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New publication highlights role of plant science in delivering food security

2 March 2009

With rapid global population growth, a changing climate and disruption to global trading patterns threatening our food supplies, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) is funding research to help provide us with enough food for the future. Food security depends on a number of factors but one priority is the need to grow enough high quality, nutritional crops - and this poses a significant scientific challenge.

A recent BBSRC publication, ‘The Bioscience behind: secure harvests’ highlights key BBSRC-supported research into achieving global food security. BBSRC invests around £78M a year in plant and crop science research at universities and institutes across the UK.

One challenge for achieving food security is increasing crop yields. Researchers at the John Innes Centre, an institute of BBSRC, are investigating a gene that controls flowering time in UK wheat and barley varieties with the aim to help plant breeders to optimise flowering time and yield for a changing UK climate. In traditional cool, wet UK summers, late-flowering crops such as wheat have an advantage because they fully utilise the long growing period. But as our summers become hotter and drier, we will need varieties like those of Southern Europe that flower and amass yield earlier, but are otherwise suited to UK conditions. Different varieties of wheat and barely flower at different times, so by understanding more about this natural variation we should be better set to breed suitable varieties for our changing climate.

Another way to help secure harvests is to protect crops from the threat of pests and diseases. Research into the life cycle and biology of pests and disease causing organisms at Rothamsted Research, another institute of BBSRC, is underpinning several online forecasting services that provide plant growers with frequent updates on when an outbreak is likely in their region. This would allow growers to prepare controls against diseases such as phoma stem canker, a fungal infection that can cause losses of £100m in epidemic years and predicted to increase in severity with climate change.

Prof Janet Allen, BBSRC Director of Research, said: "Supporting and funding research to underpin food security is vitally important and ensuring we are able to grow enough high quality food in a world facing a food security crisis is a central aspect of this. We need a wide range of research activities across a number of disciplines in order to deliver sustainable improvements in yield and BBSRC already funds much research in this area. We are now leading efforts to bring together the variety of funders and policymakers working in this area to ensure we know what scientific challenges we face and that we are concentrating on the best ways to overcome them."

BBSRC is leading the development of a strategic roadmap which will bring together the interests of all the funders in food security and which it will put out to consultation in the spring.

Bioscience behind secure harvests is available at



The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) is the UK funding agency for research in the life sciences. Sponsored by Government, BBSRC annually invests around £420M in a wide range of research that makes a significant contribution to the quality of life for UK citizens and supports a number of important industrial stakeholders including the agriculture, food, chemical, healthcare and pharmaceutical sectors. BBSRC carries out its mission by funding internationally competitive research, providing training in the biosciences, fostering opportunities for knowledge transfer and innovation and promoting interaction with the public and other stakeholders on issues of scientific interest in universities, centres and institutes.

The Babraham Institute, Institute for Animal Health, Institute of Food Research, John Innes Centre and Rothamsted Research are Institutes of BBSRC. The Institutes conduct long-term, mission-oriented research using specialist facilities. They have strong interactions with industry, Government departments and other end-users of their research.