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October 01, 2020

5 ways Earlham Institute is improving global food security

How can food security be improved? That’s one of the major challenges facing science and society. To feed and nourish a rapidly expanding population, crop yields must increase in the face of the threats posed by climate change and once fertile areas of land must be reinvigorated. However we manage it, it’s vital we protect and enhance the biodiversity on which much of our agricultural system relies.

By Peter Bickerton

How can food security be improved? That’s one of the major challenges facing science and society. To feed and nourish a rapidly expanding population, crop yields must increase in the face of the threats posed by climate change and once fertile areas of land must be reinvigorated. However we manage it, it’s vital we protect and enhance the biodiversity on which much of our agricultural system relies.

To kick off our series on improving food security, and to celebrate World Food Day this month, here are five ways EI science is trying to achieve food security for both this generation and those to come.

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This article forms part of our series on Food Security for October. Keep an eye out for these icons on our social media and website to explore more of our Food Security Month.

Image of World Food Day Icons

1. Plants and pollinators: boosting biodiversity

We would have scant fruit and vegetables if it were not for pollinators, populations of which have plummeted over the last half century due to the combined effects of habitat loss and excessive use of insecticides. On both fronts, scientists at EI are working to rectify that.

Synthetic biologists of the Patron Group are aiming to reduce the need for harmful pesticides by replacing them with insect pheromones. Instead of killing pest insects, pheromones can be used to confuse them into not laying eggs - preventing caterpillars from then feasting on crops. In a double boon, these pheromones would be produced in plants, rather than industrially, making the whole system more sustainable.

While pests may be rampant, other insects are in much need of a boost - particularly bees. Scientists of the Leggett Group have been advancing real-time bioinformatics to understand what plants bees prefer to pollinate by sequencing the DNA found in pollen sacs. By comparing the DNA from pollen with hundreds of wild flowers, and orchard plants, the team is beginning to understand the delicate balance between wildlife and agriculture, and how to enable both to prosper.

Image of a wildflower meadow

2. Tracing the roots of plant disease: reducing crop loss

Plant diseases cost the global economy around $220 billion each year. This not only means losses for farmers, but a significant waste in terms of potential food. EI researchers are using genomics and bioinformatics to understand the roots of these diseases.

EI is situated in Norfolk, which is home to many sugar beet farms, as well as long stretches of coastline where you can find its wild ancestor, sea beet. It was only 400 years ago that sugar beet was domesticated from sea beet, meaning we can learn a lot from studying the diseases which affect both of these closely related plants. One of those diseases is beet rust. It’s a fungus that scientists in the Hall Group, including Dr Mark McMullan, hope will shed light on the events causing diseases to emerge in crops - and how to stop them.

3. Improving the most important crops for food security

The Earlham Institute was the first to sequence and assemble the wheat genome, and since then we’ve been working hard to improve our knowledge not only of wheat, which alone provides around a fifth of global protein, but many staple crops worldwide.

This year, researchers in the Clavijo, Swarbreck and Anthony Hall Groups have contributed their expertise in genomics and bioinformatics to a huge international effort to map the diversity of wheat genetics throughout the world. Meanwhile, the De Vega Group has been working tirelessly with collaborators in Vietnam to reach an important milestone in rice research - highlighting important diversity in Vietnamese rice varieties and helping the country to withstand the increased salinity of soils, which comes hand in hand with rising sea levels.

The De Vega Group has also been working on a neglected side of food security. For many impoverished people worldwide, the protein afforded by livestock in subsistence systems is especially important for nutrition. That livestock requires forage and fodder crops that are resistant to the extreme effects of climate change, which occur most starkly in the tropics - where most food insecure people live. Through generating genetic resources for these so-called orphan crops, which receive scant funding compared to wheat, rice and maize, the De Vega Group is enabling breeders to create more resilient varieties of forage and fodder crops, such as Napier Grass and Brachiaria.

Image of a farmer holding wheat grain

4. Advancing aquaculture in East Africa

Fish are hugely important for global food security, providing billions worldwide with animal protein in a healthy package along with beneficial fats. However, our oceans are fast becoming depleted, so many farmers are looking inland - to aquaculture. But we must ensure that inland aquaculture systems, while providing nutritious and plentiful food, do not fall foul of the same pollution that afflicts our coastlines.

A widely farmed aquaculture species is tilapia, a type of cichlid fish. In countries such as Egypt, this fish is hugely productive. But in others, like Tanzania, the practice of aquaculture is less well developed. Tanzania is home to some of the Great African Lakes, which harbour an incredible biodiversity of cichlid fish. Scientists of the Haerty Group have therefore been working with collaborators around the world, including WorldFish, to improve genetic resources for tilapia so that it can be bred to best cope with local conditions - providing a boost to production.

At the same time, researchers are developing other resources, including a machine learning guided smartphone app. The app helps farmers to distinguish a native fish from a farmed one, allowing them to avoid cross-breeding between captive and wild fish and therefore reducing negative impacts on biodiversity.

5. Improving soil health for more sustainable food production

There’d be no crops without healthy soil, yet this vital resource is being degraded through mismanagement and intensive farming practices. One of the hallmarks of healthy soil is a healthy microbiome - the bacteria and fungi which survive in and around plant roots, which fix nutrients and help them to thrive. Not only do soils provide plants with space for roots, and nutrients to grow, they are a crucial carbon store - one that’s ever more important if we’re to reach carbon neutrality.

As part of the GROW Colombia project, Dr Nasmille Larke-Mejía is applying metagenomics to look at the biodiversity of soils and how this is affected by different treatments. She’s hoping to understand the effects of agrochemicals by comparing conventionally farmed monoculture sugarcane fields with completely organic, untreated ones, not only on the species composition of microbes in the soil, but also on what those microbes are doing. This could pay huge dividends when planning for a more sustainable future, through enhancing agricultural practices to the benefit of microbes, plants and the environment.

As Nasmi says, “it’s one planet, one health.”

Image of sugar cane plants growing from a field

Video - #WorldFoodDay 2020

How do we answer the most imminently approaching question of our time: how to feed 9 billion people by 2050?

Article author

Peter Bickerton

Scientific Communications & Outreach Manager

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