Recently, our Agri-Food Early Career Committee ran the third #agrifoodbecause Twitter competition. Today we are looking back over the best photos of the 2020 competition, including our winner and runner-up. Entrants were asked to take photos and explain why they loved their work, using the hashtag #agrifoodbecause on Twitter.
Our 2020 winner, Jordan Cuff, Cardiff University, won first prize for his fantastic shot of a ladybird. He received a free SCI student membership and an Amazon voucher.
For the first-time ever we also awarded a runner-up prize to Lauren Hibbert, University of Southampton, for her beautiful root photography. She also received a free SCI student membership and Amazon voucher.
#agrifoodbecause developing more environmentally friendly crops will help ensure the sustainability of future farming.
Photo illustrating the dawn 🌅 of root phenotyping… or some very hairy (phosphate hungry) watercress roots! @SCI_AgriFood pic.twitter.com/29u533Xyow
There were also many other fantastic entries!
#AgrifoodBecause My research looks at the potential biocontrol of parasitic wasps on #CSFB, major pest of #OSR! Combining field and lab work to work towards #IPM strategies 👩🏻🔬👩🏻🌾 pic.twitter.com/YqJnBM4CVf
#agrifoodbecause we need to protect the crops to feed the world while repairing and protecting a highly damaged ecosystem. There is no delete option! #foodsecurity #noplanetb #organic #earth #wildlife #insectpests #beneficialinsects pic.twitter.com/JXfycRc0tx
Once again, it was an incredibly successful online event, with fascinating topics covered.
This year’s wheat harvest is currently underway across the country after a difficult growing season, with harvest itself being delayed due to intermittent stormy weather. The high levels of rainfall at the start of the growing season meant that less winter wheat could be planted and dry weather in April and May caused difficulties for spring wheat as well. This decline in the wheat growing area has caused many news outlets to proclaim the worst wheat harvest in 40 years and potential bread price rises.
Difficult weather during this year’s growing season. Photo: Joe Oddy
This is also the first wheat harvest in which I have a more personal stake, namely the first field trial of my PhD project; looking at how asparagine levels are controlled in wheat. It seemed like a bad omen that my first field trial should coincide with such a poor year for wheat farming, but it is also an opportunity to look at how environmental stress is likely to influence the nutritional quality of wheat, particularly in relation to asparagine.
The levels of asparagine, a nitrogen-rich amino acid, in wheat grain have become an important quality parameter in recent years because it is the major determinant and precursor of acrylamide, a processing contaminant that forms during certain cooking processes. The carcinogenic risk associated with dietary acrylamide intake has sparked attempts to reduce consumption as much as possible, and reducing asparagine levels in wheat is a promising way of achieving part of this goal.
Asparagus, from which asparagine was first discovered and named.
Previous work on this issue has shown that some types of plant stress, such as sulphur deficiency, disease, and drought, increase asparagine levels in wheat, so managing these stresses with sufficient nutrient supply, disease control, and irrigation can help to prevent unwanted asparagine accumulation. Stress can be difficult to prevent even with such crop management strategies though, especially with environmental variables as uncontrollable as the weather, so it is tempting to speculate that the difficulties experienced this growing season will be reflected in higher asparagine levels; but we will have to wait and see.
A growing population is placing greater pressure on limited resources including land, oceans, water and energy. If agricultural production continues in its present form, water degradation, biodiversity loss and climate change will continue. As a result, people are adopting an increased interest in the environmental impact of food choice, choosing alternatives like insects.
This round-up explores examples of the various insect-based alternative foods.
According to data from Grand View Research, a US-based market research company, the global healthy snacks market is expected to reach $32.88 billion by 2025. Companies across Europe are developing healthy snack products based on insects, tapping into our desire for a variety of foods and tastes.
Eat Grub, established in 2013 and based in London UK, developed an insect snack made from house crickets, which are farmed in Europe. They are a sustainable, nutritious and tasty source of food, rich in protein. Research has indicated that insects are good for gut health due to their high chitin content. Chitinous fibre has been linked to increased levels of a metabolic enzyme associated with gut health.
A start-up Belgian beer company, Belgium Beetles Beer, described their drink as a real Belgium blond beer enriched with insect vitamins and proteins.
Upon ‘accidentally’ developing this product, they realised that the dry beetle powder offered a rich, light sweet, slightly bitter flavour.
A growing number of companies are now focusing their efforts on producing a product that looks and tastes like a traditional meat-based burger.
Bugfoundation’s burgers are based on buffalo worms, which are the larvae of the Alphitobius Diaperinus beetle. The company’s founders said that they decided to use buffalo worms because of their ‘slightly nutty flavour.’
The idea stemmed from a trip to Asia, where co-founder, Max Charmer came across fried crickets. His experience inspired him to bring these flavours to the west, hoping to please western tastes and comply with evolving European regulations.
Concerns regarding the livestock system have prompted novel inventions in the food space; insects, considered a source of protein, could outperform conventional meats to reduce environmental impacts.
So, will consumers soon be able to introduce insects to their everyday diets? Only time will tell.
A lavender field near Provence, France.
Flowering is the process by which higher plants transfer male gametes to female organs thereby uniting two sets of chromosomes and increasing natural diversity. During the formation of male and female gametes, slight changes take place in chromosome structure. Consequently, the resultant next generation differs slightly from its parents. That is the stuff on which natural selection operates.
Useful variations increase the survival fitness of some offspring, while individuals with disadvantages wither and die. Charles Darwin recognised the power of natural selection for the environmentally fittest individuals and how that leads eventually to species evolution. Succeeding generations of scientists have discovered details of the processes involved and how these may result in more useful plants for humankind by plant breeding.
Transferring the male gametes (i.e. pollination) happens by a variety of mechanisms which are suited for the environment in which particular plants grow. At its simplest, pollen which consists of cells containing male gametes is transferred within the same flower. That is suitable for plants growing in for example, alpine environments where few other options exist.
Pollen grains contain both reproductive and non-reproductive cells.
Cross-transfer of pollen from one flower to another is achieved either by physical means such as wind or water, or by partnerships with animals – particularly insects and especially bees. Wind transfer is suitable for trees such as hazel, birch and willow, which flower ahead of leaf formation in the early spring when it is too cold for insect flight. Biologically, it is a wasteful mechanism because much of the pollen does not reach its target.
Cross-pollination by insects produces by far the most colourful and exuberant flowers. These have evolved brilliantly colourful displays and intricate mechanisms suitable for either general interaction with insects or as means for partnership. These relationships have co-evolved and converged over numerous generations meeting the needs of both parties.
Sexual reproduction in plants. Video: FuseSchool - Global Education
Plant scientists are presented with intriguing questions in understanding how these relationships could have developed. On the practical side, plant breeders are presented with enormous opportunities for developing massive arrays of new varieties, particularly with ornamentals such as the garden favourites like dahlias, chrysanthemums, lilies and roses.
Enormous international trade has developed over the last hundred years exploiting increasingly colourful flowering plants.
An estimated 24% of Europe’s bumblebees are threatened with extinction.
Cross-pollination is absolutely vital for many field vegetable crops, especially peas and beans and the top and soft fruits. A reduction in beneficial insect populations now presents dire threats for natural biodiversity, our food supplies and the enjoyment of ornamentals.
The David Miller Travel Bursary Award aims to give early career plant scientists or horticulturists the opportunity of overseas travel in connection with their horticultural careers.
Juan Carlos De la Concepcion was awarded one of the 2018 David Miller Travel Bursaries to attend the International Congress of Plant Pathology (ICPP) 2018: Plant Health in A Global Economy, which was held in Boston, US. Here, he details his experience attending the international conference and the opportunities it provided.
I’m currently completing the third-year of my rotation PhD in Plant and Microbial Science at the John Innes Centre in Norwich, UK. My work addresses how plant pathogens cause devastating diseases that affect food security worldwide, and how plants can recognise them and organise an immune response to keep themselves healthy.
Because of the tremendous damage that plant diseases cause in agricultural and horticulturally relevant species, this topic has become central to achieving the UN Zero Hunger challenge.
Thanks to the David Miller Award, I was able to participate in the International Congress of Plant Pathology (ICPP) 2018: Plant Health in A Global Economy held in Boston, US. This event is the major international conference in the plant pathology field and only occurs once every five years.
This year, the conference gathered together over 2,700 attendees, representing the broad international community of plant pathologist across the globe. In this conference, the leading experts in the different aspects of the field presented the latest advances and innovations.
Juan’s current research looks at the rice plant’s immune response to pathogens.
These experts are setting a vision and future directions for tackling some of the most damaging plant diseases in the agriculture and horticulture industries, ensuring enough food productivity in a global economy.
A big congratulations to our Agri-Food Early Careers Committee #agrifoodbecause Twitter competition winner, Hannah Blyth. Hannah is a PhD student at Rothamsted Research. Her winning entry, a fungal plate, really wowed us!
#agrifoodbecause understanding crop diseases (eg. my fungal wheat pathogen of choice, causing Septoria Tritici Blotch) will reduce yield losses, important for future food security… Photo of some mutants on a spotting plate. Spot a difference? #phdchat @SCI_AgriFood @SCIupdate pic.twitter.com/0cqK3711Uu— Hannah Blyth (@StellaRemnant)February 21, 2019
Hannah will receive a a years free membership to SCI and a £50 Amazon voucher!
How does climate change impact agriculture? Our Agrisciences group will be hosting an event on 6 March to look at just that!
Not only does climate change have a significant impact on agriculture, and the future of food security, but agricultural practices also directly contribute to climate change. Scientists, farmers and policy makers are coming together to find dynamic solutions to the problems caused by climate change in agriculture.
Agriculture provides food. Comprising of a variety of different farming systems, from crops to livestock, agriculture exists in almost every part of the world. Agriculture relies on knowing your geography – its soil properties, local pests and wildlife – but most importantly, the local climate. When these factors start to change, farming becomes a challenge.
We are already experiencing the effects of climate change, and turbulent or extreme weather is becoming more of the norm. As much as environmentalists can try to combat the development of these problems, agriscientists and farmers need to work together to overcome problems.
Consequences of climate change
One of the main consequences of climate change is a temperature increase. Even a slight temperature change can result in a significant effect on crop yields. Further to that, temperature change can result in drought, which affects the soil and plants alike, and lead to a change in pest numbers. An increase in atmospheric CO2 can also affect crops and livestock. Crops that thrive in higher CO2 levels will do better, but others may be negatively affected.
Not only will crop growth be affected directly by the weather, we could see a change in the diversity and number of pests. Image: Pixabay
Extreme weather events are also rapidly increasing in frequency. These include tornadoes, floods, heat waves, all of which can have quickly detrimental effect on farms. The 2018 British summer heat wave significantly affected crop farming in the UK.
As well as being affected by it, agriculture itself contributes to climate change. An estimated 10-20% of greenhouse gases are produced by agriculture, mainly from livestock.
Addressing the challenge
It is easy to consider that the impact of climate change on agriculture is something which can feel beyond our control. However, it is a dynamic challenge, and brings together scientists, academics, farmers, industry and policy makers, to overcome the negative impacts that a changing climate can have on agricultural systems.
Firstly, scientists can work to breed crops that are more resilient to these changes. They can identify genes for traits like heat and drought tolerance, pest resistance and stability under extreme conditions.
Solutions include plant breeding, GM crops, smart crop protection, policy changes and large collaborations across sectors. Image: Pixabay
Livestock farmers can help to curb climate change by introducing new diets that produce less overall methane. Other farmers can make shifts in their farming systems to more sustainable practices.
Policy makers can help with reducing the impact of climate change on agriculture. Not only by supporting environmental policies that potentially reduce the effects of climate change, they can also encourage scientific developments and relevant legislation relating to pest control, GM plants and other key areas.
Alterations to consumer practices can also reduce the impact of agriculture on climate change, and changes need to be made at all levels of the farming and supply chain.
How does climate change affect agriculture? Source: Syngenta
Overall, many parties need to collaborate to help to reduce the impact of agriculture on climate change, and help to overcome the problems that the future might hold, ensuring food security through a changing climate.
In the build up to our SCI Agri-Food Early Career Committee’s 2019 #agrifoodbecause Twitter competition, we are looking back over the best photos of the 2018 competition. Entrants were asked to take photos and explain why they loved their work, using the hashtag #agrifoodbecause on Twitter.
Our 2018 winner, Claire Dumenil from Rothamsted Research, won first prize for her visually striking image of a fruit fly on a raspberry. She received a free SCI student membership and an Amazon voucher.
#agrifoodbecause invasive pests threaten food production and food security, worldwide! #SWD #drosophilasuzukii #Rothamsted #cardiffuni – Claire Dumenil (@CnfDumenil)
#agrifoodbecause I work on reducing aphid infestations on wheat. From the lab to the field – Amma Simon (@amma_simon)
With their fluffy body bumblebees are fantastic pollinators! Work with them can improve crop pollination !! #agrifoodbecause – Sandrine Chaillout (@100chillout)
#agrifoodbecause I can develop drought tolerant wheat varieties – Samer Mohamed (@samer313)
#agrifoodbecause My Research looks at wild pollinators and how we can build a sustainable farming future with them and us in mind! – Laura James (@JamJamLaura)
#agrifoodbecause our improving understanding of the devastating pest, whitefly Bemisia tabaci s.l., will help farmers to increase yields and feed their children <3 – Sona Vyskocilova (@VyskocilovaS)
Plant breeders are increasingly using techniques to produce new varieties they say are indistinguishable from those developed through traditional breeding methods. New genome editing technologies can introduce new traits more quickly and precisely.
However, in July, 2018, the European Court of Justice decreed they alter the genetic material of an organism in a way that does not occur naturally, so they should fall under the GMO Directive. This went against the opinion of the Advocate General.
In October 2018, leading scientists representing 85 European research institutions endorsed a position paper warning that the ruling could lead to a de facto ban of innovative crop breeding.
The paper argues for an urgent review of European legislation, and, in the short term, for crops with small DNA adaptations obtained through genome editing to fall under the regulations for classically bred varieties.
‘As European leaders in the field of plant sciences […] we are hindered by an outdated regulatory framework that is not in line with recent scientific evidence,’ says one of the signatories, Dirk Inzé, Scientific Director at Life Sciences Institute VIB in Belgium.
The European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled in July 2018 that onerous EU regulations for GMOs should also be applied to gene edited crops. The ECJ noted that older technologies to generate mutants, such as chemicals or radiation, were exempt from the 2001 GMO directive, but all other mutated crops should be regarded as GMOs. Since gene editing does not involve foreign DNA, most plant scientists had expected it to escape GMO regulations.
‘We didn’t expect the ruling to be so black and white and prescriptive,’ says Johnathan Napier, a crop scientist at Rothamsted Research. ‘If you introduce a mutant plant using chemical mutagenesis, you will likely introduce thousands if not millions of mutations. That is not a GMO. But if you introduce one mutation by gene editing, then that is a GMO.’
What is genetic modification? Video: The Royal Society
The ECJ ruling will have strong reverberations in academe and industry. The European Seed Association described the ruling as a watershed moment. ‘It is now likely that much of the potential benefits of these innovative methods will be lost for Europe – with significant economic and environmental consequences,’ said secretary general Garlich von Essen.
In 2012, BASF moved its plant research operations to North Carolina, US, because of European regulations. ‘If I was a company developing gene editing technologies, I’d think of moving out of Europe,’ says Napier.
‘The EU is shooting itself in the foot. Its ag economy has been declining since 2005 and it has moved from net self-sufficiency to requiring imports of major staples,’ says Maurice Moloney, CEO of the Global Institute for Food Security in Saskatchewan, Canada. ‘Paradoxically, it still imports massive quantities of GM soya beans and other crops to feed livestock.’
Figures on global data availability and growth are staggering. Data are expected to grow by an astounding factor of 300 between 2005 and 2020, and are predicted to reach 40 trillion bytes by 2020. This creates significant opportunities for data-based decision-making in industries such as agriculture.
Indeed, ongoing developments in precision agriculture and web-based apps can help the farmer to greatly enhance their efficiency, productivity and sustainability, and to prepare themselves for potentially catastrophic climatic events in real time.
On the other hand, farmers have traditionally relied on a more conventional approach for monitoring and improving their performance, namely, benchmarking. In a nutshell, benchmarking is about comparing one’s performance to that of their peers in terms of one or more performance indicators, typically expressed as ratios – i.e. output over input.
For instance, a dairy farmer may want to know how far their milk production per cow is from the top 10% of farms, or whether farms with a different management strategy than theirs (e.g. pasture-based farm vs. all-year housed system) could deliver higher milk yields. Farm benchmarking reports are standard practice in agricultural extension and consultancy.
However, these reports can be overly simplistic, because partial performance ratios cannot capture the multifaceted nature of agricultural sustainability, encompassing environmental (e.g. carbon footprints), social (e.g. labour use) and other indicators (e.g. animal health and welfare), in addition to economic and technical ones.
Water scarcity is a truly global problem, affecting each continent and a total of 2.8bn people across the world. By 2025, 15% of the global population will not have access to sufficient water resources.
Water usage is expected to grow by 40% in the coming 20 years as demand grows from industry and agriculture, driven by accelerating population growth and increased urbanisation.
Insufficient water supply affects the health of children disproportionally, as a decrease in food and nutrient intake can lead to problems with growth and an individual’s immune system.
A shortage of water can lead to communities relying on poorly sanitised water, allowing infections that can cause diarrhoea and intestinal parasites. Both can be deadly in areas without access to quality healthcare.
A family in Somalia collects their daily water allowance. Image: Oxfam International/Flickr
But it is not only a scarcity of clean drinking water that presents a global health challenge – the agriculture industry relies on an increasing supply of fresh water for food production. It is estimated that the number of crops such as wheat, rice, and maize will decrease by 43% by the end of the 21st century.
Agriculture accounts for 70% of the world’s water use, and is constantly competing with domestic and industrial uses for an already dwindling water supply. The World Wide Fund for Nature claims that many countries, such as the US, China, and India, have already reached their renewable water resource limits.
Agriculture is responsible for 70% of the world’s water usage.
The most popular current desalination methods – the process by which salt and minerals are removed from water – are thermal and membrane desalination. Both are energy-intensive and often not cost-efficient for developing countries, which are the most likely to struggle with poor water sanitation and shortages.
As a result, both the healthcare and agricultural industries are desperately searching for a solution.
A graphene-oxide membrane is at the forefront of new water filtration techniques. Image: University of Manchester
In Manchester, UK, the development of graphene – a material comprised of a single-layer of carbon in a honeycomb structure – is revolutionising modern membrane desalination and water filtration techniques.
An ultra-thin graphene-oxide membrane developed at the University of Manchester is not only able to separate water and salt – proving to be completely impermeable to all solvents but water – but other compounds as well.
A reverse osmosis desalination plant. Image: James Grellier/Wikimedia Commons
The technology – called organic solvent nanofiltration – separates organic compounds by charge and can differentiate solvents by the nanometre. The group tested the membranes using alcohol, such as whisky and cognac, and various dyes with successful results.
‘The developed membranes are not only useful for filtering alcohol, but the precise sieve size and high flux open new opportunities to separate molecules from different organic solvents for chemical and pharmaceutical industries,’ said Rahul Nair, team leader at the National Graphene Institute and Professor of Chemical Engineering and Analytical Science at the University of Manchester.
‘This development is particularly important because most of the existing polymer-based membranes are unstable in organic solvents, whereas the developed graphene-oxide membrane is highly stable.’
Graphene: Membranes and their practical applications. Video: The University of Manchester - The home of graphene
The graphene-oxide membrane is made up of sheets that are stacked in a way that creates pinholes connected by graphene nanochannels. The structure forms an atomic-scale sieve allowing the flow of solvents through the membrane.
Not only is the technology able to filter smaller molecules than existing filtration techniques – it also improves filtration efficiency by increasing the solvent flow rate.
‘Chemical separation is all about energy, with various chemical separation processes consuming about half of industrial energy usage,’ said Prof Nair. ‘Any new efficient separation process will minimise the consumption of energy, which is in high demand now.’
In April, EU Members States voted for a near complete ban of the use of neonicotinoid insecticides – an extension to restrictions in place since 2013. The ban, which currently includes a usage ban for crops such as maize, wheat, barley, and oats, will be extended to include others like sugar beet. Use in greenhouses will not be affected.
Some studies have argued that neonicotinoids contribute to declining honeybee populations, while many other scientists and farmers argue that there is no significant field data to support this.
In response to the recent ban, SCI’s Pest Management Science journal has made a number of related papers free to access to better inform on the pros and cons of neonicotinoids.
Like to know more about neonicotinoids? Click the links below…
Robin Blake and Len Copping discuss the recent political actions on the use of neonicotinoids in agriculture, and the UK’s hazard-based approach following field research unsupportive of an outright ban on the insecticides.
Conflicting evidence on the effects of neonicotinoids on the honeybee population has beekeepers confused and has led to the increase in the use of older insecticides, reports one beekeeper.
Following the 2013 EU partial ban on neonicotinoids, experts called for good field data to fill knowledge gaps after questioning of the validity of the original laboratory research. To encourage future debate, realistic field data is essential to discouraging studies using overdoses that are not of environmental relevance.
This paper describes the consequences of the ban on neonicotinoid seed treatments on pest management in oilseed rape, including serious crop losses from cabbage stem flea beetles and aphids that have developed resistance to other insecticides.
The Research Articles
Particle size is one of the most important properties affecting the driftability and behaviour of dust particles scraped from pesticide dressed seeds during sowing. Different species showed variable dust particle size distribution and all three techniques were not able to describe the real-size distribution accurately.
Aside from particle size, drift of scraped seed particles during sowing is mainly affected by two other physical properties – particle shape and envelope density. The impact of these abraded seed particles on the environment is highly dependable on their active ingredient content. In this study, the envelope density and chemical content of dust abraded from seeds was determined as a function of particle size for six seed species.
Substantial honey bee colony losses have occurred periodically in the last decades, but the drivers for these losses are not fully understood. Under field conditions, bee colonies are not adversely affected by a long‐lasting exposure to sublethal concentrations of thiacloprid – a popular neonicotinoid. No indications were found that field‐realistic and higher doses exerted a biologically significant effect on colony performance.
The world’s largest agriculture companies have joined forces to invest in new and innovative technologies that will hopefully eradicate malaria by 2040. The ‘Zero by 40’ campaign was launched at the annual Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting held in London last week.
The programme has the support of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the Innovative Vector Control Consortium, based in Liverpool, UK, as well as companies BASF, Bayer, and Syngenta – among others.
Mosquitos are known vectors of the malaria virus. Image: James Gathany/Centre for Disease Control
Malaria affects over 200 million people each year – most cases are found in Africa but the disease is still prevalent in South East Asia and in the Mediterranean. Although the number of cases has been slowly falling year-on-year, this progress is threatened by insecticide resistance.
It is estimated that four out of five malaria cases have been prevented through long-lasting insecticide-treated bed nets (LLINs) and indoor residual spraying (IRS) techniques. The campaign is a continued sign of commitment from the agriculture industry, with companies already having produced innovative solutions to tackle the global issue.
Both Syngenta and Bayer have introduced new IRS products – either in the final stages of development or already employed across Africa. BASF has developed a new generation mosquito net with an insecticide derived from crop use to deter resistant mosquitos.
Insecticides used in agriculture are used as control mechanisms for the mosquito population.
‘Our industry collaboration, supported by our funders including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the UK’s Department of International Development, is starting to bear fruit and is saving lives today,’ said Nick Hamon, CEO of IVCC.
‘But we still have a long way to go to achieve our ambition of ending the disease burden of malaria by 2040,’ Hamon said. ‘This new initiative will not only secure the current supply of solutions, but will pave the way for desperately needed new forms of chemistry and new vector control tools to reduce the disease burden of malaria which still affects millions of people.’
Currently one of the least digitised industries in the world, the agricultural sector is fast becoming a hub of innovation in robotics. One report suggests the agricultural robotics industry will be worth £8.5bn by 2027.
Feeding the increasing global population – set to hit 8bn by 2023 – is a major concern in the sector, with farmers already stretched to capacity with current technology.
With this said, the European Commission – via Horizon 2020 – has launched a programme and fund to drive research and innovation in the area. Developments in precision agriculture, which uses data and technology for a more controlled approach to farming management, has been particularly encouraging.
But similar to other labour-intensive industries, such as manufacturing, robots could be used to relieve workers in difficult conditions, and there are many projects close to commercialisation.
One such project is SWEEPER – a greenhouse harvesting tool that can detect when sweet peppers are ready to harvest through sensors. SWEEPER runs between the vines on a rail and uses GPS tracking to navigate through its environment.
Although focusing on sweet peppers for this research, the group say that the technology could be applied to other fruits and crops.
The EU-funded consortium in charge of the development of the SWEEPER robot is made up of six academic and industry partners from four countries: Belgium, Sweden, Israel and the Netherlands, where the research is based.
Greenhouses pose harsh working conditions during harvesting season, including excessive heat, humidity, and long hours.
The SWEEPER robot in action. Video: WUR Glastuinbouw
‘The reduction in the labour force has put major pressure on the competitiveness of the European greenhouse sector,’ said Jos Balendonck, project coordinator from Wageningen University & Research, the Netherlands.
‘We hope to develop the technology that will prevent greenhouse food production from migrating out of Europe due to the 40 % expected rise in labour costs over the coming decade.’
Currently testing the second version of the robot, the research group already envision adding improvements – from sensors that can detect vitamin content, sweetness levels and the sweet pepper’s expected shelf life to the ability to alert farmers when crop disease could hit their crops in advance.
A world first
Meanwhile, engineers at Harper Adams University in Shropshire, UK, and agriculture firm Precision Decisions have become the first group to harvest a crop completely autonomously.
The Hands Free Hectare project – funded by Innovate UK – modified existing farming machinery to incorporate open-source data that would allow the control systems to be located externally.
At the start of the season, an autonomous tractor sows the crops into the soil using GPS positioning, and sprays them periodically with pesticides throughout their growth. A separate rover takes soil samples to analyse nutrient content and to check pH levels are maintained.
When the crops begin to sprout from the ground a drone is used to monitor growth by taking images. Finally, a combine harvester controlled from outside of the field harvests the crops.
Kit Franklin, an Agricultural Engineering lecturer at the university, said: ‘As a team, we believe there is now no technological barrier to automated field agriculture. This project gives us the opportunity to prove this and change current public perception.’
Image: Hands Free Hectare
Despite innovation in the area, farmers have been slow to embrace the new technology, partially due to the lack of high quality data available that would allow more flexibility in the sector. Others, including the wider public, worry that development will lead to job losses in the industry.
However, scientists say the jobs will still be there but farmers and agricultural workers will use their skills to control the autonomous systems from behind the scenes instead.
‘Automation will facilitate a sustainable system where multiple smaller, lighter machines will enter the field, minimising the level of compaction,’ said Franklin.
‘These small autonomous machines will in turn facilitate high resolution precision farming, where different areas of the field, and possibly even individual plants can be treated separately, optimising and potentially reducing inputs being used in field agriculture.’
Combatting malnutrition in all its forms – overweight and obesity as well as undernutrition and micronutrient deficiencies – is a global problem.
The European Academies Science Advisory Council (EASAC) recently published a report calling for urgent action on food and nutrition security: this action will need to include consideration of the options for changing European diets to mitigate climate change, conferring co-benefits for health.
The European Commission estimates 51.6% of the EU’s population is overweight. Image: Tony Alter/Flickr
EASAC brings together EU member states’ national science academies with the aim of offering evidence-based advice to European policy makers. EASAC provides a means for the collective voice of European science to be heard and its recent report is part of a global project led by the InterAcademy Partnership (IAP).
The analysis and recommendations for Europe are accompanied by parallel activities focusing on Africa, Asia and the Americas. The IAP report will be published later in 2018.
EASAC recommendations will incorporate global challenges and needs, not just those in Europe. Image: Pixabay
In the EASAC report we emphasise that research and innovation are central to finding solutions. We recommend being more ambitious in identifying and using scientific opportunities: How can the current evidence base shape understanding of both supply- and demand-side challenges? And how should the research agenda be defined, including basic research, to fill knowledge gaps?
Climate change will have negative impacts on food systems, necessitating the introduction of climate-smart agriculture such as the adoption of plant breeding innovations to cope with drought.
Climate-Smart Agriculture in Action. Video: Farming First
Agriculture and current diets also contribute significantly to climate change. Mitigating this contribution depends on land-sparing and agronomic management practices together with efforts to influence consumer behaviours associated with excessive greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture, including the over-consumption of calories and meat.
Among the core findings in our report is that food consumption will need to change to improve consumer health. It is important to explore individual responsiveness to nutrition and the links to health, and to consider the particular needs of vulnerable groups.
High meat production has been linked to increasing carbon emissions. Image: Pixabay
As part of the changes to food consumption patterns, a decrease in the consumption of animal protein could be important for both health and the environment but, globally, more research is needed to clarify these relationships and to measure sustainability related to consumption of healthy diets. We also call for policy makers to introduce incentives for affordable nutrition.
Agriculture has significant impacts on the environment. We call for the revamp of the Common Agricultural Policy to focus on innovation rather than subsidies, in order to play a key role in European competitiveness and the bioeconomy.
Alternatives to traditional forms of animal protein include food from the oceans, laboratory-grown meat and insects. Research is needed to understand and inform consumer attitudes to innovative food and diets.
Also, research objectives for the next generation of biofuels should include examining the potential of cellulosic raw materials. Further ahead, energy research must continue to explore how to engineer systems with improved photosynthesis.
Biofuels are derived from common crops, including wheat, corn and sugar. Image: Public Domain Pictures
Europe should not stall on opportunities for innovation coming within range. Breakthroughs in genome editing and other genetic research are crucial to the future of agriculture. European policy makers must capitalise on these scientific advances.
For improved plant and animal breeding, it is important to protect and characterise wild gene pools and to continue sequencing and functional assessment to unveil the potential of genetic resources. Precision agriculture offers many opportunities to improve productivity with reduced environmental impact. Large data sets are vital to support innovation and prepare for risk and uncertainty.
Open-source automated precision farming | Rory Aronson | TEDxUCLA. Video: TEDx Talks
Underpinning all our recommendations is the recognition that research and innovation must be better integrated, across disciplines and the public and private sectors, in order to better understand the interfaces between health, nutrition, food and other ecosystem services.
EASAC emphasises that efforts to increase food systems’ efficiency should not focus on increasing agricultural productivity by ignoring environmental costs.
A new type of wheat, chock full of healthy fibre, has been launched by an international team of plant geneticists. The first crop of this super wheat was recently harvested on farms in Idaho, Oregon, and Washington state in the US, ready for testing by various food companies.
Food products are expected to hit the US market in 2019. They will be marketed for their high content of ‘resistant starch’, known to improve digestive health, be protective against the genetic damage that precedes bowel cancer, and help protect against Type 2 diabetes.
How do carbohydrates impact your health? Video: TED-Ed
‘The wheat plant and the grain look like any other wheat. The main difference is the grain composition: the GM Arista wheat contains more than ten times the level of resistant starch and three to four times the level of total dietary fibre, so it is much better for your health, compared with regular wheat,’ says Ahmed Regina, plant scientist at Australian science agency CSIRO.
Starch is made up of two types of polymers of glucose – amylopectin and amylose. Amylopectin, the main starch type in cereals, is easily digested because it has a highly branched chemical structure, whereas amylose has a mainly linear structure and is more resistant.
Bread and potatoes are foods also high in starch. Image: Pixabay
Breeders drastically reduced easily digested amylopectin starch by downregulating the activity of two enzymes, so increasing the amount of amylose in the grain from 20 to 30% to an impressive 85%.
The non-GM breeding approach works because the building blocks for both amylopectin and amylose starch synthesis are the same. With the enzymes involved in making amylopectin not working, more blocks are then available for amylose synthesis.
‘Resistant starch is starch that is not digested and reaches the large intestines where it can be fermented by bacteria. Usually amylose is what is resistant to digestion,’ comments Mike Keenan, food and nutrition scientist at Louisiana State University, US. ‘Most people consume far too little fibre, so consuming products higher in resistant starch would be beneficial.’
He notes that fermentation of starch in the gut causes the production of short-chain fatty acids such as butyrate that ‘have effects throughout the body, even the mental health of humans’.
The GM wheat will hit US supermarkets in 2019. Image: Pxhere
The super-fibre wheat stems from a collaboration begun in 2006 between French firm Limagrain Céréales Ingrédients, Australian science agency CSIRO, and the Grains Research and Development Corporation, an Australian government agency.
This resulted in a spin out company, Arista Cereal Technologies. After the US, Arista reports that the next markets will be in Australia and Japan.
Blue dye, in this cross-section of a maize cob, highlights the rice gene that controls T6P in the kernels’ phloem. Image: Rothamsted Research
Through the introduction of a rice gene, scientists have produced a maize plant that harvests more kernels per plant – even in periods of drought.
The rice gene expressed depresses levels of a natural chemical, trehalose 6 -phosphate (T6P), in the phloem of the transgenic maize plant. T6P is responsible for the distribution of sucrose in the plant.
Lowering levels of T6P in the phloem, an essential track in the plant’s transportation system, allows more sucrose to be channelled to the developing kernels of the plant. As a result of increased levels of sucrose in this area of the maize plant, more kernels are produced.
Drought is an increasing problem in countries such as Uganda. Image: Hannah Longhole
‘These structures are particularly sensitive to drought – female kernels will abort,’ said Matthew Paul, team leader and plant biochemist at Rothamsted Research, UK. ‘Keeping sucrose flowing within the structures prevents this abortion.’
The transatlantic team, from Rothamsted and biotechnology company Syngenta in the US, built on field tests published three years ago that demonstrated increased productivity of the same genetically-modified maize.
‘This is a first-in-its-kind study that shows the technology operating effectively both in the field and in the laboratory,’ said Paul.
Maize growing on world’s oldest experiment, Broadbalk field at Rothamsted Research. Image: Rothamsted Research
Drought is becoming an increasing problem for developing countries, where the economic and social impacts are most evident.
Maize, also known as corn, and other cereals are relied on heavily across these nations due to their low cost and high nutritional value, with rice, maize, and wheat used for 60% of the global food energy intake.
The results of these trials are promising, and the team believe this work could be transferred to wheat and rice plants, as well as other cereals, said Paul.
The Haber process currently helps feed more than half the world, producing 150m tonnes of ammonia a year. This is forecast to rise further, in line with the food demand of a growing world population.
And yet, it has serious drawbacks. In its traditional form, the process requires high temperatures – around 500°C – to make the extremely stable molecule nitrogen reactive.
The Haber process takes place at extremely high temperatures, similar to that of an average fire.
It also needs high pressure to shift the equilibrium towards the desired product. The process is sensitive to oxygen, meaning that nitrogen and hydrogen must be introduced as purified elements, rather than as air and water.
These requirements together make the process extremely energy-hungry; estimated to consume between 1% and 2% of global primary energy production. In 2010, the ammonia industry emitted 245m tonnes of CO2 globally, corresponding to half the UK’s emissions.
The Haber process was developed by Carl Bosch (left) and Fritz Haber (right) in the early 20th century. Image: Wikimedia Commons
In nature, the process relies on the highly complex enzyme nitrogenase, operating at an ambient pressure and temperature. But using the entire biological system would not be economical for large-scale industrial synthesis, and thus the search for an inorganic system that matches the performance of the biological has become an important challenge.
In recent years, novel electrochemical approaches and new catalysts have yielded promising results suggesting that, at least for small-scale synthesis, other ways may have a future.
The chemical reaction that feeds the world. Video: TED-Ed
‘The last [few] years brought some spectacular results on ammonia synthesis research,’ comments Hans Fredriksson from Syngaschem at Eindhoven, Netherlands.
‘On the catalyst side, there is the discovery of ‘super promoters’, helping N2 dissociation, allowing lower process temperatures, while optimised catalyst formulations yield significant improvements in activity.
‘Perhaps even more exciting are new approaches in processing, for example by electrochemistry, or simply running the reaction in an electric field, or bringing plasmas into play,’ he said.
In 2013, Shanwen Tao, then at the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow, UK, and colleagues demonstrated for the first time the production of ammonia from air and water, at ambient temperature and pressure, using a proton-conducting Nafion membrane in an electrochemical approach.
Nafion, a Teflon-like material that conducts cations but neither electrons nor anions, is also used in fuel cells.
‘Electrochemical synthesis of ammonia is an important new approach for efficient synthesis of ammonia using green renewable electricity as the energy source. This could be a key technology for a possible ‘ammonia economy’,’ where ammonia replaces or complements hydrogen as an energy carrier, says Tao.
Researchers hope new approaches will be supported by renewable energy, reducing CO2 emissions. Image: Pexels
Separate efforts using different routes are being developed in Japan, with a particular focus on ruthenium as an efficient catalyst. One approach is to apply super promoters to provide electrons that destabilise nitrogen by weakening the triple bond and making the molecule more reactive for ammonia synthesis.
This was first reported in 2012 by Hideo Hosono’s group at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, who used ruthenium catalysts in combination with ‘electrides’ – a new class of ionic materials where electrons serve as the anions.
The method operates at atmospheric pressure and temperatures between 250 and 400°C, and hydrogen poisoning of ruthenium catalysts is no longer a problem.
Ruthenium is a type of metal in the platinum group. Image: Metalle-w/ Wikimedia Commons
‘This catalyst exhibits the highest activity and excellent long-term stability,’ says Hosono, who sees the future of his methods in distributed, small-scale applications of ammonia synthesis.
Hans Niemantsverdriet, director of SynCat@Beijing, China, acknowledges the rapid progress being made, but also strikes a note of caution.
‘In spite of interesting discoveries, I find it hard to imagine that these improvements will be able to replace the current large-scale and fully optimised technology,’ he says. ‘In the fertiliser area, novel technology will at best become a niche market for very special situations. Also, the CO2 footprint is hardly diminished.’
Ammonia is a core component of fertiliser, feeding nitrogen to plants for photosynthesis. Image: Maurice van Bruggen/Wikimedia Commons
In the long term, Niemantsverdriet has hope for the ammonia economy as championed by Tao and others, providing carbon-free hydrogen from renewable energies.
‘I strongly believe that there will be scope for large industrial parks where this technology can be cleverly integrated with gasification of coal in China, and perhaps biomass elsewhere,’ he says. ‘If dimensioned properly, this has the potential to reduce the carbon footprint in the future.’
Russian researchers have developed new fertilisers based on nanopowders of transition metals. In field trials on agricultural crops, harvests increased by more than a quarter, compared with conventional fertilisers.
Iron, cobalt and copper affect a plant’s level of resistance to pests and diseases. These microelements are typically introduced into the soil as soluble salts, but rain and irrigation can wash them away, requiring further applications. They also have potential to disrupt local ecosystems as they pass into the groundwater.
An irrigation system in Idaho, US. Image: Jeroen Komen@Wikimedia Commons
The team, led by the National University of Science and Technology (NUST) in Moscow, has developed a group of fertilisers that are applied as a powder to plant seeds, without losses to the soil or water systems. In this way, ‘the future plant is provided with a supply of necessary microelements at the stage of seeding,’ reports Alexander Gusev, head of the project at NUST’s Department of Functional Nanosystems.
‘[It’s] a one-seed treatment by a product containing the essential microelements in nanoform. These particles of transition metals – iron, copper, cobalt – have a powerful stimulating effect on plant growth in the initial growth phase.’
Gusev reports improved field germination and increased yields of 20-25%.
The main difficulty was to produce a powder from the nanoparticles, which tended to quickly stick together as aggregates, says Gusev – a problem they solved by using organic stabilisers and then subjecting the colloidal solutions to ultrasonic processing.
Gusev now wants to discvover how the new fertiliser acts in different soils, and in relation to different plant cultures. Its environmental safety also needs to be evaluated before widespread use, he adds.
But Steve McGrath, head of sustainable agricultural sciences at Rothamsted Research, is sceptical. Plants are adapted to take up ionic forms of these microelements, not nanoparticles, he says. ‘Also, seeds do not take up much micronutrients. Roots do that, and depending on the crop and specific nutrient, most uptake is near to the growing ends of the root, and throughout the growing season, when the seed and nearby roots are long gone.’
Critics are skeptical of the efficacy of the new kind of fertiliser. Image: Pexels
If there is an effect on crop yield, he thinks it is more likely to be due to the early antifungal and antibacterial effects of nanoparticles. ‘They have a large and highly reactive surface area and if they are next to membranes of pathogens when they react they generate free radicals that disrupt those membranes. So, in a soil that is particularly disease-infected, there may be some protection at the early seedling stage.’
Platinum is one of the most valuable metals in the world. Precious and pretty, it’s probably best known for jewelry – and that is almost certainly its oldest use. But its value has become far greater than its decorative ability; today, platinum powers the world. From agriculture to the oil markets, energy to healthcare, we use platinum far more than we realise.
1. Keep the car running
Platinum is needed to make fuel for transport. Image: Pixabay
Platinum catalysts are crucial in the process that converts naphtha into petrol, diesel, and jet-engine fuel, which are all vital to the global economy. The emissions from those petroleum fuels, however, can be toxic, and platinum is also crucial in the worldwide push to reduce them through automotive catalytic converters. In fact, 2% of global platinum use in 2016 was in converting petroleum and 41% went into reducing emissions – a circle of platinum use that’s more impressive than a ring.
2. Feed the world
Nitric acid is a by-product of platinum which is used in fertilisers. Image: Pixabay
Another vital global sector that makes use of platinum catalysts is agriculture. Without synthetic fertilisers, we would not be able to produce nearly as much food as we need. Nitric acid is essential for producing those fertilisers and platinum is essential for producing nitric acid. Since 90% of the gauzes required for nitric acid are platinum, we may need to use more of it as we try to meet the global food challenge.
3. Good for your health
A pacemaker. Image: Steven Fruitsmaak@Wikimedia Commons
Platinum is extremely hard wearing, non-corrosive, and highly biocompatible, making it an excellent material to protect medical implants from acid corrosion in the human body. It is commonly used in pacemakers and stents. It is also used in chemotherapy, where platinum-based chemotherapeutic agents are used to treat up to 50% of cancer patients.
4. The fuel is clean
In addition to powering the cars of the present and reducing their environmental impact, platinum might well be crucial to the future of transport in the form of fuel cells. Platinum catalysts convert hydrogen and oxygen into clean energy, with water the only by-product.
5. Rags to riches
The Spaniards invaded the Inca Empire, South America, in 1532. Painted by Juan B Lepiani. Image: MALI@Wikimedia Commons
Amazingly, despite all this, platinum was once considered worthless - at least in Europe. In fact, it was considered a nuisance by the Spanish when they first discovered it in South America - as a corruption in the alluvial deposits they were earnestly mining and they would quite literally throw it away. It wasn’t until the 1780s that the Spanish realised it might have some value.
Because platinum is essential to so many aspects of our economy, there are concerns about supply meeting demand – particularly as nearly 80% is currently mined in South Africa, which has seen its mining industry repeatedly crippled by strikes in recent years.
Two Rivers platinum mine, South Africa. Image: Wikimedia Commons
Some believe the solution to the issue of supply is space mining, arguing the metal could be found in asteroids.
Others, such as researchers at MIT, are working to create synthetic platinum, using more commonly found materials. Neither approach is guaranteed to work but, given our increasing dependence on this precious metal, we could be more reliant on their success than we realise.
On average, 10% of all crop production is lost annually to drought and extreme heat, with the situation getting worse year on year. Heat stress happens over short-time periods, but drought happens over longer timescales and is linked to drier soils. Maize and wheat are especially hard hit, with yields falling by up to 50% if drought hits.
On the High Plains, the largest US wheat-growing region, drought is a possibility every season. ‘Drought stress can be a key concern, especially in dry lands, but even in irrigated areas we can’t expect the same levels of water in future and farmers face restrictions,’ says Chris Souder at Monsanto.
So, this is not simply a developing world problem. Pedram Rowhani, University of Sussex, UK, found cereals in more technically developed agricultural systems of North America, Europe, and Australia suffered most from droughts. Yield losses due to drought were 19.9% in the US compared to almost no effect in Latin America.
Crop breeders in the past paid a great deal of attention to yield, but not enough to resilience to extreme events such as drought, Rowhani says, but this is changing. Growers increasingly want built-in drought resilience and plant scientists are looking for novel solutions. New, unconventional approaches based on novel insights from basic science might be necessary.
Hundreds of genes and proteins are involved in the complex trait of drought resistance. Plants avoid drought stress by shortening their life cycle with accelerated flowering, or cut down water loss by closing leaf pores called stomata. One approach by breeders is to target specific traits by crossing individual plants that perform best under drought conditions.
Stomata are found of the underside of leaves and are used for gas exchange. Image: Pixabay
‘About 97% of plant water loss occurs through the stomata. If you want to regulate the amount of water a plant uses, regulate the stomata,’ says Julie Gray, University of Sheffield, UK. Gray has been genetically tweaking wheat, barley, and rice plants so they have fewer of these pores.
She believes rising CO2 levels in the atmosphere means that they do not suffer from less carbon dioxide from opening their stomata. ‘CO2 levels have gone up 40% over the last 200 years. It’s quite possible they are producing more stomata than they need,’ says Gray.
Power plant in Tihange, Belgium. CO2emissions continue to increase. Image: Hullie@Wikimedia Commons
Gray reports that plants grown at 450ppm CO2 with reduced stomatal density, but increased stomatal size, had larger biomass and increased growth tolerance when water was limited. ‘Plants can operate with perhaps half as many stomata before you see significant effects on photosynthesis, so you can definitely reduce water loss this way,’ says Gray.
Root of the issue
At the other end of the plant plumbing system are roots. Susannah Tringe, Joint Genome Institute, UK, is seeking microbes that can gift stress-tolerance to their plant hosts. ‘The microbes associated with plants are likely to be just as important for plant growth and health as the microbiome of humans,’ says Tringe.
Though a lot of work has focused on finding the ‘magic microbe,’ Tringe believes whole communities will be necessary in real field conditions, whereas a single strain could be out-muscled by competitors.
Regular bouts of drought are leading to famine in developing countries. Video: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations
Sugar and drought
‘Drought is probably the most widespread abiotic stress that limits food production worldwide. There is always need to improve drought tolerance,’ says Matthew Paul, Rothamsted Research Institute, UK.
‘Sucrose is produced in photosynthesis,’ Paul explains. ‘During drought conditions, plants will withhold sucrose from the grain, as a survival mechanism’. This can terminate reproductive structures and abort seed formation, even if drought is short-lived, greatly compromising yield.
A plant scientist studying rice plants. Image: IRRI Photos@Flickr
Rothamsted researchers have looked at modifying plants so sugar keeps flowing. ‘If you can get more sugar going to where you want it […] then this could improve yields and yield resilience,’ enthuses Paul. Field studies show that GM maize improved yields from 31 to 123% under severe drought, when compared with non-transgenic maize plants.
A world with a rapidly increasing population needs a rapidly increasing food supply. However, with a limited amount of land to work with, farmers must maximise agricultural production on the land they have available.
Modern-day intensive agriculture techniques include mechanical ploughing, chemical fertilisers, plant growth regulators, pesticides, biotech, and genetic modification.
1. Crop production has rapidly expanded in the past few centuries
Farming has drastically changed since the time this picture was taken at the California Manzanar Relocation Centre in 1943. Image: Ansel Adams
Worldwide, the amount of cultivated land increased 466% between 1700 and 1980, with global food production doubling four times between 1820 and 1975. In 1940, the average farmworker supplied 11 consumers; in 2006, each supplied 144 customers. Two out of five American labourers were farmers in 1900, but now only one in 50 work in agriculture. In 1830, five acres of wheat took 250-300 hours of work to produce. By 1975, it only took 3¾ hours.
2. Crops can be grown without soil
Organic hydroponic culture in Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam. Image: Frank Fox
Using a crop-growing method called hydroponics, instead of putting plants in soil, a mineral solution is pumped around the roots. This makes it possible to grow crops in regions with low-quality soil or none at all, increasing the amount of space that can be used for agriculture. This technique also allows for the nutrients to be effectively recycled and eliminates the risk of soil organisms that cause disease.
3. At least 90% of the soy, cotton, canola, corn, and sugar beets sold in the US are GMOs
Since the 1970s, scientists have been working on genetically modifying crops to make them tougher, disease-resistant, more nutritious, and higher yielding. Though the first commercially available GMO came onto the market just 23 years ago, global markets have already been transformed by the ground-breaking innovation.
4. Regenerative grazing increases the health and productivity of pastures
Image: Tom Koerner/USFWS
Regenerative grazing - staggering grazing on different plots of land according to a calendar – has proven to increase soil health. By allowing plots to rest after grazing, the soil and anything living in it is able to recover before the next time it is used. Regenerative grazing cultivates fields with less bare soil and increases populations of earthworms and soil organisms. Not only that, it also eliminates the need for chemical fertiliser, increases grass growth by 14%, and causes a 10% decrease in carbon footprint per litre of milk.
5. Agricultural robots are transforming the industry
If you’re interested in the issues surrounding global food sustainability, you can watch the full video of Sir John Beddington’s recent SCI Andrew Medal Lecture: ‘Global Sustainability Challenges: Food, Water, and Energy Security’, here.