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.
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.
At the SCI HQ in Belgrave Square, London, we have curated a beautiful garden filled with plants that represent our technical and regional interest groups. Each of these plants has a scientific significance. On World Wildlife Day, we take a look at how some of our plants are doing in March.
Cyclamen hederifolium - the ivy-leaved cyclamen. Image: SCI
Cyclamen hederifolium is included in the SCIence garden to represent the horticulture group. This beautiful pink flower has a mutualistic relationship with ants, in which the ants carry the seeds far away, ensuring no competition between young plants and the original.
Dichroa febrifuga - a hydrangea with anti-malarial properties. Image: SCI
Not yet flowering, D. febrifuga is a traditional Chinese herbal medicine that is used for treatment of malaria. It contains the alkaloids febrifugine and isofebrifugine which are thought to be responsible for it’s anti-malaria properties.
Fatsia japonica - the paper plant. Image: SCI
F. japonica is also known as the glossy-leaved paper plant and is native to Japan, southern Korea and Taiwan. This plant represents our materials group.
Rosmarinus officinalis aka rosemary - a herb with many uses from culinary to chemical. Image: SCI
Rosemary is a common herb that originates in the Mediterranean. It has many uses, including as a herb for cooking and fragrance. One of it’s more scientific uses is as a supply of lucrative useful phytochemicals such as camphor and rosemarinic acid.
Prunus mume ‘Beni-chidori’ - a Chinese ornamental flower. Image: SCI
The Prunus mume tree is a beautiful ornamental tree that has significance in East Asian culture. It has a wide variety of applications, from medicinal to beverages, and can been seen in many pieces of art. This plant is in the SCIence garden to represent our Chinese Group UK.
Pieris japonica - the Dwarf-Lilly-of-the-Valley-Shrub. Image: SCI
The Pieris japonica ree has Asian origins, and represents our Agrisciences group. The leaves contain diterpenoids which inhibit the activity of feeding pests, such as insects.
Pulmonaria ‘Blue Ensign’ - lungwort. Image: SCI
The lungwort has been used since the Middle Ages as a medicinal herb to treat chest or lung diseases. It is an example of the use of the doctrine of signatures - where doctors believed that if a plant resembled a body, it could be used to treat illness in that body part.
Euphorbia amygdaloides - the wood spruce. Image:SCI
Euphorbia amygdaloides is planted to represent our Materials Chemistry group. It has a waxy feel, and has potential to be used as an alternative to latex.
Erysimum ‘Bowles Mauve’ - a flowering plant in the cabbage family. Image: SCI
The Erysimum ‘Bowles Mauve’ is a member of the cabbage family (Brassicaceae). This plant was used to make the first synthetic dye, Mauvine, when SCI founding member William Perkin discovered in in 1858.
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!
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.
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.
Cassie Sims is a PhD researcher at Rothamsted Research in Harpenden, UK. Photo: Rothamsted
Rothamsted Research is the oldest agricultural research station in the world – we even have a Guinness World Record for the longest running continuous experiment! Established in 1843, next year we celebrate our 175th anniversary, and as a Chemistry PhD student at the institute today, I can’t wait to celebrate.
Wheat samples from the record-breaking Broadbalk experiment. Photo: Cassie Sims
Rothamsted is known for many amazing scientific accomplishments, and it has a rich history, which I have explored through many of the exhibitions put on by the institute for the staff every month or so.
One of the old labs set up for the exhibitions we hold at Rothamsted. Photo: Cassie Sims
Working in what was the Biological Chemistry department, I am following in the footsteps of Chemists such as Michael Elliott, who developed a group of insecticides known as pyrethroids. These are one of the most prolific insecticides used in the world, still widely used today and researched here at Rothamsted – in particular, the now-prevalent insecticidal resistance to them.
I was privileged to view an exhibit of Michael Elliott’s medals late last year at Rothamsted – one of the opportunities we are given as staff here. Recently, I was also able to view a collection of calculators and computers from the earliest mechanical ones, to Sir Ronald Fisher’s very own ‘Millionaire’ Calculator, which could multiply, add and subtract entirely mechanically.
Sir Ronald Fisher’s ‘Millionaire’ Calculator. Photo: Cassie Sims
In more recent times, Rothamsted has had an update (a little more than a lick of paint) with newer buildings, labs and equipment constantly being added. My office and lab are situated in the architecturally interesting Centenary building, which was built only 10 years ago. Some of the research has had an update too – plant science research is a bit more focused on molecular biology these days, and our chemistry has been significantly advanced over the last century by advances in analytical equipment.
A few years ago, Rothamsted was briefly the centre of media attention due to a ‘controversial’ GM field trial testing wheat made to emit (E)-β-farnesene, the aphid alarm pheromone, and whether the plants could repel aphids.
…they couldn’t, but this was one of the first type of GM trials of its type, and it was an interesting study that combined many disciplines of science, from molecular biology and plant science, to entomology and chemical ecology.
Rothamsted is not just about science, either – we have a few longstanding social traditions such as Hallowe’en parties and Harvest Festival, not forgetting of course my favourite; our summer Sports Day, which provides much entertainment in the form of serious research scientists participating in sack races to win some outstandingly tacky trophies. We also have an onsite bar (if that is what you could call it), which is a little more like a converted cricket club, and serves as a venue for most events, and has been the location of many of my great memories.
If I had to describe being a student at Rothamsted in one word, it would be weird! There is a lot of fun to be had, but we are also surrounded by an incredible history that we cannot forget as we forge a new path in our fields (literally and scientifically!).
I hope one day that I can leave some kind of mark here – but even if not, I will be happy to have been part of such a prestigious institute and to have worked alongside such great scientific minds.
What are the sustainability challenges being tackled by researchers at Rothamsted? Sir John Beddington, Chair of the Rothamsted Research Board gave this talk at SCI in London in September – part of our ongoing programme of free-to-attend public evening lectures.