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Major international push to maximize bioscience research to help world's poorest farmers

  • Sequencing historical DNA to tackle wheat's worst enemy
  • Unlocking ancient rice secrets to overcome rainfall extremes
  • Leaving a bad taste in aphids' mouths
  • Reducing crop losses with cereals that respond to pest attack
  • Exploiting wild wheat to produce better Indian varieties

Over 40 international research organisations are joining forces in a unique 16M initiative that will harness bioscience to improve food security in developing countries.

Funding has been awarded to 11 new research projects, announced today, which will develop ways to improve the sustainability of vital food crops in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia. The projects aim to develop staple crops better able to resist pests or thrive in harsh environmental conditions.

Food security is a major issue with over one billion people across the world already undernourished and the global population forecast to reach nine billion by 2050. These new research projects are expected to increase sustainable crop yields for farmers and their local communities within the next 5 to 10 years and the knowledge and skills developed as part of these projects will be beneficial for crop production globally.

The grants have been awarded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) under the Sustainable Crop Production Research for International Development (SCPRID) programme, a joint multi-national initiative of BBSRC and the UK Government's Department for International Development (DFID), together with (through a grant awarded to BBSRC) the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF), and the Department of Biotechnology (DBT) of India's Ministry of Science and Technology.

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said: "One billion people currently go to bed hungry every night. By 2050 there will be another two billion mouths to feed. And experts predict the world will need to be able to grow 70 per cent more food.

"The UK's world class bioscience sector is dedicating vital knowledge and expertise to tackling this global problem. This investment will bring together experts at 14 British Universities and Institutes who will work with famers in Africa and Asia to develop crops that are resistant to disease, pests and drought.

"Farmers need these innovations to protect their own livelihoods and the health of their communities."

Minister for Universities and Science, David Willetts, said: "This global collaboration will build on the UK's world leading position in bioscience and will benefit millions of people through improving food security in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. It will help us share knowledge and forge closer links with the international research community, whilst improving skills and creating jobs in the UK."

Lynne Featherstone, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for International Development, said: "Staple crops are essential to millions of farmers across Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, both for food and income. All too often, environmental conditions and pests cause serious crop failure, with devastating consequences for individual farmers, their families and their communities.

"Producing crops better able to grow in harsh conditions will not only tackle malnutrition, but also increase the chances for families to earn an income in order to afford education and health care, which is why DFID is providing funding to this potentially life-saving initiative."

Sam Dryden, Director of Agricultural Development at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, commented: "Many small farmers in the developing world cannot grow enough food to eat, let alone sell. Innovation in agriculture is vital to resolve this and we hope these projects will sustainably improve agricultural productivity, build skills and resources in developing countries, and ultimately help farming families build better lives."

Professor Douglas Kell, BBSRC Chief Executive, said: "Providing safe, affordable and nutritious food for everyone is one of the greatest challenges we face. This ground-breaking international partnership, of funders and scientists, will ensure that cutting- edge, fundamental bioscience is combined with vital local knowledge to develop sustainable, affordable solutions to increase crop yields and improve global food security."

The new initiative is being coordinated by BBSRC. The 16M is made up of 3M from BBSRC, 5M from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (through a grant to BBSRC) and 7M from DFID. A further 1M has been provided by the DBT of India's Ministry of Science and Technology for projects involving India.

Each project includes at least one partner from the UK and one from a developing nation. This approach, used by BBSRC and DFID in previous programmes, aims to build scientific capacity in developing countries, with the aim of developing research teams and projects that tackle other local scientific challenges.

Examples include:

  • Sequencing historical DNA to tackle wheat's worst enemy
  • Using new DNA sequencing technologies and a variety of strains of the wheat disease 'yellow rust' from Africa, India and the UK, an international team of researchers will sequence current and historical collections of the disease to understand how it has evolved and to look at wheat genes best able to resist the pathogen in the future.
  • Unlocking ancient rice secrets to overcome rainfall extremes

Researchers from the UK, USA and India will work together to access valuable genetic information about variation in ancestral wild species of rice to try and identify beneficial segments of the genome that help plants survive drought.

Leaving a bad taste in aphids' mouths

Aphid-transmitted viruses pose a serious risk to beans and other major crops, resulting in large losses. An international team will survey bean growing areas in three distinct ecological zones within Uganda to look at how virus infection shapes the distribution of aphids under natural conditions.

Reducing crop losses with cereals that respond to pest attack

Using state of the art semiochemical identification and genetic analysis technology the researchers will work with local farmers to look at different crop varieties and define genetic markers associated with the semiochemical trait to enable breeding programmes to move the trait into better crop varieties.

Exploiting wild wheat to produce better Indian varieties

Over the next five years, an international team of scientists will examine genetic variation in wild wheat species to identify traits which could be used in cultivated varieties, providing tolerance to abiotic stresses such as heat and drought tolerance as well as biotic stresses such as resistance to pests and diseases.

Contact: Tracey Jewitt
Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council

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