As armyworms return to devastate crops in Africa, Lancaster University’s Professor Ken Wilson reports on renewed efforts to bring a sustainable solution.
As we roll into 2017, my thoughts cast back to a whirlwind visit I made to Zambia at about the same time of year four years ago.
I witnessed a major outbreak of African armyworm caterpillars destroying the vital maize crops of local smallholder farmers and causing a country-wide food security crisis. As you can see in the video below, I met with the then Vice President of Zambia, Dr Guy Scott, and told him of our ongoing research, funded (PDF) by Global Food Security programme partners BBSRC and the UK’s Department for International Development (DfID) aimed at developing a locally-produced biological pesticide against this devastating plant pest.
Continue reading Natural killers: developing better biopesticides
The Global Food Security programme’s Sian Williams decided to cut all meat and animal products from her diet to see how difficult it would be to eat more sustainably.
Never one to shy away from an experiment, I took on the challenge of changing my previously omnivorous diet to become vegan for a month, hoping to better understand what challenges this might bring.
With the global food system as a whole currently responsible for around 30% of total anthropogenic GHG emissions, it is clear that the agri-food sector must adapt in order to meet the Paris Agreement. Especially given estimates that food-related emissions could account for the entire carbon budget for a 1.5°C temperature rise by 2050.
Continue reading My vegan challenge: how hard is it to change your diet?
Chris Collins from the Soil Research Centre reviews the actions and intentions of an ongoing research programme.
The world will struggle to meet environmental targets around climate change, biodiversity and food production unless we understand our soil.
The contribution of soil to human well-being is often ignored. While we are all aware of the benefits clean air and water provide, this is more opaque with soil. For example, we cannot have clean water without soil. It is also vital for providing food, and the storage of water and carbon.
Continue reading For food security we need soil security
Retracing our genetic path of plant domestication can help us produce newer, better varieties to enhance food security, says the Earlham Institute’s Dr Peter Bickerton.
It wasn’t long ago that we first traded hunting for a more sedentary life – harnessing the grasses of the Fertile Crescent. Yet, over the last 12,000 years, though we have mastered the art of producing abundant yields, the time has come to rejuvenate our most staple of crops.
Since humans first discovered that some wheat plants, rather than shedding their seed upon ripening, instead kept their grains attached, we’ve developed a food system that has contributed to a population explosion of over seven billion people worldwide.
What technologies could sustainably replace pesticides, without compromising on yield or quality? The Global Food Security (GFS) programme’s David O’Gorman reviews a recent GFS workshop on the topic.
What would happen if we could no longer use pesticides? Well, there would be significant yield losses, food price increases, greater food insecurity and potentially political unrest and instability. There may well be reduced ecological impacts, but with loss of yield would come expansion of agricultural land, with release of GHGs and loss of biodiversity.
We are heavily reliant on pesticides to maximise crop yields and put food on our tables. Even with the use of pesticides, a third of food (PDF) produced for human consumption is lost or wasted – what might the figure be with a dramatic increase in pre-harvest losses following reduced pesticide use?
Continue reading How would we cope with a post-pesticide world?
Terrestrial and aquatic food production systems share a range of common problems that need solutions. Rachel Norman from the University of Stirling reports.
A mathematical biologist by training, I was very keen to tease out whether we could treat fish and crops as being the same when we come to think about problems in food security.
After some consternation amongst my biological colleagues, there was consensus that aquaculture systems share some common features with both crops and chickens – they both have relatively high stocking densities, for example. They also share common risks, for example disease outbreaks can be devastating in all cases.
Continue reading Surf and turf: bringing crop and fish people together
Delivering more sustainable food and farming has to start with reconnecting people with where their food comes from and how it is produced, says LEAF’s Annabel Shackleton.
With 81.5% of the UK population (PDF) living in urban areas, our connection with the natural world, farming and the value of our food is increasingly being lost.
With this in mind, how do we make long lasting and meaningful changes to the way people think about and engage with their food? How do we embed health as a value when we make food choices? And how can we link consumer knowledge and demands to deliver more sustainable food and farming?
Continue reading Engaging with agriculture on Open Farm Sunday
Insect farms could recover the true value of wasted organic nutrients, improve local food security and assist in environmental protection, says Keiran Olivares Whitaker of Entocycle.
Agriculture is probably the single most damaging human activity for the planet. Natural resources are already stretched, and to feed the future growing population and meet the demographic shifts in diet, extreme environmental damage will occur.
The optimum direction would be for the global population to shift to a more plant-based diet. The trajectory however is for 70% increase (PDF) in fish and meat consumption by 2050. But around 70% of agricultural land and 70% of fresh water use is already designated to produce feed for animals (PDF), and a recent report from The Economist has highlighted nearly 100% of fish stocks are now under pressure, to varying degrees of severity.
Continue reading Advancing insects as animal feed
Can we tap into ecological defences to better protect crops? The University of Sheffield’s Will Buswell reports.
Crop pathogens are a substantial drain on world food production. Annually, an estimated 20% of global yields are lost to disease, but this figure belies far greater losses for specific food systems and the people whose stable existence is dependent upon them, particularly in developing countries.
For instance, rice is the staple crop for over half of the world’s population, yet almost 40% of yield is lost to disease each year.
Continue reading Priming plants for natural disease control
What innovations really have the potential to transform the food-producing landscape? Head of the Global Food Security programme Riaz Bhunnoo takes a whistle-stop tour.
In just a 35 year period the Earth is being tasked with producing more food than it has in the last 2000 years combined. We either need to find very clever ways of sustainably producing more on the same area of land, or we need to demand less. In reality we need to do both, and cutting-edge technologies will have a key role to play.
Continue reading Game-changing technologies in agriculture