There has never been a more urgent need to train scientists in the food security disciplines, says Christopher Thornton.

Dr Chris Thornton

Publication of the Royal Society report Reaping the benefits: Science and the sustainable intensification of global agriculture in October 2009 provided the clearest evidence yet of the immense challenge of ensuring global food security over the next 50 years.

Crop yields need to rise significantly, but in a manner that requires much lower energy inputs and less dependency on chemical intervention and fertilisers. The development of high yielding crops, which are durably resistant to pests and diseases and less dependent on nitrogen fertilisers, will require significant scientific advances in our understanding of plant biology, plant pathology and soil science. Breeding new varieties that can withstand environmental extremes such as drought is also a necessity.

Hence, a new BBSRC-funded MSc in Food Security and Sustainable Agriculture has been established at the University of Exeter. The course has been designed to ensure that there is a new generation of highly qualified individuals equipped with skills in agronomy, plant pathology and plant improvement, but coupled with a knowledge of modern agricultural systems and policy.   

As director of the new MSc, I have devised the course programme in collaboration with key stakeholders in the agricultural industry, including the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), the Food and Environment Research Agency (Fera), farmers and food manufacturers.

In overseeing construction of the course’s elements, it struck me, as someone who graduated in the 1980s with a degree in Agricultural Plant Sciences, that there has been a dramatic and worrying decline over the past two decades in graduates with knowledge of plant pathology, plant physiology and plant breeding. These subjects were core modules of many biological sciences courses in the 1980s and early 90s, but slowly dwindled in importance as students opted for more animal-based programmes. They now form minor components of more general modules in microbiology, physiology and genetics, with other disciplines such as soil science and pest science now completely absent.

Thankfully, a new generation of biology graduates is emerging that is better informed about food production and safety and the need to feed a growing world population that is less reliant on high input agriculture and environmentally damaging pesticides.

Our challenge at Exeter is to attract high calibre graduates to the MSc programme who aspire to a career in the area of sustainable food production. And, to do that, we need the right mix of teaching of the core sciences and policy issues relating to food security.

As the opening gambit of this blog ‘The human and technological dimension’ by Philip Lowe asserted, ensuring food security is not just about science. Improvements in crop yields and advanced crop-growing technologies will be critical in feeding the world’s poor in the coming decades. But without progress in storage, distribution, and restructuring the subsidies and trade agreements that hinder countries’ agricultural development, then millions of people will continue to starve while others live with plenty – no matter how much food we grow.

But grow more food we must. To this end we have harnessed the expertise of Exeter University Biosciences in molecular plant pathology, plant biology and microbiology, alongside North Wyke Research’s expertise in grassland management, soil science and sustainable farming systems (North Wyke is a part of Rothamsted Research, a BBSRC-funded institute).

Moreover, we have input of leading social scientists, such as Professor Michael Winter, Director of the Centre for Rural Policy Research, who has expertise in rural land use and economy issues.

The combination of expertise in both arable and pastureland systems is a key feature of the programme, which will set it apart from any related training programmes in the country. At North Wyke, establishment of the BBSRC Integrated Farm Platform will, in due course, also provide a unique national training opportunity for MSc students on this programme, which will add significant value to this investment.

The programme will therefore provide a multi-disciplinary training in sustainable agriculture and the challenge of ensuring global food security. We have taken account of where key skills shortages exist in the UK (PDF)  in formulating the curriculum for this MSc and we will, we hope, provide a course which will generate highly skilled individuals that can enter government agencies, agriculture and food industries, and fulfil very valuable roles in scientific research, advice, evaluation, policy development and implementation.

The opportunities for placements in Defra, Fera and at North Wyke or Rothamsted Research is an extremely exciting element of this programme that will provide excellent training for students.

The first intake of students starts in October 2010 and includes applicants from countries including the UK, Brunei, China, Cyprus, Ethiopia, Greece, Kenya, Nigeria, Turkey and Uganda.

To date, four of the 15 BBSRC-funded studentships awarded through BBSRC’s Master’s Training Grant scheme have been allocated to UK applicants who hold First or Upper-Second Class (2:1) Honours degrees. The remaining 11 studentships, which comprise tuition fees and a one-year maintenance allowance, will be allocated over the next two years.

About Chris Thornton

Dr Chris Thornton is a senior lecturer in Biosciences at the University of Exeter, and teaches mycology, plant pathology and immunology in both undergraduate and postgraduate degree programmes. He is Director of the MSc in Food Security and Sustainable Agriculture and his research specialism is hybridoma technology and the use of monoclonal antibodies to track plant and human pathogenic fungi. In addition, his research uses molecular genetics to study the interaction of the beneficial rhizosphere fungus Trichoderma hamatum with crop plants, and the exploitation of Trichoderma species as biofertilisers and as biological control agents of plant diseases.

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