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.