What is world’s oldest agricultural research institute doing? Visiting Rothamsted Research

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Last week I spent a day visiting the world’s oldest agricultural research institute – Rothamsted Research. It is in Harpenden, Hertfordshire, about a half hour train journey north of London. I spent about six weeks there between the third and fourth year of my soil science degree for my work experience in the summer of 1971 and haven’t been back since. Apart from the building nearest the road, and the old Manor, the place is unrecognisable to me now.

I’ve gone back to see what is going on because I have been on an oversight group for a public engagement project to help the institute seek feedback on how it should work with industry. The results of that are due out in April and you can find out more from Dr Matina Tsalavouta, e-mail: matina.tsalavouta@rothamsted.ac.uk, the communications officer.

Rothamsted Research is run as an independent charity and gets much of its funding from the UK’s Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), which still employs most of its staff. As a charity it works for the public benefit so how and on what terms it works with industry matters.

So what are they up to today? I got a quick glimpse from the various meetings I had, starting with what brought me there in the first place, the soils side – now housed in much more splendid buildings than the somewhat hut-like place I remember working in, in 1971, which, I’m told, was knocked down a few years ago and is now under the Centenary Building, opened in 2003, that houses about 200 scientists.

Prof Keith Goulding heads the department for sustainable soils and grassland systems and showed me round. Thanks to its long history, continuous sampling and the experiments run in the same field – Broadbalk – since 1843, they have a unique sample archive of soils and crops dating back to then. In the interview with him you can hear how it’s been used to look at depletion of nutrients, as well as our discussion about the relative neglect of soil science; how maize growing in the south of England affects run off; the unique farm platform at their North Wyke site in Devon where they can monitor all the inputs to and outputs from a grassland system producing beef and sheep including water going into and out of each field; how grassland management affects run off; the opportunities remote sensing offer, and questions about the future use of these heavy clay soils if climate change predictions are correct.

Most of the research today seems to focus on the plants rather than the soil. And researchers don’t have to go outside to do much of the research as there are over a dozen growth chambers and various glasshouses where plants can be grown in controlled conditions and their pollen prevented from entering the environment. An extensive bio-imaging building houses, amongst other things, three electron microscopes that can produce images from hundreds to hundreds of thousands magnification. It is also where I met one of the few people still at Rothamsted since when I was there.

For John Pickett, research fellow and leader of the chemical ecology work, he studies ecology where it relates to interactions mediated by chemistry. Which means? Well, for example, understanding semiochemicals or signal chemcials that plants make and plants making substances such as pheremones that deter herbivores or repel insects. He’s proud that the synthetic pyrethroids were developed by his former boss Michael Elliott at Rothamsted in the mid 1970’s. Today, he’s working on what’s become known as push-pull pest control in Africa, which involves using locally available companion plants, and intercropping cereal crops with a forage legume, desmodium, and planting Napier grass as a border crop. The Desmodium repels stemborer moths (push), and attracts their natural enemies, while Napier grass attracts them (pull). (See paper available at http://rstb.royalsocietypublishing.org/content/369/1639.toc)

Much more controversially, he’s behind the recent trial of wheat that has been genetically-engineered to produce a pheromone that repels aphids. Done more as a proof of concept than for crop production he sees these approaches as reducing the need for pesticides in the future.

Another colleague is focused more on changing what plants produce. Johnathan Napier heads up the group working on designing seeds and has a whole lot of Camelina plants engineered to produce the kind of omega-3 fatty acids found in oily fish growing in a greenhouse. He wants them to replace fish meal in feeding farmed fish and perhaps be eaten by people too.

For Dr Malcolm Hawkesford, head of the plant biology and crop science department, one of his challenges is to develop wheat with a yield potential of 20t/ha by 2020.

These are just some of the projects underway at Rothamsted. Whatever you think of the research, they may also have taken a first step through their public engagement work on a road that could lead to a wider-ranging public engagement not just about one aspect of one institute’s work but about the priorities and programmes of Research Councils in the UK.

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New #TrackATree project to help understand impact of climate change on woodlands in the UK

I’m delighted to say my elder daughter’s PhD project, Track a Tree, has just launched. She is asking for volunteers to become citizen ecologists who will record the progress of spring in woodlands across the UK. She’s looking for people to record the spring phenology, or seasonal timing, of individual woodland trees and the flowering plants that grow beneath them.

By observing UK woodland communities, the aim is to find out how spring timing varies across some of the UK’s most important habitats, and discover how changes in climate could affect UK woods.

On the Track a Tree website – http://www.trackatree.org.uk/ – you can find out more about the project, download the clearly written field guide which tells you which trees and flowers to monitor, register to become a recorder and start making observations. There will also be regular updates on Twitter @TrackATree and on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/trackatree


After selecting a woodland tree and completing some basic information about its characteristics and location on the website, volunteers should then make regular trips to the same tree, ideally weekly, from before it buds, through to leafing, to record its development and that of key plants, such as bluebells, beneath its canopy.

The Track a Tree study, which will take place over this spring and next, should provide a clearer picture of how climate change is impacting on seasonal developments in key woodland trees and plants in parts of the UK.  Shifts in the order of spring events may lead to some species doing better at the expense of others. The findings will help predict how future change in climate could impact on trees and flowers, and inform the management and conservation of ancient woodlands.

The initiative is a sister project of The Woodland Trust scheme Nature’s Calendar, which records the seasonal timing of a range of British wildlife.

Christine Tansey, of the University of Edinburgh’s School of Biological Sciences and the Woodland Trust, who is leading the study, said: “Climate change is already impacting on woodland, with spring plants emerging sooner than they used to. It is important that we learn all we can about how climate change could further impact on this natural heritage. Our study asks the public to become citizen scientists, tracking seasonal changes in woodlands”

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Millets join India’s public distribution system and new India-Africa links are born

Every year in December and early January, I get lots of letters from friends and family updating me on their news for the past year. Most are only of interest to friends and family. But this year, news in one of these e-mailed letters could make a huge difference to tens, maybe hundred of millions of people in India.

“It was a year that took me to great heights of happiness when India passed a brand new Act called National Food Security Act which for the first time in our history recognised millets as food security grains of the country and put them firmly in India’s Public Food system”, wrote P. V. Satheesh, from Pastapur village, about 100km from Hyderabad, on the Deccan Plateau in Andhra Pradesh.

ImageImageImageSatheesh writing in Pastapur village in the DDS compound

“…for the dalit peasant women who constitute the DDS family,” says Satheesh, “this was truly historic. They had, with grit and determination, overcome their total social, economic and gender marginalisation and had reshaped a national policy through a determined struggle.”

The Africa – India Millet Network was also born in 2013, which will build on the work the Millet Network of India (MINI), which has worked for a decade to bring millets into India’s public food system, ending the exclusive focus on rice and wheat.


Some of the film makers and radio station broadcasters

I was lucky enough to be able to visit some of these wonderful illiterate, dalit women who form the core of the Deccan Development Society and the Community Media Trust a few years ago. You can see a film they made about millets called “Millets: The Miracle Grains at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vvHLPzb2e6A.

and read more about them and their experience of becoming film-makers in the Red Cross’s World Disasters Report 2011 on p22-24 of chapter 1.


Enjoying a millet based meal in a dedicated millet restaurant in nearby town where you can also buy organic millet seed

The challenge now, says Satheesh, is to start a process of decentralised procurement of food grains to ensure small farmers benefit from this change. They don’t want to see supply of millets captured by corporations that become the sole contractors for supplying millets to government granaries. As a start they have been invited to begin a pilot in decentralised procurement and distribution by the government in the southern state of Karnataka in two districts where Ragi and Jowar are popular millets. I’m hoping next year’s letter will tell of their success in this pilot and be the beginning of a decentralised, localised food system for India in which the poorest farmers will benefit most.

[Photos from my 2009 visit]

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China Vignettes 6: Promoting high-yield, high-efficiency methods on small farms in N China plain via science & technology backyards


Handan is a city of several million people about 4 hours south of Beijing by fast train. Over an hour’s journey away by car is Quzhou country. Here, staff and students from China Agricultural University’s Centre for Resources, Environment and Food Security have been working and living since 2009 to promote more efficient resource use in farming and high yields.  It is an unusual project that took me back to my days working in agricultural extension projects

Small groups of 2-3 students are living in village houses creating ‘science and technology backyards’. The aim is to use the techniques from the Quzhou Experiment station (pictured below) to reduce the environmental impact of farming and improve crop production efficiency. The students aim to teach farmers methods and techniques that these farmers pass on to others. They have also established farmer field schools.


It took a while for the farmers to trust them as, at first, the farmers thought they were sales people coming to sell them things but as they saw improvements in yield, closing the yield gap between what was being got and what was possible, trust levels grew.

Before the university staff and students came to begin, they had found that there were problems with irrigation and very low efficiency of water use, with ground water levels falling 1/m year recently and now at 50m below ground. There were also problems with the reliability of the fertiliser, so they introduced soil testing to assess the needs and monitor the effects. They also advised on timing of applications to reduce waste and increase uptake.


The groups of usually three students live in villages, often an outbuilding in the leader’s house. Each group focuses on the different types of farming practices locally. In one village, a focus is on mechanisation and reducing the drudgery in the wheat / maize production system, introducing deep ploughing techniques.


In another village, they have a winter wheat, summer maize, watermelon cropping system giving three harvests per year, intercropping the watermelon with the wheat, as this is more profitable than the wheat / maize system. The students found they were learning from the farmers about the watermelon techniques and were able to then help with advice on the overall system. They also helped organise the farmers into a cooperative and create a registered trademark to market their produce.

In yet another village, the focus is on fruit production and using the concept of circular agriculture to improve the quality of the fruit, yields and to improve the soil through mulching techniques.


There is one women’s science and technology backyard served by three female students. Here the focus is not just on agriculture but also social life, such as dancing. They opened a women only farmer field school with classes every one to two weeks. Numbers are up from 24 to 40 and the women sit an exam at the start to assess their needs. The aim is both agricultural and self-development and according to the women I met it has been a considerable success.


I was invited to dinner in this village in the house where some of the teaching happens – a meal of steamed bread, millet porridge with pumpkin and peanuts, shredded turnip and a couple of greens. Slowly others joined us and by the end of the evening they had me up dancing to current popular music in China.


What was missing, though, was a look at both what farmers themselves might be doing to change their practices and more agro-ecological approaches to farming systems, as seen elsewhere in China and reported on in earlier blogs. In the future, perhaps, there is room for much greater inter-change between the different groups – all of whom are working to improve China’s food and farming.


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Who pays the true cost of food? And when?

Earlier this month, for the first time, I tweeted my way through a conference. It was on true cost accounting for food and farming – #tcaconf. The talks are all on the organisers, Sustainable Food Trust’s, website.

While everyone there recognised that the price we pay for food does not reflect the true cost of producing it today, the tough issue was how are you going to account for these costs in a way that does not hurt poor people most.

Neither farmers nor businesses in the food system have to pay for the real cost of the way they do business, owing to what economists call externalities – things that are not accounted for in the price people pay for goods and services. But to include them will put the price up. The questions is who pays, and when – now or later?

What was missing, for me, was a sense of where the burden should fall when you do take account of these true costs. And they are huge. The huge cost of these externalities runs into trillions of pounds, according to Tim Lang, over the coming decades in health care costs that poor diets lead to. There are other big externalities from the environmental costs of many current, fossil-fuelled industrial farming practices, from pollution to biodiversity loss, which undermine sustainability of the system.

But tackling these does not have to mean loading everything onto the price of the final product. Thinking that it does misses the complexities in the system – the range of subsidies and polices that underpin the way things are today, from those to the fossil fuel industry to direct payment to farmers to legal frameworks such as those on intellectual property. Taking the true costs seriously and building them into the system also offers social and economic opportunities to rethink these things, so that in taking account of the real costs, they too are changed.

Where prices of basic foods or inputs go up, the issue becomes one of poverty, fair wages, wealth distribution and expectations, not simply squeezing the poorest further in the status quo. Perhaps that’s why this tougher stuff did not get tackled – the place for another conference? It’s also why the final, ill-judged, session was a missed opportunity – as an 11 year old said in one of the final comments on the conference, something like ‘all morning the problems we’ve been discussing have been about my future… why are we now not talking about action?’.

What was clear from some participants is that we do know many of the things to do – as these interviews with a couple of the speakers briefly outline. One is stopping the corporate externalities, which, says Pavan Sukhdev, study leader of The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity, TEEB, project in this interview are “the biggest free lunch in the history of time”.

We also know what needs to be done in changing farming systems, says Prof Jules Pretty, in this short interview. The evidence is there to show that moving to agro-ecological approaches, and supporting the majority of the world’s small farmers in this approach, can both deliver sustainable production, increase production and avoid the negative impacts on our environment.



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A botanical surprise in Hong Kong


Coming to Hong Kong from Nanning is a bit of a culture shock. Yes, there were big shopping malls in Nanning and we foolishly let a taxi driver take us to one packed with designer labels from the west, but they pale in comparison with HK. Here, when you come out of every major station, it seems to be into a huge shopping mall full of western chains and designer outfits and even fuller of people shopping – many of them down from mainland China just a short metro or train ride away. Other differences include the plethora of cake shops, having English spoken quite widely, UK type 3 pin plugs, driving on the left and double decker buses – great for getting a good view from the top deck.

Most people’s image of the place is of the high-rise sea fronts and bustling densely populated areas of Hong Island and Kowloon – where there is a nightly light show (see video in previous blog). The surprise for me, though, was when we headed north of Kowloon into the new territories to visit Kadoorie Farm and Botanic Garden.


Here, on a misty Saturday morning, Idy Wong, Head of Sustainable Living and Agriculture, took us on a tour of this hilly wooded place about 20 km north of our hotel in the New Territories. Fifty years ago the area of the farm was barren, she says. The farm was started in the 1950s when the two Kadoorie brothers, wealthy hoteliers from Hong Kong, started a programme for refugees from China, to help them farm and grow food. They also wanted to help retired Gurkas, of whom there were many in HK, and chose the hillside as both having similarities to Nepal and as a good place to experiment with regeneration and restoration.

Today, many of the native species have been restored to the site, there are terraces growing a range of crops and a major research progamme in the botanic garden side. It is also the only wildlife rescue place in HK where many consignments of illegally shipped animals are intercepted.


Gunther Fischer, who runs the botanic garden, produces deep frozen specimens of some of the many exotic that did not make it on being rescued by the customs authorities. There is also a team from the farm in China working on capacity building, while the flora conservations department focuses on managing the estate and conservation science. This latter involves restoration ecology, as HK was deforested 300 years ago.  Although the British started to reforest it, they did so with fast growing exotic species, not any of the 400 native species.  The staff are also monitoring the flora in the light of climate change and seeing if the composition of the trees is changing. Another team work with orchids, from a micro propagation lab to greenhouses.  They also have a full-scale genetics lab which is used for identifying plants and animals

The staff and 100 or so volunteers also place a high priority in bringing young people on tours of the farm to get an understanding of the environment. They get about 150,000 visitors a year, mostly from kindergarden to university level.


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China vignettes 5 – Community supported agriculture, agro-ecological farming, participatory plant breeding in maize and rice-duck system in S W China

In late September, I ended up accompanying a group of students from Lancaster University to China again. You can get a flavour of what we saw and did in this video – including the wonderful demonstration of traditional dancing laid on in the second village we visited.

We were heading to Nanning in Guangxi province to see food and farming systems there that aim to help build resilience and improve living standards for small farmers. Passing through the huge and prosperous city of Gungzhou (formerly Canton) gave us a glimpse of the dynamic growth happening in China – where they seem to build high-rise buildings faster than you can grow some crops.

Nanning is a much smaller city, but still with several million people, further west. Yet here too are new high rises, often illuminated at night. The old city food markets still thrive although supermarkets are also growing, both of foreign and local origin. And the usual fast food brands seen in Europe and the USA also populate the downtown shopping centres. For me our worst, and most expensive meal was in one of these, while our best meals were in Chinese restaurants, in particular the one we ate in one the first night. That was set up by some of the students who had worked in the villages we visited during the week – to build links between the rural and urban and provide a market for the organic crops being grown.

It was my second visit to Guzhai village of Mashan town, where the local farmers produce organic vegetables, raise pigs and use their waste to produce biogas. They also work with the Guangxi Maize Research Institute on a participatory plant breeding programme that has so far delivered six new maize varieties. Here, they favour a waxy maize and large containers of freshly cooked cobs were brought out for us to sample when we arrived.

I first came to this village last year with Dr Yiching Song and her colleagues. Yiching is Senior Research Fellow
, Center for Chinese Agricultural Policy, Chinese Academy of Sciences and head their Participatory Action Research Programme. She has been leading work on Supporting Farmers’ Organization and Rural Innovation Process in China and in which these villages are involved. Some of this work is written up in more detail in Seeds and Synergies: Innovating Rural Development in China (Practical Action, 2010) click to read

Apart from the impact on their farming, the female leader of the farmers’ organisation that had grown up from the project, which largely consists of women in the village, a key benefit has been the sense of empowerment it has given them.

In the second village we visited, where they have also been working with the agricultural extension office, the local famers have been experimenting with and adopted a new – but in reality quite old – approached to rice production. Instead of using fertilisers and pesticides in the rice paddies they are using ducks – in a rice–duck system. They feed the ducks, which live in the paddies, and the ducks both fertilise them and eat insects that otherwise damage the rice. The ducks are taken from the field at key points when they might eat the rice and are either sold or eaten.

Each farmer cleans and bags their own rice production but the villagers have developed a brand for this kind of rice production from the village.  Each bag is  labelled with the generic brand on the front and has the farmers name on the back. We both ate the rice and saw it for sale in the organic restaurant we ate at in Nanning. The farmers get a premium for the rice and so greater incomes. The feed for the ducks comes out about the same as the costs of fertiliser and pesticides, says the head of the farmers association – again headed by a women.

One young man who joins us on the tour is an exception. He worked for a couple of years in the city, he says, but did not like that and came back. Now he grows mulberries for silk worm production and rent land of a number of others. He now has 27 mu (1ha=15mu) which produce a good income for him.

These developments have also been supported by the Hong Kong based NGO Partner of Community Development and Chinese based NGO Farmer’s Friend. These and other villages in three province in SW China are part of a new EU financed 5 Year project on strengthening small farmer resilience in the face of climate change (SIFOR). Yiching leads the the group from China, with other partners in Peru, Kenya, and India, along with the UK-based International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED) which coordinates the project.

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