Synthetic biology can help us to secure a sustainable food supply. Huw Jones of Rothamsted Research explains all.
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.
Continue reading Building better crops from the bottom up
In an audio slideshow special, food writer and consultant Geoff Tansey wonders what will happen to the ancient rice terraces of the Far East.
Will China build on its long-term sustainable farming systems, such as these famous rice terraces in Yunnan, or abandon them?
That’s the question I’ve found myself pondering about since my most recent visit to China.
As you can see in these pictures, for many visitors to China it’s the gleaming new city centres, glitzy shopping malls and swathes of high-rise apartments that seem to grow faster than their crops that impress.
Continue reading Photo diary: A story of sustainability in China
Principles of agroecology can get us out of the food crisis in simple steps. Tree biologist Roger Leakey explains.
We hear doom and gloom about the now ever-present Global Food Crisis, exacerbated by worsening climate change, and it’s possible to conclude that there isn’t a viable solution. This is exacerbated by the dichotomy of views on ways to address the future of food. The menu seems to be either a genetically-modified silver bullet from biotechnology or, at the other extreme, pure organic farming.
Continue reading Trees of life for food security
In a video special, the University of Warwick Crop Centre’s Andrew Tock tells the story of plant clinics that help people produce more and lose less.
My feet had landed on African ground for the first time. Despite flying into Entebbe in the wee hours of a mid-January morning, it was really warm. Looking at the low, red-orange full moon, I couldn’t stop smiling and felt a bit giddy. I had a feeling Uganda just had this effect on people.
Continue reading Bridging the information gap for smallholder farmers
We need to stop pests eating our food. Richard Pywell and Ben Woodcock argue that supporting native wildlife on farms is part of the answer.
Farmers have always been in a running battle with pests. We estimate using Defra statistics that in 2010, UK crops worth £715M were lost to insect pests. Chemical pesticides are crucial to controlling them, but the development of pest resistance, and key products being withdrawn amid fears about human and environmental health mean that alternative methods are increasingly important.
One solution is to promote native biodiversity that will kill pests within crops. Many native species have the potential to increase crop yields, so supporting biodiversity on farmland has more to offer than simply beautifying the countryside. For example, bees pollinate crops and predatory beetles eat pest aphids. In any case, the UK has signed the Convention on Biological Diversity, which requires that “by 2020 areas under agriculture, aquaculture and forestry are managed sustainably, ensuring conservation of biodiversity”.
Continue reading Protecting nature’s harvest
Plants don’t necessarily operate at their full potential. Let’s make them, says Peter Horton.
To provide more crop yield on less land with fewer inputs undoubtedly requires alteration to the fundamental physiological attributes of plants. Included in these is the increase in efficiency of photosynthesis, recently identified by BBRSC as a focus of special interest and subject of a previous post on this blog.
The relationship between photosynthesis and crop yield is controversial.
Continue reading Enhancing photosynthesis
Fine tuning policies and collaborations can strengthen animal and plant pathogen research, says Wyn Grant.
In the 21st century, one of the potential consequences of climate change and free global trade is that animal and plant disease may pose increasing threats to our food supplies.
It’s important to understand the biology of the pathogens and pests involved, but it’s equally important to fully consider the human dimension, and the part that people and their behaviour play.
Continue reading The devils and the details of disease
There has never been a more urgent need to train scientists in the food security disciplines, says Christopher 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.
Continue reading Generation X and agricultural education