killing the pilot, a private contractor, CalFire said.

As of Wednesday night, the LNU complex of fires had burned largely unchecked across 124,000 acres (50,000 hectares), with zero containment, destroying at least 105 homes and other structures and leaving another 70 damaged, CalFire said. Several of the fires had merged by nightfall.

Wearing a singed nightgown, Diane Bustos said her husband abandoned their car as it caught fire and then blew up on the west side of Vacaville early Wednesday morning. She lost both her shoes when she and her family ran for their lives.

“I made it, God saved me,” Bustos told television station KPIX.

There were social media accounts of people trapped in the blaze, but CalFire’s Powers said authorities had no reports of anyone missing.

A Reuters reporter saw dozens of burned-out homesteads and houses in the Vacaville-Fairfield area, dead livestock among torched properties and some animals wandering loose.

“We are experiencing fires the like of which we haven’t seen in many, many years,” California Governor Gavin Newsom told a news conference, adding he had requested 375 fire engines from out of state to help.

He declared a statewide fire emergency on Tuesday.

The last time California experienced dry lightning storms of such devastating proportions was in 2008, said CalFire spokesman Scott Maclean.

Fanned by “red-flag” high winds, the fires are racing through vegetation parched by a record-breaking heat wave that began on Friday. Meteorologists have said the extreme heat and lightning storms were both linked to the same atmospheric weather pattern – an enormous high-pressure area hovering over America’s desert Southwest.

The largest group of fires, called the SCU Lightning Complex, had scorched at least 102,000 acres some 20 miles east of Palo Alto, while a third cluster, the CZU August Lightning Complex, grew to more than 10,000 acres and forced evacuations around 13 miles south of Palo Alto.

(Reporting by Steven Lam in Vacaville, Calif.; Additional reporting by Jane Ross and Steve Gorman in Los Angeles and Sharon Bernstein in Sacramento. Writing and reporting by Andrew Hay in Taos, New Mexico; Editing by Stephen Coates, Sandra Maler and Lincoln Feast.)

Mike Pence to visit Nebraska amid deadly floods

Lanni Bailey and a team from Muddy Paws Second Chance Rescue enter a flooded house to pull out several cats during the flooding of the Missouri River near Glenwood, Iowa, U.S. March 18, 2019. Passport Aerial Photography/Handout via REUTERS

(Reuters) – U.S. Vice President Mike Pence will visit Nebraska on Tuesday to survey the devastation left by floods in the Midwest which have killed at least four people and caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damage.

The floods, the result of last week’s ‘bomb cyclone,’ a term used by meteorologists to describe the powerful winter hurricane, inundated stretches of Nebraska and Iowa along the Missouri River. It swamped homes, covering about a third of the U.S. Air Force Base that is home to the United States Strategic Command, and cut off road access to a nuclear power plant.

FILE PHOTO: One of many areas near the southeast side of Offutt Air Force Base affected by flood waters is seen in Nebraska, U.S., March 16, 2019. Courtesy Rachelle Blake/U.S. Air Force/Handout via REUTERS

FILE PHOTO: One of many areas near the southeast side of Offutt Air Force Base affected by flood waters is seen in Nebraska, U.S., March 16, 2019. Courtesy Rachelle Blake/U.S. Air Force/Handout via REUTERS

Farms were deluged and rescuers could be seen in boats pulling pets from flooded homes.

About 74 Nebraska cites had declared states of emergency by Monday evening, according to Nebraska Emergency Management Agency (NEMA). More than 600 residents were evacuated and taken to American Red Cross-operated shelters.

“Heading to Nebraska today to survey the devastating flood damage. To the people of Nebraska, Iowa, South Dakota, Kansas, all regions impacted: we are with you,!” Pence said in a post on Twitter early Tuesday. He will tour the zone with Nebraska Governor Pete Ricketts and Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds.

The flood waters are the result of snowmelt following heavy rains last week and warm temperatures, said Bob Oravec, a meteorologist for the National Weather Service’s Weather Prediction Center.

“Most of the snowpack in Nebraska is now gone, but upriver in North and South Dakota, there’s significant snowpack of up to 20 plus inches (51 cm) and it’s melting,” he said.

Flooded Platte River seen in this DigitalGlobe Satellite image over Nebraska, U.S., March 18, 2019. Picture taken on March 18, 2019. ©2019 DigitalGlobe, a Maxar company/Handout via REUTERS

Flooded Platte River seen in this DigitalGlobe Satellite image over Nebraska, U.S., March 18, 2019. Picture taken on March 18, 2019. ©2019 DigitalGlobe, a Maxar company/Handout via REUTERS

The Missouri River, the longest in North America, has flooded much of Nebraska between Omaha and Kansas City.

The river was expected to crest at more than 47 feet (14.5 meters) on Tuesday, breaking the previous record, set in 2011, by more than a foot (30 cm), NEMA said.

At least one person was missing on Monday. The four reported deaths included one person in Iowa who was rescued from flood waters but later succumbed to injuries, according to the Fremont County Sheriff’s Office.

“This is clearly the most widespread disaster we have had in our state’s history,” in terms of size, Governor Ricketts told reporters Monday.

Damage to the state’s livestock sector was estimated at about $400 million, said Steve Wellman, director of the Nebraska Department of Agriculture.

The state’s highway system suffered hundreds of millions of dollars in damage, said Kyle Schneweis, director of the state Department of Transportation.

(Reporting by Gina Cherelus in New York and Rich McKay in Atlanta; Editing by Scott Malone and Bernadette Baum)

U.S. wildfires ravage ranches in three states

Rancher Nancy Schwerzenbach walks with dogs through pasture burned by wildfires near Lipscomb, Texas, U.S., March 12, 2017. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

By Lucas Jackson

LIPSCOMB, Texas (Reuters) – When the Schwerzenbach family saw a wildfire racing toward their remote ranch in Lipscomb, Texas, there was no time to run.

“We had a minute or two and then it was over us,” said 56-year-old Nancy Schwerzenbach.

The fire, moving up to 70 miles per hour (112 kph), was one of several across more than 2 million acres (810,000 hectares) that hit the Texas Panhandle, Oklahoma and Kansas last week, causing millions of dollars of damage and killing thousands of livestock.

Burning through nearly all 1,000 acres of the Schwerzenbach ranch, the fire killed some 40 cattle. A mile away, a young man in the rural community was killed.

“The fire was about two miles away before we knew what happened to us,” she said.

Numerous smaller fires burned in Colorado, Nebraska and the Florida Everglades, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

In Kansas, Oklahoma and Texas ranchers are returning home to survey the damage from the fires, fueled by tinder-dry vegetation and high winds. Local farmers from the Great Plains have helped those who have been affected by the wildfires by donating hay and fencing material.

In Oklahoma, the fires scorched a Smithfield Foods Inc. hog farm in Laverne, killing some 4,300 sows.

“When we drive down the road and look out on the pasture lands, there’s no grass. There’s dead deer, dead cows, dead wildlife, miles of fence gone away. It looks like a complete desert,” said Ashland Veterinary Center co-owner Dr. Randall Spare, who is helping in relief efforts in Clark County, Kansas.

Oklahoma Department of Agriculture State Veterinarian Rod Hall said bulldozers were being used to bury dead animals.

“They’re digging large pits and burying the animals in there,” he said.

In Texas, state government agencies estimate about 1,500 cattle were lost, according to Steve Amosson, an economist at Texas A&M AgriLife Extension.

“When we value the deaths of cattle at market value, including disposal costs, we’re talking about $2.1 million at this point, and I expect that to go up,” he said. “We’re still dealing with chaos, they’re still trying to find cattle.”

Amosson estimates it could cost $6 million to recover 480,000 acres burned in Texas fires along with $4.3 million to replace and repair fences in the northern Texas Panhandle either destroyed by the fire or by cattle trampling them to escape the blaze.

Texas is the top U.S. cattle producing state with some 12.3 million head and Kansas is third at 6.4 million.

For Troy Bryant, 34, a rancher in Laverne, Oklahoma, the impact from the fires has been devastating. He lost livestock

worth about $35,000 and fencing worth about $40,000.

“We saw 4,000 acres burned here. Some places further west of here lost much more,” he said.

Click on http://reut.rs/2lXlAZK to see a photo related essay

(Reporting by Lucas Jackson in Lipscomb, Texas; Additional reporting by Renita D. Young and Theopolis Waters in Chicago; Writing and additional reporting by Jon Herskovitz in Austin, Texas; Editing by Melissa Fares and Diane Craft in New York)

Brazil races against time to save drought-hit city, dying crops

cracked ground in Brazil

By Anthony Boadle

CAMPINA GRANDE, Brazil (Reuters) – The shrunken carcasses of cows lie in scorched fields outside the city of Campina Grande in northeast Brazil, and hungry goats search for food on the cracked-earth floor of the Boqueirao reservoir that serves the desperate town.

After five years of drought, farmer Edivaldo Brito says he cannot remember when the Boqueirão reservoir was last full. But he has never seen it this empty.

“We’ve lost everything: bananas, beans, potatoes,” Brito said. “We have to walk 3 kilometers just to wash clothes.”

Brazil’s arid northeast is weathering its worst drought on record and Campina Grande, which has 400,000 residents that depend on the reservoir, is running out of water.

After two years of rationing, residents complain that water from the reservoir is dirty, smelly and undrinkable. Those who can afford to do so buy bottled water to cook, wash their teeth with, and even to give their pets.

The reservoir is down to 4 percent of capacity and rainfall is expected to be sparse this year.

“If it does not fill up, the city’s water system will collapse by mid-year,” says Janiro Costa Rêgo, an expert on water resources and hydraulics professor at Campina Grande’s federal university. “It would be a holocaust. You would have to evacuate the city.”

Brazil’s government says help is on the way.

REROUTING THE RIVER

After decades of promises and years of delays, the government says the rerouting of Brazil’s longest river, the São Francisco, will soon relieve Campina Grande and desperate farmers in four parched northeastern states.

Water will be pumped over hills and through 400 kilometers of canals into dry river basins in Ceará, Rio Grande do Norte, Pernambuco, and Paraíba, the small state of which Campina Grande is the second-biggest city.

Begun in 2005 by leftist president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, the project has been delayed by political squabbles, corruption and cost-overruns of billions of dollars.

Brazil’s ongoing recession, which economists calculate has shrunk the economy of the impoverished northeast by over four percent during each of the past two years, made things even worse.

Now, President Michel Temer is speeding up completion of the project, perhaps his best opportunity to boost support for his unpopular government in a region long-dominated by native-son Lula and his leftist Workers Party.

In early March, Temer plans to open a canal that will feed Campina Grande’s reservoir at the town of Monteiro. The water will still take weeks to flow down the dry bed of the Paraíba river to Boqueirão.

With the quality of water in Campina Grande dropping by the day, it is a race against time.

Professor Costa Rêgo says the reservoir water will become untreatable by March and could harm residents who cannot afford bottled water.

Helder Barbalho, Temer’s minister in charge of the project, says the government is confident the water will arrive on schedule.

“We have to deliver the water by April at all costs,” he said.

CLIMATE CHANGE

Climate change has worsened the droughts in Brazil’s northeast over the last 30 years, according to Eduardo Martins, head of Funceme, Ceará state’s meteorological agency.

Rainfall has decreased and temperatures have risen, increasing demand for agricultural irrigation just as water supplies fell and evaporation accelerated.

Costa Rêgo blames lack of planning by Brazil’s governments for persistent and repeated water crises, shocking for a country that boasts the biggest fresh water reserves on the planet.

The reservoir supplying São Paulo, Brazil’s largest city and a metropolitan region of 20 million people, nearly dried up in 2015. The capital, Brasilia, resorted to rationing this year.

In Fortaleza, capital of Ceará and the northeast’s second largest city, the vital Castanhão reservoir is down to 5 percent of its capacity.

While that city will also get water from the São Francisco project, it will not arrive until at least year-end because contractor Mendes Junior abandoned work after being implicated in a major corruption scandal.

“Water from the São Francisco river is vital,” Ceará Governor Camilo Santana told Reuters. He said the reservoir can supply Ceará only until August.

After that, the state must use emergency wells and a mandatory 20 percent reduction in consumption to keep Fortaleza taps running until water arrives.

RATIONING

Ceará has had to cut back on irrigation, hurting flower and melon exporters, cattle ranchers and dairy farmers. They stand to flourish when the transfer comes through, but quenching the thirst of the cities will take priority.

In Campina Grande, a textile center, companies including industry leaders Coteminas and Alpargatas have curtailed expansion plans and drastically cut back consumption by recycling the water they use.

There, too, new water will first go towards solving the crisis in Campina Grande and surrounding towns. Only then will officials think about agriculture.

“First we have to satisfy the thirst of urban consumers. Only then can we think of producing wealth,” said Joao Fernandes da Silva, the top water management official in Paraíba.

Rationing has particularly hurt poorer urban families. Many have no running water or water tanks and instead store water in plastic bottles.

For those who have waited decades for the São Francisco transfer, they will believe it only when they see the water flow.

Brito said he and his neighbors survive on the social programs that were the hallmark of Lula and his Workers Party administration. Though tainted by corruption allegations, Lula remains Brazil’s most popular politician ahead of presidential elections next year.

“Without the Bolsa Familia program, we would be dying of hunger,” said Brito, who believes shortages could persist even after the river transfer. “It’s political season again, so they promise us water, just for our votes.”

(Additional reporting by Ueslei Marcelino and Sergio Queiroz; Editing by Paulo Prada, Daniel Flynn and Bernadette Baum)

Drug resistance in people and animals may push millions into poverty

The mcr-1 plasmid-borne colistin resistance gene has been found primarily in Escherichia coli, pictured.

By Alex Whiting

ROME (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – If drug-resistant infections in people and animals are allowed to spread unchecked, some 28 million people will fall into poverty by 2050, and a century of progress in health will be reversed, the World Bank said on Monday.

By 2050, annual global GDP would fall by at least 1.1 percent, although the loss could be as much as 3.8 percent – the equivalent of the 2008 financial crisis – the Bank said in a report released ahead of a high-level meeting on the issue at the United Nations in New York this week.

The rise of “superbugs” resistant to drugs has been caused partly by the increased use and misuse of antibiotics and other antimicrobial drugs in the treatment of people and in farming.

“We cannot afford to lose the gains in the last century brought about by the antibiotic era,” Tim Evans, the World Bank’s senior director for health, nutrition and population, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“By any measure, the cost of inaction on antimicrobial resistance is too great, it needs to be addressed urgently and resolutely,” he said.

Greater quantities of antibiotics are used in farming than for treating people, and much of this is for promoting animal growth rather than treating sick animals, economist Jim O’Neill said in a report in May commissioned by the British government.

The O’Neill report estimated that drug-resistant infections could kill more than 10 million people a year by 2050, up from half a million today, and the costs of treatment would soar.

LIVESTOCK

Farmers too will be greatly affected. The bank estimates that by 2050, global livestock production could fall by between 2.6 percent and 7.5 percent a year, if the problem of drug resistant superbugs is not curbed.

“Investments are urgently needed to establish basic veterinary public health capacities in developing countries,” Evans said.

Improved disease surveillance, diagnostic laboratories to ensure a disease is identified quickly, inspections of farms and slaughterhouses, training of vets, and oversight over the use of antibiotics are also needed, he said.

The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates 60,000 tonnes of antimicrobials are used in livestock each year, a number set to rise with growing demand for animal products.

One of the most important ways to curb the spread of drug resistant microbes in food is to promote good farming practices, said Juan Lubroth, chief veterinary officer of FAO.

“I think this is where we can do most of our prevention – better knowledge on hygiene, vaccination campaigns, so these animals do not get sick and need antimicrobials (drugs),” Lubroth said in an interview from Rome.

Public demand for food that is uncontaminated, and better training of health professionals – doctors and vets – are also vital to help contain the problem, he added.

Hospitals and pharmaceutical companies also need to do more to treat their waste, he said.

The World Bank estimates that an investment of some $9 billion a year is needed in veterinary and human health to tackle the issue.

“The expected return on this investment is estimated to be between $2 trillion and $5.4 trillion … or at least 10 to 20 times the cost, which should help generate political will necessary to make these investments,” Evans said.

(Reporting by Alex Whiting, Editing by Ros Russell.; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women’s rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org)