Why can’t we just talk about it?

Agri-Tech East’s mission to get farmers and researchers communicating

Getting two groups of diverse people talking is always difficult, even more so when they are both driven by different goals. Farmers and agriculturalists focus on innovative technology in order to achieve good harvests to try to maximise their returns. Plant scientists however want to understand the underlying biology of their research of interest. So these two groups have different driving factors of profits and principles. Working together is therefore immensely challenging. One way to tackle this is to improve the dialogue between the two groups by identifying the common ground.

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Photo: Alex Indigo/Flickr

Scientists in live public discussion today about what ‘natural’ really means

We’ve all seen it. Whether it’s on labels in supermarkets or in adverts on our TVs, the word ‘natural’ is often used to sell products.

Foods may be ‘naturallly’ farmed or contain only ‘natural’ colours and flavours. Or you may have used a ‘natural’ remedy to help you recover from an illness.

But why do products sold in this way appeal to us as consumers? Why are we so keen for our food to be grown ‘naturally’ while we strive for technological advances in other aspects of our lives? And does ‘natural’ in this context really mean what we think it does – if anything at all? Continue reading

Photo: Skånska Matupplevelser/Flickr.

EU’s rules on genetically improved crops a ‘threat’ to developments in agriculture, say MPs

A report out today is calling for the equivalent of Nice – the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence – for developments in crop technologies. The House of Commons Science and Technology Committee also says the government should encourage more public debate around developments in crop technologies

It recommends forming a ‘citizens council’ for considering the social and ethical impacts of new crops. Nice has a similar role producing advice on new medicines, which is used by the NHS to make funding decisions.

In its report, the committee criticises the model used for regulating genetically modified organisms in the European Union. The system “threatens to prevent such products from reaching the market both in the UK, in Europe and, as a result of trade issues, potentially in the developing world,” according to the committee of MPs. Continue reading

A global approach to achieving food security

Last month, 13 developing countries received recognition from the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) for their progress towards eradicating hunger and improving food security. At the ceremony, the FAO’s director general, José Graziano da Silva, congratulated them for turning political commitment into actions and demonstrating the will to achieve and surpass the millennium development goals.

Achieving food security – that is, guaranteeing that all people have access to sufficient and nutritious food to lead an active and healthy life – is the ultimate goal of the FAO’s work. The organisation’s activities range from creating indexes of agricultural productivity to supporting collaborations between public and private parties. It is also a neutral forum for international discussions and agreements so that global productivity may be increased through sustainable agriculture.

Improving crop productivity around the world requires actions on a number of fronts: political, social, economic and scientific. Small farmers in developing countries must be supported and their contribution to food security acknowledged. We need to enhance the capacities of breeders, scientists and workers in the seed industry. High-yielding and resistant crop varieties need to be bred. And key traits underlying adaptation to changing environments need to be identified – as is being done here at the John Innes Centre!

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Where does our food come from?

Last month I travelled across the county to Peterborough to help run the John Innes Centre stand at the East of England Agricultural Society’s Food and Farming day.

Food and Farming day provides an opportunity for school children to understand agriculture and food production. Organisations were there from all parts of the agricultural industry, right from us scientists at the research level, to farmers, to companies that make produce for supermarket shelves. This event serves a number of purposes, primarily to help young people understand where their food comes from, and encourage them to pursue careers in the agricultural industry.

The more I work at events such as this one, the more I realise how important it is to open up the conversation about food production. We now live in a culture of fast food and supermarkets, which means we don’t ever really have to think about how the food we eat actually gets there. Growing crops and rearing animals becomes a sort of abstract concept. We know it happens, but really it doesn’t seem to affect us. This disconnection between the farmer’s field and the supermarket shelf means that many children (and adults!) don’t know that rice is a plant, that sausages come from animal meat, or that bread is made from wheat.  However, as we become increasingly detached from our food, it is only becoming ever more important to really understand the food production system.

Food security is a bit of a buzz word with the scientists and politicians at the moment, and for good reason. The global population is expected to reach 9 billion by 2050, and all those extra people need to be fed! However, the problem we have is that we already use around 40% of the earth’s land mass for agriculture, and the earth isn’t getting any bigger. In fact, we may have even less space for food production than we do now in 50 years’ time, because of course all those extra people will need somewhere to live, and schools to go to, and hospitals to be treated at.

An additional issue is that this extra food needs to be produced and distributed sustainably. Current agricultural practices are actually pretty bad for the environment. Pollution, pesticides, fertilizers and animal waste can often end up in our water supply, damaging delicate environments, or contributing to greenhouse gases. Animals over-grazing can ruin grasslands. Vast swathes of rainforest and other endangered habitats are being cut down every year to make room for agriculture. Food is transported thousands of miles producing yet more greenhouse gases and pollution.

Ultimately, we need to produce more food, from less land, whilst reducing our impact on the environment. Seems like a bit of an impossible equation!

There are many ideas about how we can increase our food production in a sustainable way. Just some of these ideas include: developing GM crops that contain additional nutrients or don’t need to be sprayed with pesticides, producing food locally to reduce carbon produced in transportation, improving infrastructure and food distribution systems, cutting down on food waste, and selecting for crop varieties that give higher yields per hectare or are able grow on more marginal land, reducing meat consumption.

To decide which of these solutions could be the most helpful, and then implement these changes, scientists, politicians, policy makers and the public need to work together. However, we can’t have a fully open discussion, or expect people to back agricultural and environmental policies, if they don’t understand where the food comes from in the first place. By holding more events such as the Food and Farming Day, and educating children about agriculture, the next generation can grow up to be part of the discussion, and maybe even become the scientists and policy makers of the future to help feed our growing population.

 All photos from @johninnescentre

By Amelia Frizell-Armitage, a second year PhD student in the lab of Christobal Uauy

Out of the lab and into the field

During the summer months it’s quite common to find the labs in the Crop Genetics department at the John Innes Centre fairly empty. Although many of us might wish we were on sunny beaches enjoying the sun, the reality is that we’ll generally be found in the less tropical climate of East Anglia attending to our field trials. Trials are very important for plant geneticists and pathologists as they provide a chance to test crop varieties in a natural environment, and also allow data on yield performance, disease resistance and stress tolerance to be collected on a larger scale than in a glasshouse or polytunnel.


But what does running a field trial involve?

Time scale

Whilst the activity in the plots usually begins to pick up during spring, trials can actually be a year round activity. Generally seeds must be bulked at least 4 months before they’re due to be planted to make sure there is enough to fill a plot. Winter cereal varieties such as winter wheat or barley are generally sown in the field during October to December, so that they’re exposed to the cold temperatures they require to germinate, a process which is called vernalization. Spring cereals can be sown from January to April however, as they don’t need such cold temperatures in order to grow.

Picture1Once the seeds have begun to emerge from the soil, irrigation can be set up to ensure that the trials have enough water and fertiliser can be applied to make sure the plants are as healthy as possible. Then depending on the type of trial, plants may be sprayed with herbicides to prevent unwanted weeds, or fungicides which prevent fungal diseases. The time it takes to collect the required data also depends on what type of trait is being investigated. For example, height measurements may be taken after a few weeks of growth, whereas yield data might be gathered at harvest maturity which can be 3 or 4 months after initial planting.

After all the required traits have been recorded (and the weather is co-operating) it’s then time to harvest, either by hand or mechanically using a harvester. This means that yield data can be recorded and the seed can be used for further experiments or analysed for nutrient, fungus or toxin content. It’s also time to start doing some statistics with the data that has been gathered. Whilst two varieties might look different in terms of a specific trait, it’s important to know whether this difference is statistically significant- is the difference real or is it purely down to chance? The results can sometimes be unexpected, but give an indication of which lines would be useful to investigate further. Once this is decided it’s usually time to start planning for next year’s trial!


Picture2As you generally only get one chance a year to gather trial data it’s important to plan properly. However, sometimes even the best planned trial can be changed due to problems with drilling, poor seed or even animal damage. For example having control lines within a field plan, such as including dwarf varieties, means it is easy to check the location of specific lines within a field. I’ve found this particularly useful when plots aren’t where I expected them to be due to drilling issues! Using replicates or split plots within a trial can also be helpful, especially if seeds don’t establish well in a certain part of the field, meaning that you don’t completely lose data for that line.


Multi sites and environment

In lab experiments you would usually want replicates to be as similar as possible in conditions to the original. This is not true of field trials. You instead aim to have trials in a wide variety of environments to prove that the effects you see are universal.  However running field trials is costly so there is a limit between the ideal number of locations you’d test and what you can actually perform. This year I have 9 different trials, with 5 in Norfolk to allow me to monitor them easily. The others are in Suffolk, Dorset and Ireland. This geographical spread, as well as a showing reproducibility, can also act as a failsafe if the weather conditions cause problems in one area. For example the disease that I work on requires rainy weather to thrive. Thus if Norfolk has a dry summer I may have poor data, however additional trials in different weather conditions can compensate for this.

Field Equipment

People usually react with shock when I reveal that I can go weeks without using a PCR machine! But the equipment favoured by the field scientist is often very different to those that you would associate with a scientist. My most important piece of equipment is my clipboard; it is so much easier for data collection than having to write on the ground or leaning on the back of a passerby. Other important parts of key field gear include wellingtons, sunhats and suncream depending on the weather.  Beyond this, the equipment you need depends on what you are working on, from a simple metre sticks for height measurements to combine harvesters for measuring yield. As for me, my favourite piece of field equipment is my field cushion, as it has prevented my knees being completely destroyed when taking measurements at ground level.

What do we do in the field?

Chris: My field trials are about how the fungus Zymoseptoria tritici spreads in the crop canopy and how this relates to differences in yield. So my main task in the field is scoring the disease.  This is done by inspecting leaves at different heights in the canopy and scoring the lesions formed by the fungus.  This process is complicated by the presence of other disease and abiotic damage so you need to be trained in what you are looking for.  In addition to this a wide variety of physiological traits are being measured in the plots to identify differences in the physiology of the lines used.  At the end of the experiment, both diseased and undiseased plots of these lines will be harvested allowing for comparisons of yield between the lines. Across my different sites the combination of the disease, physiology and yield data should allow us to understand the septoria-yield trade off better.

Rachel: My trials look at the resistance of a heritage barley variety to Fusarium Head Blight (FHB) which is a major disease of cereals caused by toxin-producing Fusarium fungus. Resistance to FHB has been linked to plant height, with taller varieties being more resistant. However, tall varieties are less favoured in agriculture, so I’m aiming to see if FHB resistance and a shorter height trait can be combined into one variety. This involves spraying the crops with Fusarium to generate disease, and then scoring for disease resistance, height and other important traits. My trial will be hand harvested and then the grain analysed to determine the toxin content of each line to see if the disease resistance score correlates with a reduction in toxin production.

By Chris Judge and Rachel Goddard, both 3rd year PhD students in the department of Crop Genetics