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The task of ensuring affordable access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food for all is one of the major challenges of the 21st century.
Updated: 27 min 35 sec ago

The PhD student who wants to change the way we think about food

Wed, 04/05/2022 - 11:59

When Gates Cambridge Scholar Clara Ma participated in the Veganuary challenge she didn’t realise it would change the course of her PhD. Today she’s investigating how public policy can transform our food systems and mitigate climate change by accelerating the development of more sustainable alternatives to animal-based protein.

Economic sanctions in Russia risk breaking international law if they lead to global food shortages

Fri, 08/04/2022 - 09:24

Cristiane Derani argues that the war, and sanctions imposed, will spread a wave of food insecurity throughout the world.

Crop Science Centre to conduct field trials of genetically modified barley that could reduce need for synthetic fertilisers

Wed, 23/03/2022 - 10:49

A field trial of genetically modified and gene edited barley is due to be planted this April. The research is evaluating whether improved crop interactions with naturally occurring soil fungi promote more sustainable food production.

Scientists are hopeful that the results from the trial will demonstrate ways to reduce the need for synthetic fertilisers, which could have significant benefits for improving soil health while contributing to more sustainable and equitable approaches to food production.

The trial is being conducted by researchers at the Crop Science Centre, an alliance between the University of Cambridge and the crop research organisation NIAB. It will evaluate whether improving crop interactions with naturally occurring soil fungi can help them more efficiently absorb water along with nitrogen and phosphorous from the soil. Nitrogen and phosphorous are two essential nutrients critical to crop production that are often provided through synthetic fertilisers.  

While the use of synthetic fertilisers increases crop productivity, excessive applications in high and middle-income countries has caused environmental pollution that reduces biodiversity, as well as producing greenhouse gas emissions. Meanwhile, in low-income countries, fertilisers are often too expensive or unavailable to local farmers, which limits food production. That contributes to both hunger and poverty, because in regions like sub-Saharan Africa, most people depend on farming to support their families.

“Working with natural and beneficial microbial associations in plants has the potential to replace or greatly reduce the need for inorganic fertilisers, with significant benefits for improving soil health while contributing to more sustainable and equitable approaches to food production,” said Professor Giles Oldroyd, Russell R Geiger Professor of Crop Science, who is leading the work.

He added: “There is an urgent need for ecologically sound approaches to food production that can satisfy the demands of a growing global population while respecting limits on natural resources. We believe biotechnology can be a valuable tool for expanding the options available to farmers around the world.”

The trial will evaluate a barley variety that has been genetically modified to boost expression levels of the NSP2 gene. This gene is naturally present in barley and boosting its expression enhances the crop’s existing capacity to engage with mycorrhizal fungi.

In addition, the trial will test varieties of barley that have been gene edited to suppress their interaction with arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi. This will allow scientists to better quantify how the microbes support plant development by assessing the full spectrum of interactions. They will measure yield and grain nutritional content in varieties with an enhanced capacity to engage the fungi and those in which it has been suppressed--while comparing both to the performance of a typical barley plant.

Professor Oldroyd said: “Barley has properties that make it an ideal crop for studying these interactions. The ultimate goal is to understand whether this same approach can be used to enhance the capacity of other food crops to interact with soil fungi in ways that boost productivity without the need for synthetic fertilisers."

The trial will assess production under high and low phosphate conditions. It will also investigate additional potential benefits of the relationship with mycorrhizal fungi, such as protecting crops from pests and disease.

The trial will follow the regulations that govern the planting of genetically modified crops in the UK, with oversight conducted by Defra and its Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment (ACRE.) There will also be inspections during the trial, carried out by the Genetic Modification Inspectorate, which is part of the UK’s Animal and Plant Health Agency. The inspection reports will be publicly available.

Trials will evaluate whether enhancing the natural capacity of crops to interact with common soil fungi can contribute to more sustainable, equitable food production

Working with natural and beneficial microbial associations in plants has the potential to replace or greatly reduce the need for inorganic fertilisersGiles OldroydNIABBarley trial crop in field


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Relocating farmland could turn back clock twenty years on carbon emissions, say scientists

Thu, 10/03/2022 - 10:00

The reimagined world map of agriculture includes large new farming areas for many major crops around the cornbelt in the mid-western US, and below the Sahara desert. Huge areas of farmland in Europe and India would be restored to natural habitat.

The redesign - assuming high-input, mechanised farming - would cut the carbon impact of global croplands by 71%, by allowing land to revert to its natural, forested state. This is the equivalent of capturing twenty years’ worth of our current net CO2 emissions. Trees capture carbon as they grow, and also enable more carbon to be captured by the soil than when crops are grown in it.

In this optimised scenario, the impact of crop production on the world’s biodiversity would be reduced by 87%. This would drastically reduce the extinction risk for many species, for which agriculture is a major threat. The researchers say that croplands would quickly revert back to their natural state, often recovering their original carbon stocks and biodiversity within a few decades.

The redesign would eliminate the need for irrigation altogether, by growing crops in places where rainfall provides all the water they need to grow. Agriculture is currently responsible for around 70% of global freshwater use, and this causes drinking water shortages in many drier parts of the world.

The researchers used global maps of the current growing areas of 25 major crops, including wheat, barley and soybean, which together account for over three quarters of croplands worldwide. They developed a mathematical model to look at all possible ways to distribute this cropland across the globe, while maintaining overall production levels for each crop. This allowed them to identify the option with the lowest environmental impact.

The study is published today in the journal Nature Communications Earth & Environment.

“In many places, cropland has replaced natural habitat that contained a lot of carbon and biodiversity – and crops don’t even grow very well there. If we let these places regenerate, and moved production to better suited areas, we would see environmental benefits very quickly,” said Dr Robert Beyer, formerly a researcher in the University of Cambridge’s Department of Zoology, and first author of the study. Beyer is now based at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK), Germany.

Previous studies have identified priority areas for ecological restoration, but this is the first to plot the relocation of agricultural land to maximise long-term environmental benefits without compromising food security.

While a complete global relocation of cropland is clearly not a scenario that could currently be put into practice, the scientists say their models highlight places were croplands are currently very unproductive, but have potential to be hotspots for biodiversity and carbon storage.

Taking a pared-back approach and only redistributing croplands within national borders, rather than globally, would still result in significant benefits: global carbon impact would be reduced by 59% and biodiversity impact would be 77% lower than at present.

A third, even more realistic option of only relocating the worst-offending 25% of croplands nationally would result in half of the benefits of optimally moving all croplands.

“It’s currently not realistic to implement this whole redesign. But even if we only relocated a fraction of the world’s cropland, focusing on the places that are least efficient for growing crops, the environmental benefits would be tremendous,” said Beyer.

The study finds that the optimal distribution of croplands will change very little until the end of the century, irrespective of the specific ways in which the climate may change.

“Optimal cropping locations are no moving target. Areas where environmental footprints would be low, and crop yields high, for the current climate will largely remain optimal in the future,” said Professor Andrea Manica in the Department of Zoology at the University of Cambridge, senior author of the paper.

The researchers acknowledge that relocating cropland must be done in a way that is acceptable to the people it affects, both economically and socially. They cite examples of set-aside schemes that give farmers financial incentives to retire part of their land for environmental benefit. Financial incentives can also encourage people to farm in better suited locations.

The model generated alternative global distribution maps depending on the way the land is farmed – ranging from advanced, fully mechanised production with high-yielding crop varieties and optimum fertiliser and pesticide application, through to traditional subsistence-based organic farming. Even redistribution of less intensive farming practices to optimal locations would substantially reduce their carbon and biodiversity impacts.

While other studies show that if we moved towards more plant-based diets we could significantly reduce the environmental impacts of agriculture, the researchers say that in reality diets aren’t changing quickly. Their model assumed that diets will not change, and focused on producing the same food as today but in an optimal way.

Many of the world's croplands are located in areas where they have a huge environmental footprint, having replaced carbon-rich and biodiversity-rich ecosystems, and are a significant drain on local water resources. These locations were chosen for historical reasons, such as their proximity to human settlements, but the researchers say it is now time to grow food in a more optimal way.

This research was funded by the European Research Council.

Reference

Beyer, R.M. et al: ‘Relocating croplands could drastically reduce the environmental impacts of global food production.’ Nature Communications Earth & Environment, March 2022. DOI: 10.1038/s43247-022-00360-6

Scientists have produced a map showing where the world’s major food crops should be grown to maximise yield and minimise environmental impact. This would capture large amounts of carbon, increase biodiversity, and cut agricultural use of freshwater to zero.

If we moved production to better suited areas, we would see environmental benefits very quicklyRobert BeyerWheat fields


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Global food security is a major research priority for UK and international science.

Cambridge Global Food Security is a virtual centre at the University of Cambridge. We promote an interdisciplinary approach to addressing the challenge of ensuring all people at all times have access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and preferences for an active and healthy life. 

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