Think of Earth as an apple and the soil as the peel. Now, imagine that more than 70% of this apple’s surface is covered in water. That veneer of peel suddenly seems very small indeed.
Dig beneath the surface and you realise that the world’s soil resources aren’t as plentiful as you first thought. When you take into account all of the uninhabitable, non-arable land on our planet, including the snow-bound poles and deserts, you’re left with just 3% of total landmass to grow all the fruit and vegetables we eat.
After reminding her listeners of some stark facts at the Soil resources in the UK: overlooked and undervalued? webinar, Jane Rickson, Professor of Soil Erosion and Conservation at Cranfield University, reminded us that soil is a precious, finite resource. “We’re dealing with a very thin resource that has to deliver all of these goods and services.”
You just need to think of your breakfast, lunch, and dinner to realise just how important soil is. Of all the food we eat, 97% comes from terrestrial sources. However, in recent decades, the many benefits brought by soil have been taken lightly. Apart from providing food, animal fodder, and a surface for football, it plays a vital role in climate change mitigation.
‘Soil is excellent for climate change mitigation,’ said Professor Rickson, recipient of the prestigious Dr Sydney Andrew Medal for 2021. ‘We know that healthy soils can support vegetation and crops and plants in taking out atmospheric CO2.’
A cross section of soil layers. Unless you live on fish and seaweed, it’s likely that almost all of your food sources will come from terrestrial sources.
However, she and her colleagues at Cranfield University have unearthed some unsettling facts about the state of our soils. She mentioned that 12 million hectares of agricultural land worldwide is lost each year due to soil degradation. In the UK, soil erosion rates can be as high as 15 tonnes per hectare per year, with soil formation rates only compiling at a rate of 1 tonne per hectare per year; and, based on current rates of erosion, some soils could disappear completely by 2050.
So, what is being done to arrest this problem? The obvious mammoth in the room is climate change, with extreme weather events such as flash floods precipitating a huge amount of soil erosion. Obviously, climate change mitigation measures on a national scale would help, but adjustments to farming practices could also improve soil resilience on a more local level.
A lot of work is also being done to reduce the intensity of farming to improve soil health. The aim, according to Rickson, is to maintain a fertile seedbed while retaining maximum resistance to soil degradation. There are lots of different ways to do this.
One approach being taken is cover cropping, whereby a crop is grown for the protection and enrichment of the soil rather than for immediate sale. This enriches the soil and helps prevent soil erosion. Another approach is strip-tillage – a minimum tillage system that disturbs only the portion of the soil that contains the seed row, with the soil between rows left untilled. She also mentioned the benefits of soil improvement, with poultry manure and mushroom compost used to improve soil health by Benedict Unagwu among others.
Cover crops such as vetch and oats improve the structure and fertility of the soil.
It is difficult not to have sympathy for farmers at the moment. Climate change falls heavily upon their lands, and they must battle flooding and drought to keep their farms financially viable. Professor Rickson often speaks to the farming community about soil health, with the focus placed on realistic solutions. As one farmer told her: ‘It's hard to be green when you’re in the red.’
Perhaps soil doesn’t capture the imagination the same way as an oak forest or a field ablaze with wildflowers, but its mismanagement is costing us a fortune. She estimated that the combined annual economic cost of soil degradation in England, Scotland, and Wales is £1.5 billion.
According to Professor Rickson, the US is probably the home of soil conservation following the harsh ecological lessons learnt from the Dust Bowl disaster of the 1930s. However, she believes the UK has plenty of knowhow in the area.
‘The UK has an opportunity to be world-leading in this,’ she said. ‘I think we are as good as anyone. Our scientific community understands soil and is really pushing the boundaries in terms of soil science.’
Farmers today are under pressure to produce more food with fewer resources and without damaging the environment around them. Faced with factors such as land pressures, soil fertility, pest management and agricultural policy, farming today is all about efficiency, time and energy saving technology, and the drive to make solutions as sustainable as possible.
This obviously poses the question: what can the agrochemical industry do to increase output on one hand and protect the environment and improve applicator safety on the other?
Formulation technology is becoming increasingly important in answering this question. By designing innovative formulations, agrochemical products can become more effective as well as safer. Without the right formulation, even the best active substance is worth nothing.
Most pesticidal active ingredients are not water soluble or water dispersible, yet the most common mode of delivery is via spray applications of aqueous dilutions. It is necessary to create a formulation of the active ingredient in a way that makes it easily dispersible in water and able to maintain stability over the application time period. Changing what goes into this formulation alongside the active ingredient is crucial in how effectively that material is delivered to where it needs to be.
Demonstration of an EC formulation.
Two of the most common types of agricultural formulations that tackle this issue are emulsifiable concentrates (ECs) and suspension concentrates (SCs). EC formulations are suited to active ingredients that are oil soluble and have low melting points. As they are purely a solubilised active ingredient in an oil or solvent with the presence of emulsifiers, they are simple to manufacture and relatively easy to stabilise. The presence of an oil also enhances the biological activity of the application, making them more efficacious in the field.
SC formulation, with an indication of what occurs upon dilution into the spray tank prior to application.
SC formulations, on the other hand, are suitable for insoluble active ingredients and those with higher melting points. Crucially, as water is the continuous phase, they are also typically safer and more convenient in use for the operator; there is an absence of dust, flammable liquids, and volatile organic compounds.
Built into each of these formulations alongside the active ingredient are formulation additives. Formulation additives, referred to as inert ingredients, are critical to provide the long-term stability to agrochemical products and their ability to mix effectively in the spray tank, making them suitable for [field spray] applications.
While the formulation type targeted is often dictated by the chemical characteristics of the active ingredient, the formulator has the ability to change every element of the spray quality characteristics and agrochemical delivery through selection of formulation additives. Changing both the formulation type and the additives within will habitually have a dramatic effect on the field efficacy of that application and subsequent yield and quality of the crop. Selecting the correct formulation additives is essential in creating a successful formulation, arguably making them as significant as the active ingredient itself.
How formulators learn to map the complex effects within formulations for improved crop protection is just one facet of today’s agriculture challenge.
Interested in learning more about how the formulation of agrochemicals plays its part in feeding the world? Visit: www.crodacropcare.com
To some, the almond is a villain. This admittedly tasty nut takes an extraordinary amount of water to grow (1.1 gallons per nut) and some in California say almond cultivation has contributed to drought.
And so it is no surprise to see the almond lined up in the rogue’s gallery of the thirstiest foods. In a study in the journal Nature Food, University of Michigan (U-M) and Tulane University researchers assessed how the food we eat affects water scarcity.
Meat consumption was found to be the biggest culprit in the US, with the hooves and feet of livestock accounting for 31% of the water scarcity footprint. Within the meat category, beef is the thirstiest, with almost six times more water consumption than chicken.
Almond crops in California have come under heavy criticism due to their heavy water consumption
However, the picture is a little more nuanced. Lead author Martin Heller, of U-M's School for Environment and Sustainability, explains: “Beef is the largest dietary contributor to the water scarcity footprint, as it is for the carbon footprint. But the dominance of animal-based food is diminished somewhat in the water scarcity footprint, in part because the production of feed grains for animals is distributed throughout less water-scarce regions, whereas the production of vegetables, fruits and nuts is concentrated in water-scarce regions of the United States, namely the West Coast states and the arid Southwest.”
Certain types of diets drain the water supply. People who eat large quantities of beef, nuts such as the infamous almond, walnut, and cashew, and a high proportion of water-intense fruits and vegetables including lemon, avocado, asparagus, broccoli, and cauliflower take a heavy toll on the water footprint.
The Brussels sprout is not just for Christmas… it is a less water intense option for your dinner table.
“The water-use impacts of food production should be a key consideration of sustainable diets,” adds study co-author Diego Rose of Tulane University. “There is a lot of variation in the way people eat, so having a picture with this sort of granularity – at the individual level – enables a more nuanced understanding of potential policies and educational campaigns to promote sustainable diets.”
So, what do you do the next time you feel a pang of water guilt? According to the researchers, you could swear off asparagus and that crushed avocado on your toast and replace them with less water intense foods such as fresh peas, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, and kale (but maybe not on your toast). Those beef steaks and hamburgers could make way for other protein sources, such as chicken, pork, and soybeans, and you could graze on peanuts and seeds instead of those honey roasted almonds you love so dearly. Just think of all those gallons of water you’ll save.
For more on this study, visit: https://www.nature.com/articles/s43016-021-00256-2
Today we chat to Joe Oddy about his life as a Plant Sciences PhD Student at Rothamsted Research.
Give us a summary of your research, Joe!
I study how levels of the amino acid asparagine in wheat are controlled by genetics and the environment. Asparagine levels in wheat grain determine the levels of acrylamide, a probable carcinogen, in certain foods. We are hoping to better understand the biology of asparagine to mitigate this risk.
What does a day in the life of a Plant Sciences PhD Student look like?
My schedule is quite variable depending on what analysis I am doing. I could have whole days in the lab doing molecular work or whole days at the computer analysing and writing up data. Most of the time it is probably somewhere in between!
I think I had a good grounding in basic principles from my undergraduate degree, but the training they gave in R stands out as being particularly useful. In my degree program I also worked for a year in research, which really helped prepare me for this kind of project work.
What are some of the highlights so far?
Being able to go outside to check plants in the field or in the glasshouse makes a nice break if you have been doing computer work all day! Finishing up some analysis after a lot of data collection is also quite cathartic, as long as it works…
What is one of the biggest challenges faced in a PhD?
In my project so far, the biggest challenge has just been trying to decide what research questions to focus on since there are so many interesting options available. I realise I am probably quite fortunate to have this be my biggest challenge!
What advice would you give to someone considering a PhD?
My undergraduate university actually gave me this advice. They said that the most important part of choosing a project was not the university or the project itself, but the supervisor. I think this is true in a lot of cases, and at least for me.
I wasn’t able to go into the labs for a while but thankfully my plants in the field and glasshouse were maintained. By the time they finished growing the lockdown had been partially eased. At last, a long growing season has helped rather than hindered a PhD project.
What are you hoping to do after your research?
I’d like to go into research either in academia or industry, but beyond that I’m not sure. The landscape is always changing and I would probably be open to anything that seems interesting!
Joe Oddy is a PhD Student at Rothamsted Research and a member of SCI’s Agri-Food Early Career Committee and SCI’s Agriscences Committee.
Fertile soils teem with life of all shapes and sizes, from badgers and moles to insects and the most minute microbes, forming an intricate web of life. Each plays its part – earthworms, for example, burrow through soils opening out channels that improve aeration and water percolation. They are, in Charles Darwin’s words, ‘nature’s ploughs’.
Microbes are quite probably the largest biomass, certainly numerically. The great majority form beneficial relationships with plants, relatively few are pathogens capable of causing crop diseases. Some of the most beneficial are nitrogen-fixing bacteria, which form symbiotic associations with the roots of legumes (clovers, peas and beans).
Their nitrogenase enzymes are capable of combining atmospheric nitrogen with hydrogen-forming ammonia. Followed by conversion into nitrites and nitrates which are made available for the host plant in exchange for carbohydrates, sources of energy for the microbes. The presence of these bacteria is indicated by white nodules on the roots of legumes.
The white nodules on the roots of legumes indicate the presence of nitrogen-fixing bacteria, which provide nourishment to microbes in the soil.
The fungi mycorrhizae also form associations with plant roots. These may form sheaths wrapping round the root, ecto-mycorhizea, or penetrate into the root cortex as endo-mycorrhizea, working in close association with host cells. Mycorrhizae solubilise soil deposits of phosphates and other minerals, making them available for the host. They also provide protection from root-invading plant pathogens.
These fungi utilise carbohydrates supplied by their hosts as energy sources in a similar manner to nitrogen fixing bacteria. Mutualistic mycorrhizal associations are found across most higher plant families with the key exception of the brassicas. This exception quite probably relates to production of the iso-thiocyanate mustard oil, which is fungi-toxic, in brassica roots.
Farmyard manure and compost stimulate soil health by introducing beneficial microbes.
Benefits from nitrogen-fixing bacteria and mycorrhizal fungi were recognised by 19th century agronomists. Much more recently, science has begun uncovering the biological capital of myriad microbes present in healthy soils. Research is being stimulated by recognition of the need for sustainable forms of crop husbandry that utilise ecologically sound techniques in integrated management.
Soil health can be stimulated by incorporation of farmyard manure or well composted green wastes, both containing huge populations of beneficial microbes. The critical importance of building and maintaining healthy soils cannot be over-emphasised. Quite simply, our food supplies depend upon it.Interested in soil health? Why not register for free to attend the 2020 Bright SCIdea Challenge final? One of the teams in this year’s final are pitching their method to restore the fertility of heavy metal ion rich farmland and increase crop yields.
The conference ‘Feeding the future: can we protect crops sustainably?’ was a tremendous success from the point of view of the technical content. The outcomes have been summarised in a series of articles here. How did such an event come about and what can we learn about putting on an event like this in a world of Covid?
This event was born from two parents. The first was a vision and the second was collaboration.
The vision began in the SCI Agrisciences committee. We had organised a series of events in the previous few years, all linking to the general theme of challenges to overcome in food sustainability. Our events had dealt with the use of data, the challenge of climate change and the future of livestock production. Our intention was to build on this legacy using the International Year of Plant Health as inspiration and provide a comprehensive event, at the SCI headquarters in London, covering every element of crop protection and what it will look like in the future. We wanted to make a networking hub, a place to share ideas and make connections, where new lines of research and development would be sparked into life. Well, then came Covid…
2020 is the International Year of Plant Health.
From the start, we knew in the Agrisciences group that this was going to be too much for us alone. Our first collaboration was within the SCI, the Horticulture Group and the Food Group. Outside of the SCI, we wanted collaborators who are research-active, with wide capabilities and people who really care about the future of crop protection. Having discussed a few options, we approached the Institute of Agriculture and Food Research and Innovation, IAFRI and later Crop Health and Protection, CHAP.
By February 2020, we had our full team of organisers and about half of our agenda all arranged. By March we didn’t know what to do, delay or virtualise? The debate went back and forth for several weeks as we all got to grips with the true meaning of lockdown. When we chose to virtualise, suddenly we had to relearn all we knew about organising events. Both CHAP and SCI started running other events and building up their experience. With this experience came sound advice on what makes a good event: Don’t let it drag; Keep everything snappy; Make sure that your speakers are the very best; Firm and direct chairing. We created a whole new agenda, based around these ideas.
How do you replicate those chance meetings facilitated by face-to-face events?
That still left one problem: how do you reproduce those extra bits that you get in a real conference? Those times in the coffee queue when you happen across your future collaborator? Maybe your future business partner is looking at the same poster as you are? It is a bit like luck, but facilitated.
We resolved this conundrum with four informal parallel sessions. So we still had student posters but in the form of micro-presentations. We engineered discussions between students and senior members of our industry. We tried to recreate a commercial exhibition where you watched as top companies showed off their latest inventions. For those who would love to go on a field trip, we offered virtual guided tours of some of the research facilities operated by CHAP.
Can virtual conferences take the place of real ones? They are clearly not the same, as nothing beats looking directly into someone’s eyes. But on the plus side, they are cheaper to put on and present a lower barrier for delegates to get involved. I am looking forward to a post-Covid world when we can all meet again, but in the meantime we can put on engaging and exciting events that deliver a lot of learning and opportunity in a virtual space.Feeding the Future was organised by:
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.
The IHNV virus has spread worldwide and is fatal to salmon and rainbow trout – costing millions in sales of lost farmed fish. The current vaccination approach requires needle injection of fish, one by one. Now, however, Seattle-based Lumen Bioscience has come up with a new technology to make recombinant vaccines in a type of blue-green algae called Spirulina that costs pennies to produce and can be fed to fish in their feed.
To be effective, oral vaccines have not only to survive the gut environment intact but must also target the appropriate gut-associated immune cells. The approach developed by Lumen overcomes many of the problems with complex and expensive encapsulation strategies attempted in the past, according to CEO Brian Finrow.
‘[It] focuses on a new oral-vaccine platform [using] engineered Spirulina to express high amounts of target antigen in a form that is both provocative to the immune system – ie generates a desirable immune response that protects against future infection – and can be ingested orally without purification, in an organism that has been used as a safe food source for both humans and fish for decades.’
To produce the new oral vaccine, the Lumen researchers first developed a strain of Spirulina that manufactures recombinant proteins in its cell walls that the salmon immune system recognises as IHNV viruses. They then rapidly grew the strain in a large-scale indoor production system – requiring only light, water, salt and trace nutrients – and harvested and dried all the raw Spirulina biomass. This dried powder can then be fed to the fish.
On Friday 11 May 2018, 20 delegates, ranging from Master’s students to post-docs, gathered at the SCI headquarters in London for a careers day in Agri-Food.
This was the first event organised by the newly formed SCI Agri-Food Early Careers Forum, and had six speakers presenting the perspectives of varying careers – Prof Lin Field (Rothamsted Research), Rhianna Jones (Institute of Food Technologists), Prof Tim Benton (University of Leeds), Dr Rebecca Nesbit (Nobel Media), Dr Bertrand Emond (Campden BRI), and Dr Craig Duckam (CD R&D Consultancy Service).
Delegates were treated to a variety of talks, ranging from advice on working within research to stepping outside of the research box into science communication or private consultancy. Over the course of the day, three common skills were covered by all leaders when discussing how they achieved success in their careers.
The first of these was networking. Every talk covered aspects of this, from going to conferences and events to being a good communicator. Building connections can be the key to getting job offers, learning about new opportunities, and even knowing where best to take your career.
Professor Tim Benton Image: Cassie Sims
Prof Tim Benton spoke about the importance of working in teams, and of showing respect to other professionals, especially if they work in a different area. Dr Rebecca Nesbitt spoke about careers communicating science, specifically the broad range of media that can be used, and how to get involved. Rhianna Jones spoke about taking opportunities to be mentored, particularly from societies and professional organisations, such as SCI and the Institute of Food Technologists.
Lin Field, Rothamsted Research
The second skill that was covered in depth was adaptability. Initially, Prof Lin Field spoke about this in a practical context – building a set of laboratory and general scientific skills that can be carried across disciplines.
However, each speaker had a different perspective. For example, Dr Craig Duckham spoke of learning new skills when setting up a private consultancy, such as accounting, business, and even web design and marketing. Prof Tim Benton summarised it well, stating we need to ‘look at the big picture’, and think strategically about where our skills can be used to better the world. He stated that we “need to be willing to re-invent ourselves”. Everyone agreed that we can achieve this by diversifying our portfolio of skills and taking as many opportunities as possible.
Lead, don’t follow
Each speaker spoke about being a leader, not a follower. This is a phrase that is used often in reference to achieving success, but is so important in every aspect of career development. Whether it is applying for a fellowship, or stepping out to start your own business, leadership skills will carry you through your career. A leader was described as someone who makes decisions, carves out a niche rather than following trends, and who sets an example that others follow naturally.
Overall, the speakers challenged delegates to consider what their idea of success is, and what skills they need to get there. The day was enjoyed by all delegates, and the advice given will help guide them throughout their future careers. The event could be summarised by this quote from Einstein, given by Prof. Benton on the day:
Try not to become a [person] of success, but rather try to become a [person] of value.
The event is planned to run for a second year in Spring 2019.
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.