Helping plants grow better for improved #food security – from beans in low-input farming to wheat in Australia and rice in China

How do you get the knowledge generated by researchers into farmers’ fields? That is the key issue being discussed by the Association of Applied Biologists this week at a meeting on Knowledge exchange: from research to the food supply chain in Lancaster, UK. I dropped in on the first afternoon session yesterday, after visiting a performance of The Roadless Trip, by Sarah Woods, who is working with me on the Food Systems Academy. JZhang-Lancaster It was great to hear Prof Jianhua Zhang explain the water-saving techniques being used in China again – I met him last year in Hong Kong and you can hear my interviews with him  here. What was new to me was the fascinating work on how selecting plants with the right kind of root system to make more effective use of the water, phosphorus and nitrogen in the soil can greatly increase yields of beans and other crops. Beans are key food for a billion people explained Prof Jonathan Lynch from Penn State University as he discussed his group’s research. Here, he tells me more about his work and also about the need to pay more attention to whole plants and the mix of traits in them (phene and phenotype) as opposed to the gene and genotype. The need for researchers to connect what their specific research focus is into the farming systems of farmers themselves was highlighted by Greg Rebetzke (in red shirt on left in photo) and John Kirkegaard, a couple of researchers from Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, CSIRO. They don’t just work closely together in nearby offices but also together with farmers in the field to link Greg’s research in wheat into farmers’ practices as they explained: There were lots more people I’d like to have talked to and interesting looking papers I could not stay for but many will be published, by the end of the year after peer review, in the open access journal Food and Energy Security.

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Transforming #Food: All things considered – constraints, enablers, tensions and bold steps outlined in Food Ethics Council report


A new report by the Food Ethics Council – Food: All things considered – assesses the transformational changes needed to build fair and healthy food systems. It “provides a robust challenge to ‘business as usual’” said Justin King, former CEO of Sainsbury’s speaking about the changing face of food retail at the Council’s 50th Business Forum.

I’ve been a member of the Council since 2000 and we’ve been running these business forums since June 2007. I’ve chaired a few over the years, most recently the 49th on advertising.

The new report analyses the trends and tensions that have emerged over our 50 Business Forum meetings, and draws out the key levers that will drive transformational change. Liz Barling, our head of communications, summed up the three key changes as:

A radical shake up of how the market operates

Businesses in the UK and around the world operate in a global economy predicated on the growth model of increasing GDP above all other goals. As costs and other constraints of producing food become more volatile; and as the market responds to climate change, escalating resource costs and population growth, is the growth model still fit for purpose? We believe that trying to tackle rising food costs in reaction to market signals will create a suboptimal response. Rather, it is better to be bold and start looking now at the transformative policy options of changing consumption patterns, reducing meat consumption, eliminating waste and paying the true price for food.

Adoption of completely new business models

Some business leaders understand the risks to their organisations from unsustainable food systems and want to transition to sustainable business models. Such models might look similar to today’s but their values and success indicators will be radically different. They might seek to deliver positive nutrition; adopt an economics of ‘enough’ approach; or build thriving long term relationships with stakeholders. Whatever they look like, the only certainty is that the prevailing model will change.

Strengthening of government commitment to long term food policy

Government support and encouragement is the ‘magic glue’ which will enable changes in the way the market operates, and the adoption of new business models. Government policy is almost always framed by short term political thinking – just as business policy has traditionally almost always been framed by short term profits. But if business practices are changing, can progressive business leaders persuade government to follow? Just because an issue doesn’t fit within a short term financial or political cycle, it doesn’t mean it should be ignored.

Food: All things considered sets out the case for progressive action from the food and farming sectors. It also highlights how governments and food businesses should be held to account by citizens at the ballot box, in restaurants and in the supermarket aisles.

The powerful players in global food systems – governments, the food industry, the agricultural sector – need to put themselves into the shoes of those the system isn’t serving, and ask the question “what’s the best we can do for everyone, all things considered”. It sounds like an easy question but it isn’t, because for every ‘right’ answer there are likely to be unintended consequences. Any solutions must give greater weight to the voiceless, the powerless and the vulnerable.

Climate change, resource constraint and population growth will create even more unprecedented pressures and difficult trade offs for those working in food and farming. To face these challenges requires transformative changes led by national, regional and international governments.

Transformational change requires transformational thinking. The Food Ethics Council supports business leaders who are squaring up to the inequalities in our food system. It is no easy task, but nothing less will be enough.

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Soils, farms, schools, catering and innovation – The #Soil Association working from the ground up to 2020


At the heart of the UK’s Soil Association is the belief espoused by its founder, Lady Eve Balfour that “The health of soil, plant, animal and man is one and indivisible”. For decades, the Association has been the premier campaigner for organic farming in the UK but it now sees its brief as far wider than that. Today, it reaches out into schools, catering and beyond in its aim to change Britain’s food culture and practices. It also wants other farmers to embrace some of the lessons it has learned even if not going fully organic.

It has staff of over 250 in its Bristol HQ, about half of whom work on organic certification, supports some 14500 public members and 4500 licensees and has a turnover of around £15-16m, about half of which comes from the certification business.

On a visit to Bristol last month, I took the chance to ask its chief executive and organic farmer, Helen Browning*, about where its founder’s view fits in its work today and where the Association wants to be in 2020:

One of the most successful recent ventures of the Soil Association has been the Food for Life Partnership work with schools that Helen mentioned, so I asked Libby Grundy, director of its work at the Soil Association to tell me more about it:

*If you want to hear more about Helen and are in the UK you can listen to her story as told on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs on 22 May 2015

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Expanding our understanding of plants and where our food comes from – from clay pit to Eden today

Bodelva Pit before constructionEdenBiomes

I was in Cornwall a few weeks ago and took the chance to visit the Eden Project. I had last been there nearly 15 years ago, shortly after it opened. Quite a transformation – but that is as nothing compared to what it started out as – an old clay pit (see photos above).

As it happened, we had gone to visit the Eden Project after visiting the Lost Gardens of Heligan. This is where the project’s co-founder, Tim Smit got a taste for transforming landscapes, as Tony Kendle, another early developer of the project and now creative director, told me.

After talking with Tony about how it began and what it is aiming to achieve today, in particular around helping people understand more about the food they eat, Ben Foster, who’s been at Eden since 2002, and I went down into the biomes. He explained a bit more about the great domes which house the plants and what it’s like inside.


[Photos-left to right: Inside the tropical and Mediterranean Biomes, the WEEEman – a sculpture made from the waste electrical and electronic equipment one (UK) person throws away in a lifetime, about 3.3t]

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Beware the dangers of disruptive technologies

Yesterday, in what turned out to be a very disruptive day for many in British politics as the results of the UK general election today made clear, it now seems fitting that I went to a talk on disruptive technologies and the ethical implications and threats and opportunities they pose.

Thanks to an invitation from Prof Graham Dutfield at Leeds University’s School of Law, I heard philosopher, neuroscientist and geostrategist Prof Nayef Al-Rodhan, Senior Fellow and Programme Director of the Geopolitics and Global Futures Programme at the Geneva Center for Security Policy, Geneva, Switzerland.

Al-Rodhan_book2He highlighted his concerns about a wide range of emerging technologies, ranging from Artificial intelligence to synthetic biology to precision genetic engineering, to quantum computing, to neuromorphic chip technology. The way many of these were converging together, their potential for contamination of the biosphere and three in particular were of concern as he explained in a brief interview after his talk. He also outlined his view of human nature as emotional, amoral egoism:

He called for precautionary-based regulation now before it was too late to manage these emerging technologies. You can find much more about his work and numerous publications in this area on his website Sustainable History.

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Why we must change now by UK’s #FoodSecurity champion, Tim Benton

Tim Benton has got quite a title. He is the champion for the UK Global Food Security Programme. He is also a professor in population ecology at the University of Leeds. In January, he was one of the witnesses at the environment hearing of the Fabian Commission on Food and Poverty. In early March, I met up with him in London and had chance to ask him more about his role and how his professional background informed his understanding. Here’s the interview:

Some of the key points he made were that:

  • Unless we change direction in what we consume and how we produce food, that alone would account for a 2 degree rise in global temperatures by 2050
  • Change requires facing up to the impossibility of infinite economic growth in a finite system
  • Without that change of direction conflict is likely as food, water and national security are all linked
  • Change is needed now to avoid passing a 2 degree rise in global temperature in the next decade which would lead into unstoppable positive feedback loops and catastrophic climate change
  • Creating real physical stocks makes sense in face of the likely climate changes and weather extremes
  • There is a lack of public pressure on politicians to take these challenges around food security sufficiently seriously
  • Paying the true cost of food is necessary but must be done in a way that protects the poorest.
  • We cannot assume the future will follow a linear pattern and be much like the past
  • We cannot continue current wasteful practices
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A Recipe for Inequality: Why our food system is leaving low-income households behind – Fabian Commission #foodandpoverty interim report

I’m on my way to Glasgow to chair a hearing of the Fabian Commision on Food and Poverty tonight. Yesterday, we released our interim report ‘A Recipe for Inequality: Why our food system is leaving low-income households behind’.

You can see the report here, or read the story in the Guardian or the Mirror.

FabComIntRep Continue reading

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