BBSRC provides strategic funding to eight institutes that have long-term research programmes and national capabilities that underpin important sectors of the UK economy – including agriculture, food and drink and pharmaceuticals. Last week I had a very productive visit to one of the institutes – IBERS which is part of Aberystwyth University. As well as getting a review of the Institute Strategic Programmes that we fund there, I also spoke to a number of researchers in areas as diverse as ruminant microbiota and biofuels. I hadn’t realised that the Institute was so heavily involved in teaching undergraduates as well as postgraduates and was pleased to see how successfully integrated it has become with the University. I was extremely impressed with the National Plant Phenomics Centre and its capacity for automated imaging and measurement of a range of different plant sizes. The ability to measure both below and above ground phenotypes is impressive. The Institute is also home to the Beacon Biorefining Centre of Excellence which is a partnership between Aberystwyth, Bangor and Swansea Universities. [...]
Tag: food security
Agriculture and food security in various forms were the main areas of focus during the past week. The agri-food chain (i.e. from farm to fork) contributes about £96Bn to the UK economy and is equivalent to 7% GVA (gross value added). It also provides over 3M jobs.
The UK government recently recognised the importance of the agri-tech sector and published a strategy earlier in the year for the industry. The aim is to ensure that the UK becomes a world leader in agricultural technology, innovation and sustainability both in the UK and globally. I attended my first meeting of the leadership council for the Agri-Tech Strategy whose chair is Judith Batchelar from Sainsbury’s. It will be important going forward that all the key stakeholders work together, including industry, to drive the strategy forward. BBSRC has been very active in this area in the past and the Diet and Health Research Industry Club has been particularly successful and we will continue to play a very active role. [...]
The first external meeting was with Prof David MacKay, Chief Scientist at the Department of Energy and Climate Change. We enjoyed a wide-ranging discussion focussed on Bioenergy, including theoretical yields of photosynesis, losses in light and dark reactions, the continuing improvement in willow and Miscanthus yields, biological carbon sequestration, anti-flooding plants, the overall contribution to energy and chemicals needs one might anticipate from UK crops, and so on.
I attended an interesting and rationally argued set of talks at the British Library on pollinators and insecticides, chaired by Bill Turnbull of BBC Breakfast News fame (and a clearly committed beekeeper), with Panel contributions by individuals from the British Beekeepers Association, from Cambridge University and from Syngenta. The multifactorial nature of stresses on bees (not least poor weather and inadequate forage) were well explained (and well accepted) by all. Interestingly, most of the issues were precisely those that I had covered in an earlier blog or two. [...]
I began the week, as part of our activities on the Sustainable Bioeconomy in Europe, by attending part of the 15th meeting of the European Federation of Biotechnology. I used to attend more regularly as an academic, but had not been for a while. Much of the focus is still on what is called ‘white’ (i.e. microbial) biotechnology for the production of enzymes, fuels and chemicals, and some substantial progress had been made. Systems biology now also had its own strand, referred to (I do not know why) as ‘purple’ biotechnology. Presumably when applied to microbes it becomes lilac. [...]
Much of last week was occupied by my attendance at an eponymous conference in Dundee that we helped sponsor on plant root biology, under the auspices of the International Society for Root Research. I co-chaired one of the sessions and gave a short talk based on a couple of review articles and calculations.
There were a huge number of highlights, not least in meeting so many of this community, but probably the outstanding talk was the opening keynote by Jonathan Lynch, whose wide-ranging review covered everything from molecular genetics and very high-tech measurements of root morphology at different scales (e.g. using laser ablation tomography as the best method for measuring aerenchyma) to the substantial yield improvements that these methods, and some careful thinking, plant breeding and agronomy, were having in a variety of African countries. Effective breeding increases both shallow (and spreading) roots for improved phosphorus uptake and deep roots for improved nitrogen use efficiency and drought tolerance. Roots should be ‘steep, deep and cheap’, said Lynch. I also much enjoyed keynote presentations by Malcom Bennett and Michelle Watt, both vertically integrating quite fundamental molecular knowledge with downstream physiological properties (with the latter showing improvements in water acquisition by deep roots, with 10cm of increased depth in no-till agriculture in Australia translating to 0.5 tonnes per ha increase in wheat grain yields). Overall I learnt a lot about the potential and research needs of this core element of Global Food Security. [...]