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UK scientists come together to help feed the 7 billion

The Universities of Exeter and Bristol, in partnership with Rothamsted Research have officially joined forces to tackle one of the biggest challenges facing humanity: how can we sustainably feed a growing population?

The Food Security and Land Research Alliance launched at the House of Commons on 26 October amidst reports that the world population is on the brink of reaching seven billion.

The Alliance brings together world-class expertise across a range of disciplines, from biosciences and agricultural science to economics and the humanities. It will establish the South West of England as a centre of global significance in the arena of food security and land research.

Projects that the Alliance is working on include:

  • Finding wheat varieties that can stand the heat of global warming
  • A cropping system to double maize yields
  • Bringing previously unusable agricultural land into production
  • Working with farmers to find solutions to dairy cattle lameness and feather-pecking in laying hens
  • Improving controls of irrigation systems to save water

Professor Nick Talbot, Deputy Vice-Chancellor of the University of Exeter said: "Ensuring global food security is without question one of the biggest challenges facing humanity and it can only be achieved by dramatic increases in food availability across the world. At the same time the pressure escalates to use land to satisfy demands other than for agricultural commodities. The need for research to help secure global food security and ensure resilient land management lies at the heart of the new Alliance."

Professor Alistair Hetherington, Faculty of Science Research Director at the University of Bristol said: "Our three institutions are strongly placed to address this challenge through world-class research. Together we hold a huge range of expertise, encompassing bioscientists engaged in tackling crop diseases, leading work on farm animal welfare, climate change science, soil and nutrients science, and the full breadth of economic, social science and humanities."

Professor Maurice Moloney, Director of Rothamsted Research, commented on the partnership, saying: "Collaborations of this nature are essential as we look to meet the challenges of global food and energy security." He also highlighted Rothamsted's exciting new research facility: "The new Farm Platform, at North Wyke in Devon, gives us the facilities and technology to conduct collaborative research and we are looking for researchers to work with us on this Platform to explore alternative land use scenarios and their impacts."

Case studies

Yes we (may) have no bananas: the impact of bacterial Xanthomonas wilt in Africa

University of Exeter scientists are working to tackle a major threat to banana and plantain farming.

Developing African nations are highly vulnerable to food security threats posed by new and re-emerging crop pathogens. Disease outbreaks can have devastating consequences. This is perhaps best exemplified by Banana Xanthomonas Wilt (BXW), caused by the bacterium Xanthomonas campestris pv. musacearum (Xcm). Bananas and plantains are major food staples and cash crops in the East African Great Lakes zone. In the last decade the BXW disease has emerged in the Great Lake Region of East Africa, devastating the livelihoods of millions of people. BXW was first identified on enset, a plant related to the banana, in Ethiopia in the 1960s, and discovered on Ugandan bananas in 2001. It has since spread into neighbouring Kenya, DR Congo, Rwanda and Burundi and Tanzania (2007). BXW can become epidemic within weeks, leading to complete crop loss. Many families have abandoned banana cultivation, which has caused unsustainable increases in food price.

The long-term objective is to develop resistance to BXW. Banana is propagated vegetatively so traditional breeding methods are extremely slow and difficult. No BXW-resistant germplasm has been identified either, so resistance to BXW must be achieved by genetic enhancement of banana's defences. The researchers hope their work with collaborators in the region to understand how this new and devastating pathogen arose will lead to its control or eradication. They expect to learn lessons that will apply to other newly emerging diseases.

Research led by Dr David Studholme and Professor Murray Grant of the University of Exeter and funded by the National Agricultural Research Organisation of Uganda, is addressing two important questions about BXW. Firstly, they are using high throughput DNA sequencing of Xcm strains isolated from different locations to reconstruct the evolution and spread of BXW during its passage from Ethiopian enset to banana-growing regions. Secondly, the Xcm bacterium that causes BXW appears to have recently 'jumped' from sugarcane, maize or sorghum and only recently developed the ability to colonise banana. The team is using genome sequence data from Xcm and related strains from these other crops to reveal the genetic basis of these 'host-jumps'. This data can also be used to develop and validate diagnostics and detect newly emerging virulent lineages.

Putting a stop to pain and distress in farm animals

Scientists from the University of Bristol are working with farmers to address some of the chronic animal welfare problems that are significantly affecting production on UK farms.

Lameness causes suffering in up to a third of UK dairy cattle at any one time and leads to a loss of animals through early culling, inefficient milk production, and frustration and stress for dairy farmers. Feather pecking in laying hens also causes pain, is found in almost all flocks and costs the industry over 12 million per year in mortality and lost production alone.

The University of Bristol Veterinary School has worked with the Tubney Charitable Trust to tackle these problems. First, the project teams collated scientific information about the risk factors that influence these painful conditions. Both projects then, crucially, developed and tested the best methods of helping farmers to implement this knowledge on farm. The involvement of dairy companies (MilkLink, OMSCo, Long Clawson, Dairy Crest), laying hen producers (Noble Foods, Stonegate, Country Fresh Pullets) industry bodies and farm assurance schemes (RSPCA Freedom Food, Soil Association, Assured Dairy Farms, BEIC) was essential for success. In partnership, the projects developed new approaches that are now showing real results on farm. In both situations, practical strategies for commercial farms were devised, and the effectiveness of these strategies was tested on treatment farms (which received ongoing advice and support) by comparing the reduction in lameness or feather pecking with that observed on control farms (which were simply monitored).

For dairy cows, the initial mean prevalence of lameness on the 227 farms involved was 37%; at the project's conclusion over 4,800 fewer cows were observed to be lame. For laying hens, the more interventions that were implemented on the 100 farms involved, the greater the reduction in feather pecking observed.

Working to improve water usage efficiency

A new sensor developed by Rothamsted Research & Delta-T devices allows the measurement of matric potentials in soils, which can be used to control an irrigation system according to water stress, saving water.

The sensor, developed by Rothamsted Research, which receives strategic funding from BBSRC, and Delta-T Devices, can be used to accurately measure soil drying by roots over the whole season. It can also be used to control an irrigation system according to water stress and therefore save water. One potential use for this instrument is to decide whether or not to apply expensive irrigation water once the crop is growing well. It covers a wide range of matric potentials, does not need maintenance, is robust and does not fail when the soil becomes very dry. When water is in contact with solid particles (e.g. clay or sand particles within soil), adhesive intermolecular forces between the water and the solid can be large and important. The forces promote surface tension and the formation of menisci within the solid matrix. Force is then required to break these menisci.

Contact: Sarah Hoyle
University of Exeter

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