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.

About geofftansey

I curate the Food Systems Academy, a free, on-line, open education resource to transform our food systems. I am also a member of the Food Ethics Council and chaired the Fabian Commission on Food and Poverty, which reported in 2015.
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3 Responses to Helping plants grow better for improved #food security – from beans in low-input farming to wheat in Australia and rice in China

  1. Fascinating piece, as usual, Geoff. Thank you. One question that arises is: who directs the plant breeders? Getting the results of their research into farmers’ fields may not serve people or planet well if their new crops and varieties are designed, at best, to improve ‘resource use efficiency’, or, at worst, to prolong the death-throes of commodity systems. Little, if any, research seems to start with the needs of citizens in the here and now, for example by reversing the declines in nutrient density seen in many Green-revolution cultivars.
    We’re trying to do something about this in Scotland, a country with cutting-edge science institutes and plant breeders which is nevertheless almost completely dependent on imports of bread wheat. Our Scotland The Bread ( project starts with the pressing need for more nutrient-dense bread (in a country with soaring rates of obesity and other diet-related conditions) and involves citizens and community groups (as well as molecular biologists) in the development and evaluation of a revitalised grain supply that is healthy, fairly-traded, locally-controlled and low-impact.
    We don’t believe that the right plant-breeding work will be done unless the commissioning process involves everyone with an interest, i.e. farmers, millers, bakers, retailers, those who decide what others eat, and citizens. There is little point, for example, in spending millions developing high-phytase cereals (supposedly to increase mineral accessibility in mono-gastric animals and humans) if you ignore the role of extended fermentation of bread dough (as in traditional and modern sourdough systems) in achieving the very same result without problematic molecular manipulation or the high added cost of IP-protected proprietary seeds.
    We have just launched a crowdfunding appeal for Scotland The Bread, to disseminate mineral-rich heritage (and other) wheats to community growers and bakers, as part of a collaboration with scientists, farmers, bakers and public health nutritionists. We would be very grateful if you and your network would spread the word. This is the link to make a pledge and get more information:

    Many thanks and good wishes
    Andrew Whitley
    Bread Matters

  2. Hilary Hamer says:

    Andrew. I just reached for the comments box to reply to Geoff to say this is happening in Scotland after being made aware of the fantastic and really interesting work you are doing on early wheat varieties when you talked at the School of Artisan food weekend! It seemed a less hazardous approach to that I heard several years ago at an agri-food conference just before Christmas at Reading Uni and the talk that stays with me was about the farmer response to selenium deficient soil and the plant uptake from a foliar spray (probably poor recall) was only about 25% and it wasn’t going to take many sprays to create toxicity. The precision farmers will argue that with intelligent tractor and satellite systems spraying is now ‘only’ for those bits of the crops or soil health that are in need of it – but not everyone has access to that kind of sophistication even if it is effective. But good to see there may be a new dawn. Ever the optimist. I’m off to your pledge site now. Hilary

  3. geofftansey says:

    Thanks both for your comments. Prof Jonathan Lynch has the following response about what drives his team’s work:
    “The breeders we work with are in the public, nonprofit sector who are focused on improved nutrition, income, and food security for smallholder farmers. Because poor farmers cannot afford fertilizers and irrigation, developing staple crops like bean and maize with greater tolerance of drought and low soil fertility directly improves food security and household income. Our main breeding focus has been on common bean, a subsistence crop for poor farmers and poor consumers in Africa and Latin America. The common bean is a very nutritious food, rich in protein, iron, zinc, and antioxidants. Many of the bean lines we work with have been selected for high iron and zinc content. Our breeding partners work in close collaboration with the communities they serve and farmers participate in the selection of new cultivars and in deciding what qualities are the most important breeding priorities. Social resource shows that these new bean lines benefit households and communities by improving food security, nutrition, and farm income, and benefit the environment by reducing soil erosion and by improving biological nitrogen fixation.”

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