Archive for 'science'

Locking up a killer virus

The world has celebrated rinderpest virus eradication. But an FAO video shows there’s cleaning up to do after the party. Virologist Michael Baron explains.

Michael Baron

Rinderpest, aka ’cattle plague’, was with us for a long time, at least 2000 years. Over the centuries, the virus killed uncounted millions of animals in Asia and Europe. When it was accidentally introduced into Africa for the first time, in the late 19th century, it went on to kill ~90% of the cattle and buffalo on that continent. It was, let’s be honest, a Very Bad Thing.

Note the past tense. After several decades of hard work across all of Africa, the Middle East and Asia, rinderpest was declared eradicated in 2011 (PDF), and there have been no cases of the disease, anywhere, for more than 15 years. Rinderpest was a Very Bad Thing, but it is now no longer a thing at all (read this GFS blog post for a review of how it was done).
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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.

Sian Williams

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?

Priming plants for natural disease control

Can we tap into ecological defences to better protect crops? The University of Sheffield’s Will Buswell reports.

Will Buswell

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.
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Game-changing technologies in agriculture

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.

Riaz Bhunnoo

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.
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Antimicrobials in agriculture

As a new report is published, BBSRC’s Adam Staines discusses the complex issues surrounding antibiotic use in the food chain.

Adam Staines

Despite lots of wider media coverage in the last year on antimicrobials and antimicrobial resistance many people are still asking basic questions about what resistance is, what is resistant to what, and why should I really care?

Any societal complacency over the importance of antimicrobial drugs is actually a testament to their success. Many of the diseases that ravaged us and our livestock industries for centuries until Alexander Fleming and penicillin came along have been so successfully controlled we no longer fear them, or even recognise the names. (The leading causes of human death in 1900 were bacterial infections causing pneumonia, tuberculosis, diarrhoea and enteritis.)
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How has the GFS programme made a difference?

What have we achieved so far? Head of the Global Food Security programme Riaz Bhunnoo takes stock of work to date.

Riaz Bhunnoo

As Charles Darwin reportedly once said, “in the history of humankind those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed”. Even if he didn’t actually say it, collaboration is essential to meet the food security challenge, and it is therefore a central pillar of the Global Food Security (GFS) programme. So what has GFS achieved to date?

To answer this question, we need to think about what GFS was set up to do – in brief, improve coordination and collaboration on food security research across the public sector.
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Building better crops from the bottom up

Synthetic biology can help us to secure a sustainable food supply. Huw Jones of Rothamsted Research explains all.

Huw Jones

In the same way that Alec Issigonis first conceptualised, drew and then built the iconic Mini, I predict it will not be long before crop plants are designed and built, bottom up, using the principles of synthetic biology.

Plant breeding using classical, top-down or forward genetic approaches has served us well in the millennia since people settled in agricultural communities and started crossing plants, selecting individuals with traits that made farming easier and the edible parts more nutritious.
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What if we grew GM crops in Britain?

It’s time to re-evaluate the impacts of the potential cultivation of GM crops in UK agriculture, says policy researcher at ADAS Carla Turner.

Carla Turner

Genetic modification (GM) in crops has been on the political agenda since their emergence in the 1980s and the first commercially available GM crop approved for cultivation in 1994.

Within the European Union (EU) there has been a precautionary approach to the commercial cultivation of GM crops with stringent approvals legislation.
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Don’t blame it on the weatherman

What can seasonal forecasts bring to agriculture and food security? Pete Falloon of the Met Office predicts progress.

Pete Falloon

They say it often pays to look ahead. Farmers have been doing just that for thousands of years, searching for the signals or patterns that might tell them the best time to sow seeds, or seek shelter for their animals.

Here in the 21st century, our desire to predict the weather is no less diminished. Now we are developing the tools, technology and models to make better predictions, not just a few days ahead, but to cover whole growing seasons and climactic events.
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Making sustainable connections

Agricultural scientist Andy Whitmore from Rothamsted Research introduces a new network for scientists working on sustainable intensification.

Andy Whitmore

The sustainable, secure and resilient production of food to feed our growing population in the face of environmental change is one of the most pressing problems of our age. And in keeping with other major scientific endeavours such as the search for the Higg’s Boson or deciphering the human genome, it requires a huge, concerted effort from the world’s scientists.


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