Agri-science finds green solutions to global hunger

HOW can the world’s farmers continue to feed a growing population?

Julian White, CEO of the White Rose University Consortium

Global demand for food is rising, pushed up by increasing affluence, changing diets and a vast number of extra mouths.

The United Nations thinks global food production must increase by 70 per cent by 2050 to keep pace.

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But crop production is under pressure: farmers’ face increasing competition for land and fresh water.

Climate change is altering weather patterns and crop losses through pests and diseases are relentless. Food supplies may become unreliable.

Nevertheless, help is at hand close to home as some of Yorkshire’s best scientific brains tackle the problems by the agricultural industry.

Agriculture contributes £9bn to the UK economy. It underpins the UK’s £26bn food and drink sector. The sector is critical to Yorkshire’s economy: we boast the nation’s largest concentration of food and drinks businesses.

In the future our agricultural industry must produce more crops from less land, using less water and energy, all while reducing waste and greenhouse gas emissions.

Tackling such food security issues requires a multidisciplinary approach. Leading scientists and businesses across Yorkshire are collaborating to address the challenge.

Indeed, the region’s unusually high concentration of agricultural businesses and intellectual assets fits perfectly with the ‘Smart Specialisation’ approach highlighted in Sir Andrew Witty’s review, “Encouraging a British Invention Revolution”.

Government funding is prioritised in line with Witty’s recommendations – Yorkshire is already reaping the benefits.

The BioVale initiative is helping to develop a local burgeoning bio-economy. Led by the University of York, this consortium plans to stimulate interaction between public, private and academic sectors, offering advice, training and purpose-built business facilities for agri-tech R&D.

Building on BioVale’s development, the Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) of Leeds City Region and York, North Yorkshire and East Riding recently submitted strategic investment plans to Government which feature BioVale as a key component.

Both LEPs expect to receive significant funding to boost innovation in local agricultural business and create jobs.

The White Rose Universities of Leeds, Sheffield and York are advancing agriculture through research and development initiatives in ‘Agri-Science’ – one of the ‘Great Technologies’ in which Britain is a world leader.

Leeds is looking at ways to make agriculture more sustainable, whether it is protecting pollinators such as bees, promoting natural pest control, reducing water pollution caused by agricultural run-off or developing ways of assessing and measuring environmental impact.

Professor Tim Benton from the University of Leeds is the UK Champion for Global Food Security and leads a programme involving the UK’s Research Councils, Government departments and their public agencies – including the York-based Food and Environment Research Agency.

Professor Peter Urwin and colleagues at Leeds are working closely with industry to build on expertise in GM science: one project aims to improve plant resistance to nematodes – tiny worms which cause some £74bn of crop losses globally each year.

Researchers have recently completed work to sequence the genome of potato cyst nematodes (PCN), finding ways to suppress its ability to feed, invade and develop.

Boosting yields is the overarching goal, but there are many approaches.

Project Sunshine at the University of Sheffield sees world-leading scientists unite to carry out cutting edge research in food and energy sustainability, focusing on six core themes: land resources; crop

production and protection; consumer practices; sustainable, healthy diets; agri-food supply chains; and the ethical, legal and political tensions in agri-food ecosystems.

As an example, work with the company RAGT Seeds Ltd is developing disease-resistant varieties of wheat.

The work will reduce the need for pesticides, saving British farmers £30m worth of wheat fungicide spray annually.

Meanwhile the Biorenewables Development Centre at York develops novel processes to convert plants and biowaste into commercial products. The centre offers agricultural businesses funded support and open ccess facilities.

Current projects include a collaboration with Citration Technology Ltd to develop fungi that turn industrial waste into valuable chemicals on a commercial scale.

These few examples show the diversity of agri-tech research taking place across Yorkshire.

However collaboration across our region enhances our scope to develop ground-breaking projects.

For example, the White Rose University Consortium brought together experts from all three universities to study biodiversity in wheat fields. The idea is to boost agricultural yields whilst preserving local ecosystems.

Early results reveal surprising differences between ecosystems even within different areas of the same field.

Within our region world-leading scientists rub shoulders with innovative small businesses and multinational agricultural giants. We have the perfect conditions for germinating a generation of new technologies – modified crops and innovative farming practices that will fuel commercial growth and feed our families.

And who knows, perhaps our universities in Yorkshire could play a key role in eradicating global hunger too?