How agri-tech will provide the answers to future-proofing sustainable crop production

PUBLISHED: 09:30 12 November 2020

The world’s food production is under massive strain, and scientists at Norwich Research Park are working on a number of projects to improve yields and sustainability   Picture: Unsplash

The world’s food production is under massive strain, and scientists at Norwich Research Park are working on a number of projects to improve yields and sustainability Picture: Unsplash

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One of the most critical global challenges the human race faces is how it is going to feed the world’s population, both now and in the future. Norwich Research Park is shining a light on food security today as part of Agri-Tech Week.

Scientists at John Innes Centre are working on creating cabbage stem flea beetle- resistant varieties of oilseed rape   Picture: Getty Images/iStockphotoScientists at John Innes Centre are working on creating cabbage stem flea beetle- resistant varieties of oilseed rape Picture: Getty Images/iStockphoto

The combination of a rapidly-growing population and significant changes in climate means that never before has there been such a demand for and subsequent strain on the world’s food production. Not only are high levels of crop production needed, they also need to be produced in a sustainable way.

Crops are faced with many threats, including biological – insects, diseases and weeds – and non-biological – changes in temperature, water supply and soil conditions.

The use of pesticides to help protect crops has become a controversial discussion point. Pesticides have a significant role to play in increasing agricultural production around the world and improving food safety.

But, due to an increasing awareness of the potential adverse effects of pesticides on the safety of foods and environment, a shift from scientific to political influence and a change from risk to hazard-based assessment, regulatory bodies in the EU are now increasingly restricting their use. This in turn limits the range of chemicals that farmers can use to control pests and diseases as well as when and where they can be used.

Researchers at John Innes Centre are helping to develop new farming methods, such as identifying soil microbes that suppress plant pathogens   Picture: John Innes CentreResearchers at John Innes Centre are helping to develop new farming methods, such as identifying soil microbes that suppress plant pathogens Picture: John Innes Centre

The development of new and safer pest control methods, including alternatives to widely-used chemical pesticides, has become a serious priority for the entire agri-food industry.

And that’s why this week, many organisations have come together to share ideas on how to solve some of these challenges at a series of events happening during Agri-Tech Week, organised by Agri-Tech E.

Scientists at Norwich Research Park are hosting an event today (Thursday, November 12) that will look at two core issues:

*How to protect crops from disease responsibly.

Dr Liliya Serazetdinova, head of business development at Earlham Institute, is chairing an event at Norwich Research Park  as part of Agri-Tech Week    Picture: Earlham InstituteDr Liliya Serazetdinova, head of business development at Earlham Institute, is chairing an event at Norwich Research Park as part of Agri-Tech Week Picture: Earlham Institute

*How to achieve improved crop yields sustainably.

These issues have emerged from the growing awareness amongst consumers of how food is produced. The demand for organic and free-range produce has led to a desire to explore alternative methods of protecting crops and improving yields. Soil health, sustainable farming practices and biocontrol methods all have a role to play.

Norwich Research Park has always been actively involved in the Agri-Tech Week conference because much of its research is focused on providing solutions to many of these challenges.

Researchers from the John Innes Centre, Earlham Institute and the University of East Anglia (UEA) will be speaking about their research, which includes exploring the complex relationships between crops, pests and non-chemical controls in a changing climatic and regulatory environment.

Dr Lewis Spurgin, research fellow, School of Biological Sciences, UEA   Picture: UEADr Lewis Spurgin, research fellow, School of Biological Sciences, UEA Picture: UEA

Their work looks at the impact of new controls on biodiversity and soil health. Three good examples that illustrate the type of work the researchers have been doing are:

*How to protect soil health from the presence of nematodes – nematodes, often referred to as roundworms, are worm-like parasites that commonly attack plants such as cherry tomatoes, potatoes, peppers, lettuce, corn, carrots, onions and rye.

*How to breed crops that are resistant to aphids – aphids are one of the most prolific killers of crops, so measures need to be found that will help crops develop a resistance to them that avoids the use of chemical-based pesticides.

*Dealing with cabbage stem flea beetles in a safe way – these pests can wreak severe damage to oilseed rape. Originally a problem in East Anglia, it now covers England and Wales and is spreading into Scotland, ever since the use of a chemical-based neonicotinoid-treated seed was withdrawn from use in protecting oilseed rape.

Dr Rachel Wells, senior scientist, John Innes Centre   Picture: John Innes CentreDr Rachel Wells, senior scientist, John Innes Centre Picture: John Innes Centre

The challenge to produce enough food to feed the world is immense. That’s why conferences like this are so important.

Dr Liliya Serazetdinova, head of business development at Earlham Institute, who is chairing Norwich Research Park’s event today, said: “The complexity of these problems and the management of those complexities often means one research organisation on its own cannot resolve them. Luckily for Norwich Research Park it has four world-leading research institutes on its campus that collaborate on many projects, bringing in different expertise, facilities and links with other organisations who can help.”

What the experts say

Dr Nasmille Larke-Mej�a, postdoctoral scientist, Earlham Institute   Picture: Earlham InstituteDr Nasmille Larke-Mej�a, postdoctoral scientist, Earlham Institute Picture: Earlham Institute

Pest control – Dr Lewis Spurgin, research fellow, School of Biological Sciences, UEA:

“To control pests in a sustainable way we need to understand their ecology. In particular, we need to understand what makes pests so successful. Our research focuses on flour beetles and sugar beet leaf miners to understand how and why pest populations differ from one another.

“This knowledge is used to develop and optimise novel pest control methods, including heat treatments for stored product pests and parasitoid-based biocontrol.”

Dr Jacob Malone, group leader –Plant Health, John Innes Centre   Picture: John Innes CentreDr Jacob Malone, group leader –Plant Health, John Innes Centre Picture: John Innes Centre

Alternatives to chemical controls – Dr Rachel Wells, senior scientist, John Innes Centre:

“Although oilseed rape has traditionally been grown as the most profitable break crop, due to a loss of controls for cabbage stem flea beetle, the cropping area for oilseed rape has declined by 35pc over the last eight years, posing a serious risk to the viability of the UK oilseed rape industry.

“Our work focuses on alternatives to chemical controls and mechanisms for plant defences to the cabbage stem flea beetle that can help breed beetle-resistant varieties for the future.”

Improving soil health – Dr Nasmille Larke-Mejía, postdoctoral scientist, Earlham Institute:

“Healthy soil contains a diverse and abundant number of microorganisms that interact with each other and support nutrient cycles and energy flow on which soil fertility depends. In farming, healthy soils are essential for the stability, yield and resilience of crops.

“We are investigating how soil microbial communities respond to long-term use of agrochemicals and how soil microbial communities react to changes in agronomic practices. The growing demands from consumers and impacts from climate change are pushing the food production sector to explore new ways to satisfy the needs for environmental sustainability; soil health is one of the key metrics.”

Manipulating microorganisms – Dr Jacob Malone, group leader, Plant Health, John Innes Centre:

“Modern intensive agriculture relies extensively on chemical fertilisers and pesticides, and farming practices that complement their use. However, this approach is ecologically damaging and unsustainable in the long term.

“There is an urgent need to develop new farming methods and products that emphasise soil and environmental sustainability, while maintaining crop yields.

“Manipulation and exploitation of the microorganisms living in field soil is key to developing a more sustainable agriculture.

“This can take the form of informed management approaches to maintain and recover soil quality, identification of soil microbes that suppress plant pathogens or boost plant growth and the isolation of naturally-occurring antimicrobials.”


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