How much soil cultivation do you need for your vegetables? Professor Geoff Dixon explains all.
Cultivating soil is as old as horticulture itself. Basically, three processes have evolved over time. Primary cultivation involves inversion which buries weeds, adds organic matter and breaks up the soil profile, encouraging aeration and avoiding waterlogging.
Secondary cultivation prepares a fine tilth as a bed for sowing small seeded crops such as carrots or beetroot. In the growing season, tertiary cultivation maintains weed control, preventing competition for resources (illustration no. 1) such as light, nutrients and water while discouraging pest and disease damage.
Lettuce and seed competition
The onset of rapid climate change encouraged by industrialisation has focused attention on preventing the release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Ploughing disturbs the soil profile and accelerates the loss of carbon dioxide from soil.
It is also an energy intensive process. Consequently, many broad acre agricultural crops such as cereals, oilseed rape and sugar beet are now drilled directly without previous primary cultivation. An added advantage is that stubble from previous crops remains in situ over winter, offering food sources for birds. The disadvantages of direct drilling are: increased likelihood of soil waterlogging and reduced opportunities for building organic fertility by adding farmyard manure or well-made composts.
Overall, primary and secondary cultivation benefit vegetable growing. The areas of land involved are far smaller and the crops are grown very intensively. Vegetables require high fertility, weed-free soil, good drainage and minimal accumulation of soil-borne pests and diseases.
Frost action breaking down soil clods
Digging increases each of these benefits and provides healthy physical exercise and mental stimulation. Frost action on well-dug soil breaks down the clods (illustration no. 2). Ultimately, fine seed beds are produced by secondary cultivation (illustration no. 3), which encourage rapid germination and even growth of root and salad crops.
Tertiary cultivation to prevent weed competition is also of paramount importance for vegetable crops. Competition in their early growth stages weakens the quality of root and leafy vegetables, destroying much of their dietary value. Regular hoeing and hand removal of weeds are necessities in the vegetable garden.
Raking down soil producing a fine tilth
Ornamental and fruit gardens similarly benefit from tertiary cultivation. Weeds not only provide competition but are also unsightly, destroying the visual image and psychological satisfaction of these areas.
Lightly forking over these areas in spring and autumn encourages water percolation and root aeration. Once established, ornamental herbaceous perennials and soft and top fruit areas benefit greatly from the addition of organic top dressings. Over several seasons these will augment fertility and nutrient availability.
Written by Professor Geoff Dixon, author of Garden practices and their science, published by Routledge 2019.
A sprig of thyme to fight that cold… Turmeric tea after exercising… An infusion of chamomile to ease the mind… As we move with fresh resolution through January, Dr Vivien Rolfe, of Pukka Herbs, explains how a few readily available herbs could boost your health and wellbeing.
The New Year is a time when many of us become more health conscious. Our bodies have been through so much over the last few years with Covid, and some of us may need help to combat the January blues. So, can herbs and spices give us added support and help us get the new year off to a flying start?
The oils in chamomile have nerve calming effects.
We may wish to ease ourselves into the year and look for herbs to help us relax. The flowers from these herbs contain aromatic essential oils such as linalool from lavender (Lavandula) and chamazulene from German chamomile (Matricaria recutita) that soothe us when we inhale them (López et al 2017). Chamomile also contains flavonoids that are helpful when ingested (McKay & Blumberg 2006).
If you have a spot to grow chamomile in your garden, you can collect and dry the flowers for winter use. Lavender is also a staple in every garden and the flowers can be dried and stored. Fresh or dry, these herbs can be steeped in hot water to make an infusion or tea and enjoyed. As López suggests, the oils exert nerve calming effects. Maybe combine a tea with some breathing exercises to relax yourselves before bed or during stressful moments in the day.
Thyme is a handy herbal remedy. Generally, the term herb refers to the stem, leaf and flower parts, and spice refers to roots and seeds.
>> The plant burgers are coming. Read here about the massive growth of meat alternatives.
Many people may experience seasonal colds throughout the winter months and there are different herbal approaches to fighting infection. Andrographis paniculata is used in Indian and traditional Chinese medicine and contains bitter-tasting andrographolides, and in a systematic review of products, the herb was shown to relieve cough and sore throats symptoms in upper respiratory tract infection (Hu et al 2017).
Gargling with herbal teas is another way to relieve a sore throat, and the benefits of green tea (Camellia sinensis) have been explored (Ide et al 2016). I’m an advocate of garden thyme (Thymus vulgaris) which contains the essential oil thymol and is used traditionally to loosen mucus alongside its other cold-fighting properties.
You could experiment by combining thyme with honey to make a winter brew. I usually take a herbal preparation at the sign of the very first sneeze that hopefully then stops the infection progressing.
Shatavari (pictured) is said to improve strength, and ashwagandha can help recovery.
We may start the new year with more of a spring in our step and wishing to get a little fitter. As we get older, we may lose muscle tissue which weakens our bones and reduces our exercise capability. Human studies have found that daily supplementation with shatavari (Asparagus racemosus) can improve strength in older women, and ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) can enhance muscle strength and recovery in younger males (O’Leary et al 2021; Wankhede et al 2015).
These herbs are known as adaptogens and traditionally they are used in tonics or to support fertility. The research to fully understand their adaptogenic activity or effects on muscle function is at an early stage. Other herbs such as turmeric may help muscle recovery after exercise. I brew a turmeric tea and put it in my water bottle when I go to the gym.
>> How is climate change affecting your garden? Find out here.
Lemon balm is easy to grow but might want to take over your garden.
Depending on your resolutions, you could use herbs and spices to add lovely flavours to food to try and reduce your sugar and salt intake. Liquorice is a natural sweetener, and black pepper and other herbs and spices can replace salt.
You could also bring joy to January by growing herbs from seed on a windowsill or in a garden or community space. Mint, lemon balm, lavender, thyme, and sage are all easy to grow, although mint and balm may take over!
All make lovely teas or can be dried and stored for use, and research is also showing that connecting with nature – even plants in our homes – is good for us.
You can read more about medicinal and culinary properties of herbs at https://www.jekkas.com/.
If you wish to learn more about the practice of herbal medicine and the supporting science, go to https://www.herbalreality.com/.
>> Dr Viv Rolfe is head of herbal research at Pukka Herbs Ltd. You can find out more about Pukka’s research at https://www.pukkaherbs.com/us/en/wellbeing-articles/introducing-pukkas-herbal-research.html, and you can follow her and Pukka on Twitter @vivienrolfe, @PukkaHerbs.
Edited by Eoin Redahan. You can find more of his work here.
Greenhouse gas emissions statistics can be misleading. At a recent SCI webinar on the Future of Agriculture, the Agrisciences Committee put its finger on some glaring gaps in the figures.
If all of the cows in the world came together to form a country, that nation state would be the second highest emitter of greenhouse gas emissions in the world.
McKinsey Sustainability’s statistic was certainly startling. However, Agrisciences Group Chair Jeraime Griffith mentioned other equally striking figures in his wrapup of the social media discussion generated at COP26.
In his talk as part of the Agrisciences Committee’s COP26 – What does it mean for the future of agriculture? webinar on 7 December, Griffith also noted that:
On the face of it, these figures are sobering; yet, like many agriculture-related figures, they don’t tell the full story.
Insane in the methane
Kathryn Knight felt that agriculture received negative press at COP26 in relation to greenhouse gas emissions. ‘It doesn't seem to take into account carbon sequestration (capturing and storing atmospheric carbon dioxide),’ said the Research & Technology Manager of Crop Care at Croda. ‘Why isn’t that being brought into the equation when we’re talking about carbon and agriculture?’
Martin Collison expanded on this point. He emphasised the need to separate carbon emissions by system – such as extensively grazed livestock animals and those fed on grain – and to account for systems that sequester carbon in the soil. The co-founder of agricultural consultancy Collison & Associates also pointed out the problem with bundling all our greenhouse gases as one.
Greenhouse gas emissions are sometimes unhelpfully bundled together, instead of being separated by gas and agricultural system.
‘We count methane in the same way we emit carbon,’ he said. ‘When we emit carbon, it’s in the atmosphere for 1,000 years, but with methane it’s 12 years. The methane cycle is a lot, lot shorter.’
And the difficulties with the statistics don’t end there. For example, countries often announce impressive emission reductions without taking trade into account. This, of course, gives the figures a greener gloss.
‘To me, there's a need to be more up front with a lot of the data because agriculture and food are traded around the world,’ he added. ‘A lot of the emissions data ignore what we trade.
‘In the UK, we make big claims about how fast we’ve progressed with carbon emissions, but if you look at what we consume, the progress is much much slower. The things we produce less of, we import.’
>> SCI was at COP26 too! Read about the role of chemistry in creating a greener future.
Full of hot air?
Emissions trading also serves to blur the picture. For Jeraime Griffith it is an unsatisfactory solution. ‘In terms of carbon trading, we have cases where the higher emitters continue producing in the way they’ve always been producing,’ he said.
‘It doesn't bring in any restrictions on the amount of carbon they emit; it just shifts the problem somewhere else. I don't know how carbon trading benefits us getting to Net Zero. It just seems to be kicking the ball farther down the road.’
Is emissions trading part of the solution or part of the problem?
So, when you take into account 1. emissions trading, 2. the absence of food imports in data sets, 3. the bundling together of different greenhouse gases in emissions figures, and 4. the failure to take carbon sequestration into account, it’s clear that many of the statistics we receive are incomplete.
‘There’s lots of complexity behind the numbers and we tend to lump all of it together,’ Collison said. ‘There’s a need to go much much further.’
>> SCI’s Agrisciences Group is a unique multidisciplinary network covering the production, protection and utilisation of crops for food and non-food products. It has 250 members including academic and industry leaders, researchers, consultants, students, and retired members. If you’re interested in joining the group, go to: www.soci.org/interest-groups/agrisciences
Gardens in December should, provided the weather allows, be hives of activity and interest. Many trees and shrubs, especially Roseaceous types, offer food supplies especially for migrating birds.
Cotoneaster (see image below) provides copious fruit for migrating redwings and waxwings as well as resident blackbirds. This is a widely spread genus, coming from Asia, Europe and northern Africa.
Cultivated as a hedge, it forms thick, dense, semi-evergreen growth that soaks up air pollution. In late spring, its white flowers are nectar plants for brimstone and red admiral butterflies and larval food for moths. Children and pets, however, should be guided away from the attractive red berries.
Cotonester franchetti | Image credit: Professor Geoff Dixon.
Medlars (Mespilus germanica) offer the last fruit harvest of the season (see image below). These small trees produce hard, round, brownish fruit that require frosting to encourage softening (bletting).
Its soft fruit can be scooped out and eaten raw and the taste is not dissimilar to dates. Alternatively, medlar fruit can be baked or roasted and, when turned into jams and jellies, they are delicious, especially spread on warm scones.
Like most rosaceous fruit, medlars are nutritionally very rich in amino acids, tannins, carotene, vitamins C and B and several beneficial minerals. As rich sources of antioxidants medlars also help reduce the risks of atherosclerosis and diabetes.
Medlar fruit (Mespilus germanica) can be turned into jams and jellies | Image credit: Professor Geoff Dixon.
Garden work continues through December. It is a time for removing dead leaves and stems from herbaceous perennials, lightly forking through the top soil and adding granular fertilisers with high potassium and phosphate content.
Top fruit trees gain from winter pruning, which opens out their structure, allowing air circulation when fully laden with leaves, flowers and fruit. Fertiliser will feed and encourage fresh root formation as spring progresses.
The vegetable garden is best served by digging and incorporating farm yard manure or well-rotted compost, which adds fertility and encourages worm populations. The process of digging is also a highly beneficial exercise for the gardener (see illustration no 3).
Turning the soil isn’t only good for your garden - it boosts your wellbeing | Image credit: Professor Geoff Dixon.
Developing a rhythm with this task supports healthy blood circulation and, psychologically, provides huge mental satisfaction in seeing a weedy plot transformed into rows of well-turned bare earth.
When the weather turns wet, windy and wintery it provides opportunities for cleaning, oiling and sharpening tools, inspecting stored fruit and the roots of dahlias kept in frost-proof conditions.
Finally, there is always the very relaxing and pleasant task of reading through seed and plant catalogues and planning what may be grown in the coming seasons.
Written by Professor Geoff Dixon, author of Garden practices and their science, published by Routledge 2019.
How has climate change changed the way our gardens grow and what can be done to alleviate its effects? Professor Geoff Dixon tells us more.
Climate has changed on Earth ever since it solidified and organic life first emerged. Indeed, the first photosynthesising microbes changed the atmosphere from carbon dioxide rich to oxygen rich over millions of years. What we now face is very rapid changes brought about by a single organism, mankind, through industrialisation.
The effects of change are very evident in gardens. Over a generation, leaf bud breaking and flowering by early spring bulbs, herbaceous plants, shrubs and trees has advanced by at least four weeks (see main image of Cyclamen hederifolium).
Latter spring displays have advanced by at least two weeks. This is caused by milder, wetter winter weather, encouraging growth. The danger lies in the increasing frequency of short sharp spells of severe frost and snow. These kill off precocious flowers and leaves which trees especially cannot replace.
Desiccated, cracked soil.
Increasingly, the summer climate is becoming hotter and drier. Since the Millennium there has been a succession of hot droughts. These seriously limit scope for growing vegetables, fruit and ornamentals unless irrigation is regularly available. Drought also damages soil structure especially where there is a high clay content by causing cracking and the loss of plant cover (see image of desiccated, cracked soil above).
Cracking disrupts and destroys the root systems of trees and shrubs in particular. The effects of root damage may not become evident until these plants die in the following years.
Climate change is apparently advantageous for microbes. Detailed surveys show that fungal life cycles are speeding up, increasing the opportunities for diseases to cause damage. Even normally quite resilient crops such as quince are being invaded during milder, damper autumns (See image of brown rot on quince fruit below). Throughout gardens, the range and aggressiveness of pests and disease is increasing.
Brown rot (Monilia laxa) on quince fruit.
However, each individual garden or allotment, no matter its size, can contribute to reducing the rate of climate change. Simple actions include the removal of hard landscaping, and planting trees and shrubs reduces carbon emissions.
Using electric-powered tools and machinery in place of petrol or diesel has similar advantages. Tumbling down parts of a garden into native flora, and perhaps encouraging rarer plants such as wild orchids or fritillarias, mitigates climate change. Such areas may also form habitats for hedgehogs or slow worms, increase populations of bees, butterflies and moths and encourage bird life.
Written by Professor Geoff Dixon, author of Garden practices and their science, published by Routledge 2019.
All images from Professor Geoff Dixon.
Lilies provide gloriously beautiful and well scented flowering border plants. Choose flowering size bulbs in the garden centre or from a catalogue. Grow these through the winter potted in a general garden compost placed in an unheated greenhouse or cold frame. By March or early-April, substantial green shoots will have formed from the bulbs and they can be transplanted into the garden.
Lilies need a sunny border and very fertile soil to encourage vigorous root growth capable of supporting the flowering spike and ancillary bulbs as they are initiated. This produces magnificent flowers and an increasing colony of bulbs that will spread and become established over future seasons.
Lilium longiflorum, often called the Easter lily | Image credit: Professor Geoff Dixon.
Regular watering and feeding with nutrients are needed, especially potassium, which encourages root and shoot growth. Stake the flower spike as it grows, giving support for the flowers because they are heavy when fully open and easily damaged by winds.
Rewards come in mid-summer with magnificent colourful flowers and wonderful perfumes on warm evenings. Apart from severe winters, lilies are hardy garden plants unless they are from groups specified as tender and requiring protection. In the autumn, simply cut down the flowering spike and remove any fallen foliage.
Buds developed on lily scales after culturing | Image credit: Professor Geoff Dixon.
The Lilium genus has about 100 species originating worldwide mainly from north temperate areas of Europe, Asia and America. The colour range includes white, yellow, orange, pink, red and purple. Plant breeders in The Netherlands, Japan and North America have produced a huge range of multi-coloured hybrids.
Taxonomically, Lilium is divided into divisions, of which the Turk’s Caps, Martagons and American hybrids are popular. The most destructive pest is the scarlet lily beetle (Lilioceris lilii) which devours foliage, flowers and bulbs. The first signs of trouble are shot holes in the foliage. Picking off beetles and larvae is an effective means of dealing with low-level infestations.
Comparison of lily bulbils growing from scale leaves, immature bulb and flowering size bulb | Image credit: Professor Geoff Dixon.
Asexual propagation is a simple and enjoyable occupation. Divide a good-sized bulb into its scales. Choose healthy scales from the outer rings and place these in a plastic box containing damp kitchen paper and place in an airing cupboard. After about 10-12 weeks, small bulbils will have formed on each scale.
Select the boldest mother scales and bulbils and plant in a tray of seedling compost and grow in the greenhouse. After two or three months the most vigorous young plants can be potted individually. Eventually these are planted in the garden and will develop into flowering size bulbs after two or three years.
If you’re a vegan, do you really want to eat a ruby-red slab of plant protein that looks like lamb? If you are a health obsessive, would you opt for an ultra-processed, plant-based product if you knew it didn’t contain many vitamins and micro-nutrients? And why, oh why, are we so obsessed with recreating the taste and appearance of the humble hamburger?
These questions and more were posed by Dr David Baines in the recent ‘No meat and two veg – the chemistry challenges facing the flavouring of vegan foods’ webinar organised by SCI’s Food Group. The flavourist, who owns his own food consultancy and is visiting Professor at the University of Reading, painted a vivid picture of our changing culinary landscape – one in which 79% of Millennials regularly eat meat alternatives.
And this shift in diet isn’t just the preserve of the young. According to Dr Baines, 54% of Americans and 39% of Chinese people have included more plant-based foods and less meat in their diets. Furthermore, 75% of Baby Boomers – those born between 1946 and 1964 – are open to trying cultivated meat.
There are many reasons for this gradual shift. The woman biting into Greggs’ famous vegan sausage roll and the woman who carefully crafts her bean burger may have different reasons for choosing meat alternatives. For some, it’s an ethical choice. For others, it’s environmental or health-related. And then there are those of us who are simply curious.
Pea protein powder is used in plant-based meat alternatives.
Either way it’s an industry that, if you’ll excuse the pun, is set to mushroom. According to Boston Consulting Group and Blue Horizon research, the global meat-free sector will be worth US$290 billion by 2035. They also claim Europe will reach peak meat consumption by 2025, and Unilever is aiming to sell US$1 billion-worth of plant-based meat and dairy alternatives by 2025-27.
In his entertaining talk, Dr Baines outlined the extrusion processes that turn wheat and pea proteins into large ropes of fibrous material and how soy isolates are spun into textured proteins using looms like those used in the cotton industry. He explained how calcium is used to imitate the chewable texture of chicken and how Impossible Foods is using the root nodules of bean plants to produce the red colour we recognise so readily in meat.
>> For more interesting SCI webinars on battery developments, medicinal chemistry and more, check out our events page.
So, how close are we to products with the appearance, taste and texture of, let’s say, beef? ‘I think that will come from cultured meat to start with,’ he said. ‘Where the protein is produced, it will still need to be flavoured, but the fibres will have formed and the texture is already present in some of those products.
‘It’s a big ask and it’s been asked for a long time. It’s going to be a long time before you put a piece of steak on one plate and a plant-based [product] on another and they will be visually, texturally and taste(-wise] identical.’
And what appetite do people even have for these plant-based facsimiles? ‘There are people who want plant proteins not to look like meat, and there are people who want them to look like meat,’ he added. ‘The driver at the moment is to make them look like meat, and the driver is to make it taste like meat too.’
Baines wondered aloud about the bizarre fixation some have with recreating and eating foods that look and taste like beef burgers. In contrast, he pointed to the examples of tofu and soy-based products that have been developed in South East Asia – distinct foods that do not serve as meat substitutes.
Plant-based proteins are undoubtedly part of our culinary future, but these products have other barriers to surmount beyond taste and texture. There is no getting around the fact that plant-based proteins are ultra-processed in a time when many are side-stepping processed foods. Baines also explained that these protein- and fibre-rich foods tend to have lower calorific content, but lack vitamins and micronutrients. ‘Will they be supplemented?’ Baines asked. ‘How much will the manufacturers of these new products start to improve the nutritional delivery of these products?’
We have now entered the age of the gluten-free, vegan sausage roll.
But it’s easy to forget that the leaps made in recent years have been extraordinary. Who would have predicted back in 1997 – when Linda McCartney was at the vanguard of the niche, plant-based meat alternative – that a vegan sausage roll would capture the imaginations of a meat-hungry nation? Who would have foreseen fast-food manufacturers falling over each other to launch plant-based burgers and invest in lab-grown meat?
As Dr Baines said: “This is a movement that is not going away.”
>> Our soils provide 97% of our food. Read more about how they are undervalued and overused here.
Main image: Pea crop | Image credit: Geoff Dixon
Peas are a very rewarding garden crop. Husbandry is very straightforward, producing nutritious yields and encouraging soil health by building nitrogen reserves for future crops.
Rotations usually sequence cabbages and other nitrogen-demanding crops after peas. This is a sustainable way to use the organic nitrogen reserves left by pea roots resulting from their mutually beneficial association with benign bacteria. These microbes capture atmospheric nitrogen, producing ammonia, nitrites and nitrates in a sequence of natural steps.
Peas originated in the Mediterranean. They were cultivated continuously by ancient civilisations and through medieval times, and are now the seventh most popular vegetable.
Illustration 1: Pea seeds | Image credit: Geoff Dixon
In bygone centuries, peas provided a protein source for the general population as cooked meals of pea soup and pease pudding helped keep famine at bay before the introduction of potatoes. In the 18th century, French gardeners working for the aristocracy produced fresh peas using raised and protected beds of fermenting animal manure. The composting processes produced heat and released carbon dioxide, stimulating rapid growth.
Generally, however, eating fresh peas only gained popularity in the 20th century as canned and then quick-frozen foods were invented, and large-scale technological development enabled mechanised and automated commercial precision cropping. In recent times, retail market demand has returned for unshelled podded peas – a manually picked crop known colloquially as ‘pulling peas’.
Seeds can be sown directly (illustration 1) or transplants (illustration 2) can be raised under protection, giving an early boost for growth and maturity. Peas are cool season crops. They grow best at 13-18°C and mature about 60 days after sowing.
Illustration 2: Pea seedlings | Image credit: Geoff Dixon
Some cultivars such as Meteor can be grown over winter, preferably protected with cloches for very early cropping. The spring sown The Sutton cultivar group (CV) gives rapid but modest returns, and main crop CVs, such as Hurst Green Shaft, deliver the heaviest returns (illustration 2). This cultivar forms several long, well-filled pods at the fruiting nodes.
Sugar peas or mange tout – where the entire immature pod is eaten – is a popular fresh crop, while quick-growing pea shoots that mature in 20 days from sowing are excellent additions for salads or as garnishes for warm cuisine.
Human health benefits significantly by including peas in the diet. As well as being an excellent protein source, they produce a range of vitamins and nutrient elements. Their coumestrol content aids the control of blood sugar levels, helping combat diabetes, heart diseases and arthritis.
So, it’s certainly worth finding a spot for this versatile vegetable in your garden.
Written by Professor Geoff Dixon, author of Garden practices and their science.
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.’
Which technologies will propel industry forward and give companies that competitive advantage? According to digital consultancy McKinsey Digital’s Tech Trends Index, several technologies will have a profound and disruptive impact on industries including the chemical sector. So, which ones will have the biggest effect on the way you work in the coming decade?
By 2025, more than 50 billion devices around the world will be connected to the Industrial Internet of Things (IIOT) and about 600,000 industrial robots a year will be in place from 2022. The combination of these, along with industrial processes such as 3D and 4D printing, will speed up processing and improve operational efficiency.
According to McKinsey, 50% of today’s work practices could be automated by 2022 as ever more intelligent robots (in physical and software form) increase production and reduce lead times. So, how does this change look in the real world?
According to the McKinsey Tech Trends Index, 10% of today’s manufacturing processes will be replaced by additive manufacturing by 2030.
According to the Tech Trends Index, one large manufacturer has used collaborative robots mounted on automatic guided vehicles to load pallets without human involvement, while an automotive manufacturer has used IIOT to connect 122 factories and 500 warehouses around the world to optimise manufacturing and logistics, consolidate real-time data, and boost machine learning throughput.
An almost incredible 368,000 patents were granted in next generation computing in 2020. Advanced computing will speed up the processing of reams of data to optimise research and cut development times for those in the chemicals and pharmaceuticals industries, accelerate the use of autonomous vehicles, and reduce the barriers to industry for many eager entrants.
‘Next-generation computing enables further democratisation of AI-driven services, radically fast development cycles, and lower barriers of entry across industries,’ the index notes. ‘It promises to disrupt parts of the value chain and reshape the skills needed (such as automated trading replacing traders and chemical simulations, reducing the need for experiments).’
According to McKinsey, AI will also be applied to molecule-level simulation to reduce the empirical expertise and testing needed. This could disrupt the materials, chemicals, and pharmaceuticals industries and lead to highly personalised products, especially in medicine.
It doesn’t take much investigation before you realise that the bio-revolution has already begun. Targeted drug delivery and smart watches that analyse your sweat are just two ways we’re seeing significant change.
The Tech Trends Index claims the confluence of biological science and the rapid development of AI and automation are giving rise to a revolution that will lead to significant change in agriculture, health, energy and other industries.
In the health industry, it seems we are entering the age of hyper-personalisation. The Index notes that: ‘New markets may emerge, such as genetics-based recommendations for nutrition, even as rapid innovation in DNA sequencing leads ever further into hyper personalised medicine.’ One example of this at work in the agri-food industry is Trace Genomics’ profiling of soil microbiomes to interpret health and disease-risk indicators in farming.
It’s no secret that we will need to develop lighter materials for transport, and others that have a lighter footprint on our planet. According to McKinsey, next generation materials will enhance the performance of products in pharma, energy, transportation, health, and manufacturing.
For example, molybdenum disulfide nanoparticles are being used in flexible electronics, and graphene is driving the development of 2D semiconductors. Computational materials science is another area of extraordinary potential. McKinsey explains: ‘More new materials are on the way as computational-materials science combines computing power and associated machine-learning methods and applies them to materials-related problems and opportunities.’
5G networks will help take autonomous vehicles from tentative - to widespread use.
So, which sorts of advanced materials are we talking about? These include nanomaterials that enable more efficient energy storage, lighter materials for the aerospace industry, and biodegradable nanoparticles as drug carriers within the human body.
These are just four of the 10 areas explored in the fascinating McKinsey Digital’s Tech Trends report. To read more about the rest, visit: https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/mckinsey-digital/our-insights/the-top-trends-in-tech
The iris family (Iridaceae) provides gardeners with a glorious array of colourful and frequently well scented flowers. Originating from both tropical and temperate regions, some such as freesias are best cultivated under protection. Others such as gladioli and crocus are reliable garden plants.
Iris, or fleur-de-lis, is one of the larger genera, offering colour and interest from the very earliest springtime through to May and June. The earliest and always most welcome is Iris unguicularis (previously Iris stylosa). Flowers (see illustration 1) emerge in the darkest days of December, encouraged by the warming effects of climate change.
Illustration 1: Iris unguicularis (syn Iris stylosa) / Image credit: Geoff Dixon
Originating from North Africa, it thrives in south facing dry borders, preferably under a wall where winter sunshine encourages proliferous flowering. Every few years, lift and divide the clump of small rhizomes after flowering has finished. Remove older growth and replant younger roots with a modest handful of compost and water well. Established clumps can be cut back, removing dead leaves during late spring.
By contrast Iris pseudacorus, the water flag, thrives in wet, boggy places or even when immersed in water. Found across Europe, it is a British native plant producing vivid yellow flowers that are rich sources of nectar. In parts of Scotland it forms large expanses of natural growth that are favoured by nesting corncrakes. It can be cultivated as part of water purification programmes since nitrogen and phosphorus are extracted by the vigorous root systems.
Illustration 2: Iris germanica / Image credit: Geoff Dixon
The prima donna is Iris germanica, the flag or bearded iris. These are stately plants, producing flower spikes up to one metre high and furnished with multicoloured flowers (illustration 2). Upright standard petals can contrast completely with the falls which bear a beard of yellow pollen bearing stamens. Fertiliser should be applied as the flower spikes appear. It should be applied again after flowering, stimulating root growth in anticipation of a colourful display in the next season.
Illustration 3: Rhizome ready for division / Image credit: Geoff Dixon
The rhizome is a large swollen ground-creeping stem from which side shoots develop with a terminal area of older tissue (illustration 3). Every four or five years, the rhizomes should be lifted and divided by removing the terminal tissue and splitting off side shoots with a sharp knife. These and the main rhizome should be replanted carefully, ensuring that they rest on the soil surface with their fibrous roots buried beneath them. Multiplication eventually provides a border filled with very colourful displays that can persist for a month since flowers frequently emerge along most of the spike.
Watching plants grow in a hydroponic contraption is an education. The plants sit in foam under UV light while their roots feed on water fortified by plant feed. There is no soil. No thirst. No room for death by lazy gardener. The results, as any hydroponic enthusiast will tell you, are startling.
So, what if we were to adopt this targeted, optimised approach to our own nutrition? What would happen if he were to ditch that delicious Sunday roast in favour of a shake that contains all the vitamins and minerals your body needs? Admittedly, it sounds terrible, but people do something similar already. Many gym obsessives take protein shakes religiously to feed their bodies’ impressive musculature, while others skip meals entirely in favour of such drinks and supplements.
An organic hydroponic vegetable cultivation farm
A recent study conducted by the Cherab Foundation, which featured in the Alternative Therapies journal, concludes that nutritional supplements may also help boost our brain function. After giving 77 people a vitamin and meal replacement product called IQed Smart Nutrition, the researchers from the non-profit organisation found that the supplement boosted brain function in a range of areas and could help people with autism, apraxia, and ADHD.
Almost 84% of participants reported deficits in speech and communication prior to taking the nutritional supplements. After taking the product, more than 85% said their expressive speech had improved while 67% of respondents reported improvements in other areas including focus, language understanding, oral motor skills, and physical and behavioural health.
Overall, 64% of participants reported positive changes within two weeks. According to the Cherab Foundation, the research aims “to guide future research into the dietary interventions and potential management of neurological conditions using natural food products, vitamin and mineral supplements”.
So, what ingredients are in the supplement-infused chocolate shake that will replace the wood-fired pizza you’re due to have next Friday evening? According to IQed, its powdered chocolate offering contains everything from brown rice, apple fibres, turmeric, and green tea, to copper gluconate, amalaki, cayenne pepper, and chia seeds.
Turmeric, cayenne pepper, and chia seeds have hopped onto the superfood bandwagon in recent years.
Some will dismiss these supplements as hocus-pocus, but the potential benefits of optimised nutrition are exciting nonetheless. If some wince-inducing elixir makes us healthier, stronger and live longer, perhaps it’s worth investigating further?
The Cherub Foundation works to improve the communication skills, education, and advocacy of children on the neurological spectrum. To read more about its study, visit: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32088673/
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
Perennial bush soft fruits are among the crown jewels of gardening. Gooseberries, red currants and blackcurrants when well established will annually reward with crops of very tasty ripe fruit which provide exceptional health benefits. These bushes will mature into quite sizeable plants so only relatively few, maybe one to five of each will be sufficient for most home gardeners or allotment owners.
Header image: Gooseberries | Image credit: Geoff Dixon
The art of successful establishment lies in initial care and planting. Buy good quality dormant plants from reputable nurseries or garden centres. Plunge the roots deeply in a bucket of water and plant as quickly as possible. These crops need rich fertile soil which is weed free and has recently been dug over with the incorporation of farmyard manure or well-rotted compost. Each bush requires ample growing space with at least a one metre distance within and between rows.
Take out a deep planting hole and soak with water. Place the new bush into the hole, spreading out the root system in all directions. Add mycorrhizal powder around and over the roots, which encourages growth promoting fungi. These colonise the roots, aiding nutrient uptake and protecting from soil borne pathogens. Carefully fold the soil back around the roots, shaking the plant. That settles soil in and around the roots and up to the collar which shows where the plant had grown in the nursery. Tread around the collar to firm the plant and add more water. Normally, planting is completed in late winter to early spring before growth commences.
Redcurrants | Image credit: Geoff Dixon
As buds open in spring, keep the plants well-watered. It is crucially important that the young bushes do not suffer drought stress, especially during the first summer. Supplement watering with occasional applications of liquid feed which contains large concentrations of potassium and phosphate plus micro nutrients. Remove all weeds and flowers in this first year. That concentrates all the products of photosynthesis into root, shoot and leaf formation for future seasons. Clean up around the plants in autumn, removing dead leaves that might harbour disease-causing pathogens.
These plants will flower and fruit from the first establishment year. Each bush will produce fruit which is a succulent and rewarding source of health-promoting vitamins and nutrients.
Blackcurrants | Image credit: Geoff Dixon
Blackcurrants are a fine source of vitamin C and have twice the antioxidant content of blueberries. Redcurrants are sources of flavonoids and vitamin B, while gooseberries are rich in dietary fibre, copper, manganese potassium and vitamins C, B5 and B6.
Blackbirds also like these fruits so netting or cages are needed! Continuing careful husbandry will yield a succession of expanding and rewarding crops.
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
Variously known as zucchini, courgette, baby marrows and summer squash, this frost tender crop is a valuable addition for gardens and allotments. Originating in warm temperate America, the true zucchini was developed by Milanese gardeners in the 19th century and popularised in the UK by travellers in Italy. It quickly matures in 45 to 50 days from planting out in open ground by early May in the south and a couple of weeks later farther north.
Alternatively, use cloches as frost protection for early crops. Earliness is also achieved by sowing seed in pots of openly draining compost by mid-April in a greenhouse or cold frame. Courgettes have large, energy-filled seeds. Consequently, germination and subsequent growth are rapid.
Sow seed singly in 10cm diameter pots and plant out when the first 2-3 leaves are expanding (illustration number 1). Alternatively, garden centres supply transplants. These should be inspected carefully, avoiding those with yellowing leaves or wilting foliage. Each plant should have white healthy-looking roots without browning.
Illustration 1: Courgette seedlings germinated in a greenhouse.
Courgettes grow vigorously and each plant should be allocated at least 1 metre spacing within and between rows. They require copious watering and feeding with a balanced fertiliser containing equal quantities of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium.
Botanically, they are dioecious plants, having separate male and female flowers, (illustration number 2). They are beloved by bees, hence supporting biodiversity in the garden. Slugs are their main pest, causing browsing wounds on courgette fruits; mature late-season foliage is usually infected by powdery mildew fungi that cause little harm.
Illustration 2: Bee-friendly (and tasty) courgette flower.
Quick maturing succulent courgettes are hybrid cultivars, producing harvestable 15-25 cm long fruit (berries) before the seeds begin forming (illustration number 3). Harvest regularly at weekly intervals before the skins (epicarps) begin strengthening and toughening. Skin colour varies with different cultivars from deep green to golden yellow. The choice rests on gardeners’ preferences.
Courgettes are classed and cooked as vegetables and their dietary value is retained by steaming thinly sliced fruits. Courgettes are a low-energy food but contain useful amounts of folate, potassium and vitamin A (retinol). The latter boosts immune systems, helping defend against illness and infection and increasing respiratory efficiency. Eyesight is also protected by increasing vision in low light.
Illustration 3: Courgette fruit ready for the table.
Courgettes are, therefore, valuable dietary additions year-round. Courgette flowers are bonuses, used as garnishes or dipped in batter as fritters or tempura. Overall, the courgette is a most useful plant that provides successional cropping using ground vacated by over-wintered vegetables such as cabbage, Brussels sprouts or leeks.
Broad beans are an undemanding and valuable crop for all gardens. Probably originating in the Eastern Mediterranean and grown domestically since about 6,000BC, this plant was brought to Great Britain by the Romans.
Header image: a rich harvest of succulent broad beans for the table
Capable of tolerating most soil types and temperatures they provide successional fresh pickings from June to September. Early crops are grown from over-wintered sowings of cv Aquadulce. They are traditionally sown on All Souls Day on 2 November but milder autumns now cause too rapid germination and extension growth. Sowing is best now delayed until well into December. Juicy young broad bean seedlings offer pigeons a tasty winter snack, consequently protection with cloches or netting is vital insurance.
From late February onwards dwarf cultivars such as The Sutton or the more vigorous longer podded Meteor Vroma are used. Early cropping is promoted by growing the first batches of seedlings under protection in a glasshouse. Germinate the seed in propagating compost and grow the resultant seedlings until they have formed three to four prominent leaflets. Plant out into fertile, well-cultivated soil and protect with string or netting frameworks supported with bamboo canes to discourage bird damage.
Young broad bean plants supported by string and bamboo canes
More supporting layers will be required as the plants grow and mature. Later sowings are made directly into the vegetable garden. As the plants begin flowering remove the apical buds and about two to three leaves. This deters invasions by the black bean aphid (Aphis fabae). Winged aphids detect the lighter green of upper foliage of broad beans and navigate towards them!
Allow the pods ample time for swelling and the development of bean seeds of up to 2cm diameter before picking. Beware, however, of over-mature beans since these are flavourless and lack succulence. Broad beans have multiple benefits in the garden and for our diets. They are legumes and hence the roots enter mutually beneficial relationships with nitrogen fixing bacteria. These bacteria are naturally present in most soils. They capture atmospheric nitrogen, converting it into nitrates which the plant utilises for growth. In return, the bacteria gain sources of carbohydrates from photosynthesis.
Broad bean root carrying nodules formed around colonies of nitrogen fixing bacteria
Broad beans are pollinated by bees and other beneficial insects. They are good sources of pollen and nectar, encouraging biodiversity in the garden. Nutritionally, beans are high in protein, fibre, folate, Vitamin B and minerals such as manganese, phosphorus, magnesium and iron, therefore cultivating healthy living. Finally, they form extensive roots, improving soil structure, drainage and reserves of organic nitrogen. Truly gardeners’ friends!
Professor Geoff Dixon, author of Garden practices and their science (ISBN 978-1-138-20906-0) published by Routledge 2019.
Thinking of popping to your nearest specialist store for some sesame oil, turmeric, or soy? Some things haven't changed in 3,700 years, it turns out...
At least, that's what a growing new field of research, palaeoproteomics, suggests. Human mouths are full of bacteria, which continually petrify and form dental calculus — which can entrap and preserve tiny food particles. These remnants can be accessed and analysed thousands of years later, providing remarkable insight into the dietary habits of our ancestors.
Philip Stockhammer, an archaeologist at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich (LMU), has worked with Christina Warinner, a molecular archaeologist at Harvard University and the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, and a team of researchers to apply this new method to the eastern Mediterranean, including the Bronze Age site of Megiddo and the Early Iron Age site of Tel Erani.
“Our high-resolution study of ancient proteins and plant residues from human dental calculus is the first of its kind to study the cuisines of the ancient Near East,” said Warinner, explaining its significance. “Our research demonstrates the great potential of these methods to detect foods that otherwise leave few archaeological traces. Dental calculus is such a valuable source of information about the lives of ancient peoples.”
High-resolution analyses of ancient dental calculus have given us a whole new perspective on the diets of Bronze Age people.
The research team took samples from a range of individuals and analysed which food proteins and plant residues were preserved in their teeth. “This enables us to find traces of what a person ate,” said Stockhammer. “Anyone who does not practice good dental hygiene will still be telling us archaeologists what they have been eating thousands of years from now!”
Of course, it's not quite as simple as looking at the teeth of those who didn't thoroughly clean them nearly four millennia ago and hoping the proteins survived. “Interestingly, we find that allergy-associated proteins appear to be the most stable in human calculus”, remarked Ashley Scott, LMU biochemist and lead author. That might be because of the known thermostability of many allergens. For instance, the researchers were able to detect wheat via wheat gluten proteins, which they independently confirmed with a different method using a type of plant microfossil known as phytoliths.
This substance has previously been used to identify millet and date palm in the same area during the Bronze and Iron Ages but phytoliths are not plentiful or even present in many foods, which is why this research is so exciting — palaeoproteomics means foods that have left few other traces, such as sesame, can now be identified.
Research suggests that the humble banana was eaten throughout the Mediterranean far earlier than first thought.
The method has allowed the team to identify that people at these sites ate, among other things, sesame, turmeric, soy, and bananas far earlier than anyone had realised. “Exotic spices, fruits and oils from Asia had thus reached the Mediterranean several centuries, in some cases even millennia, earlier than had been previously thought,” explained Stockhammer.
The finds mean that we have direct evidence for a flourishing long-distance trade in fruits, spices, and oils, from East and South Asia to the Levant via Mesopotamia or Egypt as early as the second millennium BCE.
More than that, the analyses "provide crucial information on the spread of the banana around the world. No archaeological or written evidence had previously suggested such an early spread into the Mediterranean region,” according to Stockhammer (although the sudden appearance of bananas in West Africa a few centuries later has previously led archaeologists to believe that such a trade might have existed, this is the first evidence).
The team acknowledged that other explanations are possible, including that the individuals concerned had travelled to East or South Asia at some point but there is evidence for other trade in food and spices in the Eastern Mediterranean — for instance, we know Pharaoh Ramses II was buried with peppercorns from India in 1213 BCE.
But it certainly seems like some foods might have been popular in the Mediterranean for much longer than we realised, which might be an interesting thought to accompany you next time you add some spices or bananas to your shopping basket.
More people are looking at their nutritional intake, not only to improve wellbeing but also reduce their environmental impact. With this, comes a move to include foods that are not traditionally cultivated or consumed in Europe.
Assessing whether this growing volume of so called ‘novel foods’ are safe for human consumption is the task of the European Food Safety Authority. The EFSA points out, ‘The notion of novel food is not new. Throughout history new types of food and food ingredients have found their way to Europe from all corners of the globe. Bananas, tomatoes, tropical fruit, maize, rice, a wide range of spices – all originally came to Europe as novel foods. Among the most recent arrivals are chia seeds, algae-based foods, baobab fruit and physalis.’
Under EU regulations any food not consumed ‘significantly’ prior to May 1997 is considered to be a ‘novel food’. The category covers new foods, food from new sources, new substances used in food as well as new ways and technologies for producing food. Examples include oils rich in omega-3 fatty acids from krill as a new source of food, phytosterols as a new substance, or nanotechnology as a new way of producing food.
Providing a final assessment on safety and efficacy of a novel food is a time consuming process. At the start of 2021 the EFSA gave its first completed assessment of a proposed insect-derived food product. The panel on Nutrition, Novel Foods and Food Allergens concluded that the novel food dried yellow meal worm (Tenebrio molitor larva) is safe for human consumption.
Dried yellow meal worm (Tenebrio molitor larva) is safe for human consumption, according to the EFSA.
Commenting in a press statement, as the opinion on insect novel food was released, Ermolaos Ververis, a chemist and food scientist at EFSA who coordinated the assessment said that evaluating the safety of insects for human consumption has its challenges. ‘Insects are complex organisms which makes characterising the composition of insect-derived products a challenge. Understanding their microbiology is paramount, considering also that the entire insect is consumed,’
Ververis added, ‘Formulations from insects may be high in protein, although the true protein levels can be overestimated when the substance chitin, a major component of insects’ exoskeleton, is present. Critically, many food allergies are linked to proteins so we assess whether the consumption of insects could trigger any allergic reactions. These can be caused by an individual’s sensitivity to insect proteins, cross-reactivity with other allergens or residual allergens from insect feed, e.g. gluten.’
EFSA research could lead to increased choice for consumers | Editorial credit: Raf Quintero / Shutterstock.com
The EFSA has an extensive list of novel foods to assess. These include dried crickets (Gryllodes sigillatus), olive leaf extract, and vitamin D2 mushroom powder. With the increasing desire to find alternatives to the many foods that we consume on a regular basis, particularly meat, it is likely that the EFSA will be busy for some time to come.
Gardens and parks provide visual evidence of climate change. Regular observation shows us that our flowering bulbous plants are emerging, growing and flowering. Great Britain is particularly rich in long term recordings of dates of budbreak, growth and flowering of trees, shrubs and perennial herbaceous plants. Until recently, this was dismissed as ‘stamp collecting by Victorian ladies and clerics’.
The science of phenology now provides vital evidence that quantifies the scale and rapidity of climate change. Serious scientific evidence of the impact of climate change comes, for example, from an analysis of 29,500 phenological datasets. This research shows that plants and animals are responding consistently to temperature change with earlier blooming, leaf unfurling, flowering and migration. This scale of change has not been seen on Earth for the past three quarters of a million years. And this time it is happening with increased rapidity and is caused by the activities of a single species – US – humans!
Iris unguicularis (stylosa).
Changing seasonal cycles seriously affects our gardens. Fruit trees bloom earlier than previously and are potentially out of synchrony with pollinators. That results in irregular, poor fruit set and low yields. Climate change is causing increased variability in weather events. This is particularly damaging when short, very sharp periods of freezing weather coincide with precious bud bursts and shoot growth. Many early flowering trees and shrubs are incapable of replacing damaged buds, as a result a whole season’s worth of growth is lost. Damaged buds and shoots are more easily invaded by fungi which cause diseases such as dieback and rotting. Eventually valuable feature plants fail, damaging the garden’s benefits for enjoyment and relaxation.
Plant diseases caused by fungi and bacteria benefit from our increasingly milder, damper winters. Previously, cooling temperatures in the autumn and winter frosts prevented these microbes from over-wintering. Now they are surviving and thriving in the warmer conditions. This is especially the case with soil borne microbes such as those which cause clubroot of brassicas and white rot, which affects a wide range of garden crops.
Hazel (Coryllus spp.) typical wind-pollinated yellow male catkins, which produce pollen.
Can gardeners help mitigate climate change? Of course! Grow flowering plants which are bee friendly; minimise using chemical controls; ban bonfires – which are excellent sources of CO2; establish wildlife-friendly areas filled with native plants and pieces of rotting wood, and it is amazing how quickly beneficial insects, slow worms and voles will populate your garden.
Professor Geoff Dixon is the author of Garden Practices and their Science, published by Routledge 2019.
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.
Understanding organisms’ capabilities of sensing environmental changes such as increasing or declining temperature is becomes ever more important. Deciduous woody trees and shrubs growing in cool temperate and sub-arctic regions enter quiescent or dormant states as protection against freezing temperatures.
These plants pass through a two-stage process. Firstly, they gradually acclimatise (or 'acclimate', in the USA) where lowering temperatures encourage capacities for withstanding cold. This is a reversible process and if there is a spell of milder weather the acclimatisation state is lost. This can happen, for instance, with a fine spell of 'Indian summer' in October or even early November.
Winter weather and dormant trees. All images by Geoff Dixon
Where acclimation is broken, plants become susceptible to cold-induced damage again. If acclimation continues, however, plants eventually become fully dormant. This is not a reversible state and only ends after substantial periods of warming weather and increasing day-length. Some plants will require an accumulation of 'cold-units' – ie, temperatures below a specific level before dormancy is broken.
Detailed research information is accumulating to describe how acclimatisation develops. Changes take place that strengthen cell membranes, possibly by increasing the bonding in lipid molecules, and causing alterations in respiration rates, enzyme activities and hormone levels.
Non-acclimatised azalea (front), acclimatised azalea (back).
Leaves in a non-acclimated state will leak cellular fluids when they are chilled, whereas acclimated leaves are undamaged. These processes result from an interaction between genotype and the environment. Cascades of genes come into play during acclimation and dormancy.
The genus Rhododendron offers a model for studies of these states. Some species originate from alpine environments, such as R. hirsutum coming from the European Alps and one of the first English garden 'rhodos'. By contrast, plants of R. vireya come from tropical areas such as the East Indies.
Comparing the leakage of cellular fluids in acclimatised and non-acclimatised rhododendron leaves subjected to -7°C
Practical outcomes from studies of acclimation and dormancy are twofold. Firstly, are there substances that could be sprayed onto cold susceptible crops, eg potatoes or cauliflowers, that prevent damage? This is so-called 'anti-freeze chemistry'. Some studies suggest that spraying seaweed extracts will dimmish damage. The downside of this approach is that rain washes off the application. Secondly, identifying genes which increase cold hardiness offers possibilities for their transfer into susceptible crops. Gene-editing techniques may offer means of tweaking existing cold-hardiness genes in susceptible crops.
Professor Geoff Dixon is the author of Garden Practices and their Science, published by Routledge 2019.
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.
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.
Soil is a very precious asset whether it be in your garden or an allotment. Soil has physical and chemical properties that support its biological life. Like any asset understanding its properties is fundamental for its effective use and conservation.
Soils will contain, depending on their origin four constituents: sand, clay, silt and organic matter. Mineral soils, those derived by the weathering of rocks contain varying proportions of all four. But their organic matter content will be less than 5 percent. Above that figure and the soil is classed as organic and is derived from the deposition of decaying plants under very wet conditions forming bogs.
Essentially this anaerobic deposition produces peat which if drained yields highly fertile soils such as the Fenlands of East Anglia. Peat’s disadvantage is oxidation, steadily the organic matter breaks down, releases carbon dioxide and is lost revealing the subsoil which is probably a layer of clay.
Cracked clay soil
Mineral soils with a high sand content are free draining, warm quickly in spring and are ‘light’ land. This latter term originates from the small number of horses required for their cultivation. Consequently, sandy soils encourage early spring growth and the first crops. Their disadvantage is limited water retention and hence crops need regular watering in warm weather.
Clay soils are water retentive to the extent that they will become waterlogged during rainy periods. They are ‘heavy’ soils meaning that large teams of horses were required for their cultivation. These soils produce main season crops, especially those which are deeply rooting such as maize. But in dry weather they crack open rupturing root systems and reducing yields.
Silt soils contain very fine particles and may have originated in geological time by sedimentation in lakes and river systems. They can be highly fertile and are particularly useful for high quality field vegetable and salad crops. Because of their preponderance of fine particles silt soils ‘cap’ easily in dry weather. The sealed surface is not easily penetrated by germinating seedlings causing erratic and patchy emergence.
Soil finger test
Soil composition can be determined by two very simple tests. A finger test will identify the relative content of sand, clay and silt. Roll a small sample of moist soil between your thumb and fingers and feel the sharpness of sand particles and the relative slipperiness of clay or the very fine almost imperceptible particles of silt. For a floatation test, place a small soil sample onto the top of a jam jar filled with water. Over 24 to 48 hours the particles will sediment with the heavier sand forming the lower layer with clay and silt deposited on top. Organic matter will float on the surface of the water.
Soil floatation test
The fruits of Viburnum tinus, a Mediterranean flowering shrub, have a secret property that gives them a vibrant, metallic blue colour without relying on pigments. Blue fruits are uncommon in nature, due to the rarity of blue pigments, but a recent study, published in Current Biology, investigated the colour properties of the nutritionally valuable fruits of V. tinus and found it originates from unique structural features.
Viburnum tinus, a Mediterranean flowering shrub
Usually, pigmentation in fruits arises from the presence of flavonoid compounds, specifically anthocyanins. V. tinus is an important food source for birds, which are attracted to the vibrant colour. In turn for nutrition, the birds disperse the plant’s seeds.
Using microscopy and spectroscopy techniques, researchers investigating the stunning metallic properties of V. tinus fruit uncovered nanostructures of lipids in its cell walls. These structures may act as a double signal to birds, indicating these fruits are full of nutritious fats. These nanostructures differ from regular plant cell walls, which are made of cellulose, and lipids are normally only stored within the cell and used for transport. This distinctive structural property of V. tinus fruit allows it to create the blue colour without containing any pigment.
Blue fruits are uncommon in nature
“Structural colour is very common in animals, especially birds, beetles, and butterflies, but only a handful of plant species have ever been found to have structural colour in their fruits,” says co-first author Miranda Sinnott-Armstrong, a researcher at the University of Colorado-Boulder. “This means that V. tinus, in addition to showing a completely novel mechanism of structural colour, is also one of the few known structurally coloured fruits.”
The researchers hope this work can help to understand how birds identify nutritious food, and that the interesting structural colour properties could be exploited to provide safe and sustainable food colourants.
“There are lots of problems connected to food coloration,” says Silvia Vignolini, senior author from the University of Cambridge. “Once this mechanism is better understood, it could potentially be used to create a healthier, more sustainable food colorant.”
Generally, food intake measurement relies on an individual’s ability to recall what and how much they ate, which has inherent limitations. This can be overcome using biomarkers, such as urine, which contains high amounts of data, and looks to be a promising new indicator of nutritional status.
Funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health and Health Data Research UK, the group of scientists analysed levels of 46 different metabolites in the urine of 1,848 people in the U.S, publishing their findings in the journal Nature Food.
The team illustrated the effectiveness of using metabolites in urine as an alternative approach to obtaining information on dietary patterns. Analysing the urinary metabolic profile of the individuals, they found that the 46 metabolites in urine accurately predicted healthy / unhealthy patterns, making the link between 46 metabolites in urine, as well as the types of foods and nutrients in the diet.
Urine test sample
The team believes that this technology could inspire healthy changes as health professionals could be better equipped to provide dietary advice tailored to their individual biological make-up. As Dr Isabel Garcia-Perez, author of the research also from Imperial’s Department of Metabolism, Digestion and Reproduction explained: ‘Our technology can provide crucial insights into how foods are processed by individuals in different ways.’
To build on this research, the same Imperial team, in collaboration with Newcastle University, Aberystwyth University, and Murdoch University, developed a five-minute test to measure the health of a person’s diet.
This five-minute test can reveal differences in urinary metabolites, generating a dietary metabotype score for each individual. As part of this research, 19 people were recruited to follow four different diets ranging from very healthy to unhealthy. The experiments indicated that the healthier their diet, the higher the DMS score, associating higher DMS score with lower blood sugar and a higher amount of energy excreted in the urine.
Heart in hands
Professor John Mathers, co-author of research and Director of the Human Nutrition Research Centre at Newcastle University said: ‘We show here how different people metabolise the same foods in highly individual ways. This has implications for understanding the development of nutrition-related diseases and for more personalised dietary advice to improve public health.’
Fan of milk and cheese? Here’s some good news - researchers have associated dairy-rich diets to reduced risk of developing diabetes and high blood pressure.
According to a large international study published in BMJ Open Diabetes Research & Care, a research team has found that eating at least two daily servings of dairy is associated with lower risk of diabetes and high blood pressure.
Dairy products; milk and cheese
To see if this link exists across a range of countries, researchers drew on people taking part in the Prospective Urban Rural Epidemiology (PURE) study, in which involves participants from 21 countries aged 35–70. Information on dietary intake over a period of 12 months was collected using food frequency questionnaires. Dairy products included milk, yoghurt, yoghurt drinks, cheese, and dishes prepared with dairy products. Butter and cream were assessed separately as they are not so commonly eaten.
The results demonstrated that total and full fat dairy were associated with a lower prevalence of metabolic syndrome, which was not the case for a diet with no daily dairy intake. Two dairy servings a day was associated with a 24% lower risk of metabolic syndrome, rising to a 28% lower risk for a full fat dairy intake.
It was also noted that consuming at least two servings of full fat dairy per day was linked to an 11%–12% lower risk of high blood pressure and diabetes, whilst three servings of full fat dairy intake per day decreased the risks by 13% -14%.
Heart and stethoscope
The researchers stated that ‘If our findings are confirmed in sufficiently large and long term trials, then increasing dairy consumption may represent a feasible and low cost approach to reducing (metabolic syndrome), hypertension, diabetes, and ultimately cardiovascular disease events worldwide.’
Seed is one of Nature’s tiny miracles upon which the human race relies for its food and pleasure.
Each grain contains the genetic information for growth, development, flowering and fruiting for the preponderant plant life living on this planet. And when provided with adequate oxygen, moisture, warmth, light, physical support and nutrients germination will result in a new generation of a species. These vary from tiny short-lived alpines to the monumental redwood trees growing for centuries on the Pacific west coast of America.
Humankind has tamed and selected a few plant species for food and decorative purposes.
Seed head of beetroot, the seeds are in clusters.
Seed of these, especially food plants, is an internationally traded commodity. Strict criteria governed by legal treaties apply for the quality and health of agricultural and many horticultural seeds. This ensures that resultant crops are true to type and capable of producing high grade products as claimed by the companies who sell the seed.
Companies involved in the seed industry place considerable emphasis on ensuring that their products are capable of growing into profitable crops for farmers and growers. Parental seed crops are grown in isolation from farm crops thereby avoiding the potential for genetic cross-contamination. With some very high value seed the parent plants may be grown under protection and pollinated by hand.
Samples of seed are tested under laboratory conditions by qualified seed analysts. Quality tests identify levels of physical contamination, damage which may have resulted in harvesting and cleaning the seed and the proportion of capable of satisfactory germination. There may also be molecular tests which can identify trueness to type. Identifying the healthiness of seed is especially important. The seed coat can carry fungal and bacterial spores which could result in diseased crops. Similarly, some pathogens, including viruses, may be carried internally within seed.
Septoria apicola – seed borne pathogen causing late blight of celery
Pests, especially insects, find seed attractive food sources and may be carried with it. Careful analytical testing will identify the presence of these problems in batches of seed.
The capabilities of seed for producing vigorous plants is particularly important with very high value vegetable and salad crops. Vigour testing is a refined analytical process which tracks the uniformity and speed of germination supplemented with chemical tests determining the robustness of plant cells. Producers rely on the quality, uniformity and maturity rates of crops such as lettuce, green broccoli or cauliflower so they meet the strict delivery schedules set by supermarkets. Financial penalties are imposed for failures in the supply chain.
Biology’s seemingly inert tiny seed grains are essential ingredients of humankind’s existence!
This latest SCI Energy Group blog introduces the possible avenues of carbon dioxide utilisation, which entails using carbon dioxide to produce economically valuable products through industrial processes. Broadly, utilisation can be categorised into three applications: chemical use, biological use and direct use. For which, examples of each will be highlighted throughout.
Before proceeding to introduce these, we can first consider utilisation in relation to limiting climate change. As has been discussed in previous blogs, the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions is crucial. Therefore, for carbon dioxide utilisation technologies to have a beneficial impact on climate change, several important factors must be considered and addressed.
1) Energy Source: Often these processes are energy intensive. Therefore, this energy must come from renewable resources or technologies.
2) Scale: Utilisation technologies must exhibit large scaling potential to match the limited timeframe for climate action.
3) Permanence: Technologies which provide permanent removal or displacement of CO2 emissions will be most impactful¹.
Figure 1: CO2 sign
Carbon dioxide, alongside other reactants, can be chemically converted into useful products. Examples of which include urea, methanol, and plastics and polymers. One of the primary uses of urea includes agricultural fertilisers which are pivotal to crop nutrition. Most commonly, methanol is utilised as a chemical feedstock in industrial processes.
Figure 2: Fertilizing soil
One of the key challenges faced with this application of utilisation is the low reactivity of CO2 in its standard conditions. Therefore, to successfully convert it into products of economic value, catalysts are required to significantly lower the molecules activation energy and overall energy consumption of the process. With that being said, it is anticipated that, in future, the chemical conversion of CO2 will have an important role in maintaining a secure supply of fuel and chemical feedstocks such as methanol and methane².
Carbon dioxide is fundamental to plant growth as it provides a source of required organic compounds. For this reason, it can be utilised in greenhouses to promote carbonic fertilisation. By injecting increased levels of CO2 into the air supplied to greenhouses, the yield of plant growth has been seen to increase. Furthermore, CO2 from the flue gas streams of chemical processes has been recognised, in some studies, to be of a quality suitable for direct injection³.
Figure 3: Glass greenhouse planting vegetable greenhouses
These principles are applicable to encouraging the growth of microorganisms too. One example being microalgae which boasts several advantageous properties. Microalgae has been recognised for its ability to grow in diverse environments as well as its ability to be cultured in numerous types of bioreactors. Furthermore, its production rate is considerably high meaning a greater demand for CO2 is exhibited than that from normal plants. Micro-algal biomass can be utilised across a range of industries to form a multitude of products. These include bio-oils, fuels, fertilisers, food products, plant feeds and high value chemicals. However, at present, the efficiency of CO2 fixation, in this application, can be as low as 20-50%.
Figure 4: Illustration of microalgae under the microscope
It is important to note that, at present, there are many mature processes which utilise CO2 directly. Examples of which are shown in the table below.
Many carbon dioxide utilisation technologies exist, across a broad range of industrial applications. For which, some are well-established, and others are more novel. For such technologies to have a positive impact on climate action, several factors need to be addressed such as their energy source, scaling potential and permanence of removal/ displacement of CO2.
The chemistry of carbon dioxide and its role in decarbonisation is a key topic of interest for SCI Energy Group. In the near future, we will be running a webinar concerned with this. Further details of this will be posted on the SCI website in due course.
Transferring plants between countries was a profitable source for novel commercial and garden plants until quite recently.
Potato crop: Geoff Dixon
Potatoes and tomatoes are classic examples arriving in Europe from South America during the 16th century. Substantial numbers of new plants fuelled empire expansion founding new industries such as rubber and coffee. One of the earliest functions of European botanic gardens was finding potentially valuable new crops for colonial businesses. At home selecting orchids and other exotics from imported plants brought fame and fortune for head gardeners managing the large 19th century estates such as Chatsworth. Commercially seed merchants selected by eye and feel new and improved vegetables, fruit and flowers.
The rediscovery of Mendel’s laws of inheritance brought systematic science and formalised breeding new crops and garden plants. Analysing the effects of transferring physical, chemical and biological characters identified gene numbers and their functions.
Colour range in Gladioli: Geoff Dixon
As a result, varieties with improved colourfulness, fruitfulness, yield and pest and pathogen tolerance fill seedsmen’s catalogues. Breeding increased food supplies and added colour into the gardens springing up in suburban areas as affluence increased.
Greater plant reliability and uniformity arrived with the discovery of F1 hybrids.
Hybrid Sunflowers: Geoff Dixon
Selected parental lines each with very desirable characters such as fruit colour are in-breed for several generations. Then they are crossed bringing an explosion of vigour, uniformity and reliability (known as heterosis). Saving seed from the hybrid lines does not however, perpetuate these characters; new generations come only from remaking the original cross. That is a major boon for the breeder as competitors cannot pirate their intellectual property.
Knowledge at the molecular level has unravelled still further gene structure and functioning. Tagging or marking specific genes with known properties shortens the breeding cycle adding reliability and accuracy for the breeder. Simplifying the volume of genetic material used in crosses by halving the number of chromosomes involved adds further precision and control (known as haploidisation).
Opportunities for breeding new plants increases many-fold when advantageous genes are transferred between species. Recent developments of gene-editing where tailored enzymes very precisely snip out unwanted characters and insert advantageous ones is now offering huge opportunities as a non-transgenic technology. Breeding science makes possible mitigation of climate change, reducing for example the impact of soil degradation brought about by flooding.
Flood degraded land: Geoff Dixon
Yesterday was Shrove Tuesday, the traditional feast day before the start of Lent. Also known as Pancake Day, many people will have returned to traditional recipes or experimented with the myriad of options available for this versatile treat.
But you may not realise pancakes are helping to advance medicine. Here we revisit some interesting research
The appearance of pancakes depends on how water escapes the batter mix during the cooking process. This is impacted by the batter thickness. Understanding the physics of the process can help in producing the perfect pancake, but also provides insights into how flexible sheets, like those found in human eye, interact with flowing vapour and liquids.
Illustration of a healthy eye, glaucoma, cataract
The researchers at University College London (UCL), UK, compared recipes for 14 different types of pancake from across the world. For each pancake the team analysed and plotted the aspect ratio, i.e. the pancake diameter to the power of three in relation to the volume of batter. They also calculated the baker’s percentage, the ratio of liquid to flour in the batter.
It was found that thick, almost spherical pancakes had the lowest aspect ratio at three, whereas large thin pancakes had a ratio of 300. The baker’s percentage did not vary as dramatically, ranging from 100 for thick mixtures to 175 for thinner mixtures.
Co-author Professor Sir Peng Khaw, Director of the NIHR Biomedical Research Centre at Moorfields Eye Hospital and UCL Institute of Ophthalmology said; ‘We work on better surgical methods for treating glaucoma, which is a build-up of pressure in eyes caused by fluid. To treat this, surgeons create an escape route for the fluid by carefully cutting the flexible sheets of the sclera.’
‘We are improving this technique by working with engineers and mathematicians. It’s a wonderful example of how the science of everyday activities can help us with medicinal treatments of the future.’
Classic american pancakes
Every garden centre will currently bombard you with colourful displays of seed packets (figure 1). Each contains tiny grains of dormant life. Provided with water, warmth, suitable soil or compost and eventually light (figure 2) that resting grain will transform into the roots and shoots of a new plant.
Image 1: Racks of seed packets
Inside that seed cascades of genes trigger enzymes which release energy from stored starch and in some cases lipids. As a result, the seed coat opens and a root emerges which takes in supplies of water and nutrients. Shoots follow which grow upwards towards the light. They turn green as chlorophyll is manufactured and photosynthesis commences. At that point the seemingly inert grain becomes a self-sustaining living plant. Root and shoot growth result from active cell divisions with genetic controls determining the form and functions of each organ.
Image 2: Germinating seeds and the correct conditions
Each seed’s compliment of genes will determine what type of plant develops. But it is the environment provided by the gardener which determines the plant’s success. Careful and accurate husbandry results in succulent, health-promoting vegetables or colourful, vigorous flowers. Seedlings of some plants may be given nursery treatment before being placed into the garden’s big wide world. Providing protection in the early stages either in a green house or under cloches for many annual flowers and most vegetables boosts growth (figure 3) and eventually the quality of the produce.
Image 3: Legumes grown under protection
This does require time, skill and investment by the gardener. An alternative is purchasing seedlings from garden centres (figure 4). But an element of caution is required. These plants will have been raised under protection. Hence planting directly into the garden means still need care and attention. Frost protection and watering are essential, otherwise poor results may follow.
Image 4: Garden centre seedlings
Direct sowing seeds into garden soil is another alternative. Hardy vegetables and annual flowers may be cultured in this way. The requirements for success are a fertile soil with a fine tilth, that means it is free from stones and consists of uniform, aggregated particles allowing unimpeded movement of air and water.
Vegetables such as beetroot, carrots and parsnips will grow vigorously given these conditions. Hardy annuals such as African daisy, larkspur, love-in-the-mist, marigold and nasturtium will also thrive from direct sowings. Success in both garden departments depends on watering during dry spells and supplementary nutrition. Avoid nitrogenous fertilizers as these will encourage leaf growth whereas phosphate (P) and potassium (K) will promote root and flower formation.
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.
Holly berries are emblematic of Christmas. Decorative wreaths containing sprays of holly boughs, bright red with berries, or sprigs set on cakes and puddings help bring seasonal cheer.
Holly is a problem for horticulturists! Male and female flowers develop separately requiring cross-pollination before fertilised berries develop. Dutch nurserymen got around this by selecting a self-fertile variety ‘J. C Van Tol’ which sets copious berries. Adding further colour in the winter garden is the variety ‘Golden King’ producing mixtures of creamy-white and green foliage. Most hollies in Great Britain are Ilex aquifolium which is a native of Northern Europe and is still found wild in the Welsh Marches. It is a flexible and valuable garden evergreen, very suitable for hedges as they form tough, prickly, impenetrable barriers.
Why plants use considerable energy to produce brightly coloured fruits is a puzzle for botanists. Co-evolution is an explanation. Bright berries attract birds which eat them, digesting the flesh and excreting the seeds. Wide seed distribution accompanied by a package of manure helps spread these plants increasing their geographical range.
Which came first, bright berries or vectoring birds? A combination is the answer. Plants with brighter berries attracted more birds spreading their seed more widely. Brighter berries are more nutritious and hence those birds which ate them were stronger and better fitted for the rigours of winter. Garden residents such as blackbirds and thrushes now thrive and survive on such natural food. Migratory species such as fieldfares travel from Scandinavia, attracted particularly by other berried treasures such as Cotoneaster.
Fleshy fruits such as those of holly or Cotoneaster are examples of some of the last energy sinks formed in the gardening year.
They draw products of photosynthesis from the manufacturing centres in leaves and accumulate sugars plus nutrients drawn up from the soil via root systems. That provides a rich diet for birds.
While digestive acids in the vector’s gut starts degrading the hard shell which surrounds the seed at the centre of the berry. Botanically that term is a misnomer since true berries, such as gooseberry fruits contain several seeds. Holly has one seed contained within a hard case encased in flesh and should be a drupe! Not a term which fits well for Christmas carols, decorations or cards!
Merry Christmas and a Prosperous New Year.
Gooseberries- true berry
Food safety refers to handling, preparing and storing food in a way that best reduces the risk of people becoming sick, and it’s a topic that’s high on everyone’s agenda. Here we explore three recent scientific advances in the area of food safety.
Antibiotic detection in dairy products
Antibiotics are the largest group of medicines and, due to their use in treating animals, they have been making their way into the food chain and into food products. Consuming food that contain antibiotics could result in poor health outcomes, such as allergic reactions and other events. Antibiotics that accumulate in cattle milk can transfer into dairy products and so it’s urgent that we detect and address the issue.
A new test has been developed that showed, in a recent study, that it can detect antibiotics in food products. The precision of the test means that it can test for a wide range of antibiotics and the testing process is very simple and easy to conduct. It could also detect antibiotics at all stages of the food production process, which is great news in the fight to reduce antibiotics in the food chain.
Reducing contamination of smoked fish
Smoked fish is very popular in developing countries, as it is a good source of protein. The preparation of it involves hot‐smoking on traditional kilns using wood fuel. This practice is associated with high levels of a substance known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) in the food, which has an impact on health.
An improved kiln has been introduced by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations to address the levels of PAHs in smoked fish. A recent study showed that the improved kiln not only works just as well at smoking the fish, but does so with safer levels of PAHs. This means that people can continue to consume this valuable protein source without the potentially cancer-causing chemicals.
The safest way to prepare fruit and veg?
Pesticides have been reported to find their way into our fruit and vegetables, albeit at minimal amounts. A recent study looked at food preparation techniques to compare what methods were the most effective in removing pesticides, with interesting results.
The simplest and most effective way was shown to be peeling the skin of fruit or trimming the outer layers of vegetables before cooking. Whilst this is the most effective, most of the vitamins may be stored close to the skin surface and so these are lost in this process.
Washing and soaking were sometimes effective and sometimes not. Washing causes less loss of nutrients and is less time consuming than peeling and it reduces the pesticide residue by a reasonable amount but it wasn’t always shown to be effective. How effective it could depended on the type of skin of the food.
Blanching was another method that was explored. Blanching vegetables in boiling water for one minute loses less nutrients than cooking, whilst removing pesticides very efficiently.
The results certainly give us food for thought in our meal preparation!
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)
Plants generate their energy from sunlight via photosynthesis, however many crops have a photosynthetic glitch, which costs them a significant amount of energy that could be used for growth. This glitch has been shortened using careful engineering by researchers from the University of Illinois and US Department of Agriculture’s Agricultural Research Service, to generate plants with a 40% increase in productivity in real-world conditions.
Tobacco seedlings. Image: Claire Benjamin/RIPE project
During photosynthesis, carbon dioxide (CO2) and water are converted into sugars by the enzyme Rubisco, which is fuelled by energy from sunlight. Rubisco is the planets most abundant protein, but its efficiency has resulted in an oxygen-rich atmosphere, and it cannot reliably distinguish between CO2 and oxygen (O2). Approximately 20% of the time, O2 is grabbed by Rubisco instead of CO2, and then converted into a compound which is toxic to plants. This compound can be recycled through a process known as photorespiration.
The research team. Image: Claire Benjamin/RIPE project
In this study, alternate routes for the process have been engineered, allowing the plant to save resources better utilised for growth. The scientists generated three alternate routes using different sets of promoters and genes, which were then stress tested in 1,700 individual plants to find the best performers.
After eight months of operation in Antarctica, the EDEN ISS greenhouse has produced a ‘record harvest’ of fresh lettuce, cucumbers, tomatoes, and other herbs and vegetables to support the 10-member overwintering crew stationed at the German Neumayer Station III, the team reported in September 2018. Despite outdoor temperatures of -20°C and low levels of sunlight, the greenhouse yielded 75kg of lettuce, 51kg of cucumbers, 29kg of tomatoes, 12kg of kohlrabi, 5kg of radishes and 9kg of herbs – on a cultivation area of ca13m2.
The goal of the EDEN ISS is to demonstrate technologies that could be used by future astronauts to grow their own food on long distance missions to Mars and other more distant planets, explained NASA controlled environment technician Connor Kiselchuk, speaking at the Bayer Future of Farming Dialogue event in Monheim in September 2018. ‘Food determines how far from the Earth we can go and how long we can stay,’ he said.
How does the EDEN ISS greenhouse in Antarctica work? Video: German Aerospace Center, DLR
Even if astronauts took a year and a half’s supply of food with them on a mission to Mars, for example, he pointed out that the food would be ‘very deficient in B vitamins’ by the time they came to eat it.
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.
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.
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.’
Humans have been cultivating land to produce crops and rear animals for around 12,500 years. Since then, we have been continually improving and refining the processes we use, from the stone tools of the Neolithic Revolution to the machines of the modern day.
The next great leap in agricultural techniques could stem from the use of drones to improve the precision agriculture approach.
In a recent review, PwC estimated the market for drone-powered solutions in agriculture could be as much as US$32.4 billion. Recent breakthroughs in areas such as satellite imaging, remote sensing and meteorology, combined with the advances in drone technology, mean we could be on the cusp of the next great agricultural revolution.
Vineyards in Germany. Image: Taxiarchos228@Wikimedia Commons
In some cases, drones make use of available technology, but in a much more targeted way. In others, their flexibility means innovative approaches are possible. PwC identified key areas across the agricultural cycle where drones could make a substantive difference in farming.
Soil and field analysis
Drones could improve soil nutrient mapping. Image: Brian Boucheron
Early soil analysis informs seed planting patterns, irrigation techniques, and fertiliser use. Nutrient mapping has been a crucial component of precision agriculture since the introduction of GPS in the mid-1990s, and drones will take that further, with more detailed maps available.
Drone systems could vastly improve on the productivity of current farming methods. Image: Pixabay
Some startups have created drone-planting systems that they believe could achieve an uptake rate of 75%, by shooting pods containing both the seeds and necessary nutrients into the ground, as well as decreasing planting costs by 85%.
Aerial spraying by drones could be five times faster than current machinery. Crucially, drones’ ability to assess topography would mean equal coverage. Continued assessment by the drones could reveal production inefficiencies in specific areas, leading to faster and more targeted crop management.
Wheat aphid cluster. Image: Texas A&M AgriLife
Crop failure can lead to huge losses if not identified and responded to rapidly. Drones can carry devices that produce multispectral images, using both visible and near-infrared light to assess changes in the health of crops.
The Lake District – the Centre for Innovation Excellence in Livestock is based in the Yorkshire countryside. Image: Wikimedia Commons
In 2015, the UK government announced £68m in three new Centres for Agricultural Innovation as part of its Agri-Tech Strategy to make the UK a world leader in agricultural technologies.
Ministers at the time believed an agri-tech revolution was needed to meet global food and energy challenges and the UK would be ideally placed to lead the way, with its research centres, established agricultural sector, and global influence. The current government is clearly of the same mind, with ‘transforming food production’ a key area of the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund.
The UK is not alone. Both China and Israel’s state aerospace companies are developing technologies for use in this area, as well as Japan’s Yamaha, the USA’s Lockheed Martin, Canada’s Aeryon, and Sweden’s CybAero.
PwC’s advanced analytics: Drones. Video: PwCCanada
But the next agricultural revolution isn’t quite here yet. As with any new technology, there are ongoing concerns about the use of drones in the private industry, but the main issue in the agricultural sector is about the technology: whether both drones and the equipment they would need to carry is sophisticated enough to deliver.
While other industries interested in using drones might be focusing on privacy and insurance issues, the agri-tech sector is pushing for further technological improvements, such as better quality sensors and cameras, as well as even more highly automated drones.
Precision agriculture has a way to go before it becomes the norm in farming. Image: Cesar Harada@Flickr
However, the funding commitments from states and private companies around the world, in addition to the speed of developments in recent years, suggests that drones could play a major role in the next stage of agricultural development. The tools of the future will likely be a far cry from the stone sickles of our ancestors.
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.’
Check out SCI #agrifoodbecause on Twitter here
On the final day of the #agrifoodbecause competition, a look at some of the outstanding work being carried out in the field!
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.
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.
Cellular agriculture involves making food from cell cultures in bioreactors. The products are chemically identical to meat and dairy products, and it’s claimed they have the same taste and texture.
The technology is an attractive option because it would reduce the world’s reliance on livestock, which is unsustainable, and would have potential knock-on benefits of lower greenhouse gas emissions, and reduced water, land, and energy usage than traditional farming.
IndieBio helps biotechnology start-ups. Since 2014, it has funded several new US-based businesses in cellular agriculture: Perfect Day, formerly Muufri, makes milk from cell culture; Clara Foods is developing a way to make egg whites from cell culture; and Memphis Meats is focusing on animal-free meat using tissue engineering.
Growth is driven by the clear benefits this technology can offer, says Ron Sigeta, IndieBio’s Chief Scientific Officer. ‘It takes 144 gallons of water to make a gallon of milk or 53 gallons of water to make an egg. Cellular agriculture products don’t require such large water supplies, or large tracts of land, or produce the same level of greenhouse gas emissions.’
Salmonella bacteria are not present in cell-cultured milk so there is no risk of infection. Image: Wikimedia Commons
Food safety is also a significant issue. ‘Cellular agriculture makes products in an entirely controlled environment so it’s a source of food we can understand with a transparency that is simply not possible now,’ says Sigeta. For example, raw, unpasteurised milk can carry bacteria, such as salmonella, which is not a problem for Perfect Day’s milk as there are no bacteria-carrying animals are involved.
So how does it work?
Cellular agriculture products can be acellular – made of organic molecules like proteins and fats – or cellular – made of living or once-living cells.
Meat industry critics argue that it is not sustainable and lab-grown meat is the future. Video: Eater
Acellular products are made without using microbes like yeast or similar bacteria. Scientists alter the yeast by inserting the gene responsible for making the desired protein. Since all cells read the same genetic code, the yeast, now carrying recombinant DNA, makes the protein molecularly identical to the protein an animal makes.
Other products like meat and leather are produced by a cellular approach. Using tissue engineering techniques muscle, fat or skin cells can be assembled on a scaffold with nutrients. The cells can be grown in large quantities and then combined to make the product.
The first cultured beef patty was made in 2013. Image: Public Domain Pictures
Mark Post at Maastricht University, the Netherlands, made the first cultured beef hamburger in 2013 using established tissue engineering methods to grow cow muscle cells. The process, however, was expensive and time-consuming, but his team has been working on improvements.
‘We are focusing on hamburgers because our process results in small tissues that are large enough for minced meat applications, which accounts for half of the meat market. To make a steak, one would need to impose a larger 3D structure to the cells to grow in.
‘It is very important that such a structure contains a channel system to perfuse the nutrients and oxygen through to the developing tissue and to remove waste as a result of metabolic activity. This technology is being developed, but is not yet ready for large scale production.’
Surveys have shown that the public are behind genetically engineered meat alternatives. Image: Ben Amstutz@Flickr
Commercial challenges include finding a cost-effective medium for cell nutrition developing a bioreactor for industrial scale production. Public perception may also be a challenge: Will people buy synthetically engineered food?
A recent crowdfunding campaign shows the global massive support for the idea of clean meat, says Koby Barak, SuperMeat’s chief operating officer and co-founder. However, he believes these will be overcome shortly, and it will not be long before companies see ‘massive funding’ in this field and the creation of clean meat factories worldwide.