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.

About Geoff Tansey

I curate the Food Systems Academy, a free, on-line, open education resource to transform our food systems. I was also a member of the Food Ethics Council from 2000-2021 and chaired the independent Fabian Commission on Food and Poverty, which reported in 2015.
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