Researchers on the Norwich Research Park are supporting sustainable agriculture with cutting-edge science, this includes using a novel approach in their work to tackle a major global cereal disease.
Attendees at the Norwich Research Park’s Agri-Tech Week event heard from:
- Dr Joe Win, The Sainsbury Laboratory, about how ‘open science’ is helping to better understand the spread of wheat blast disease
- Professor Brian Reid, University of East Anglia about the risks of soil carbon trading
- Dr Jose De Vega, Earlham Institute, about increasing resilience of crop plants to climate change
- Marco Fioratti, John Innes Centre, about the management of cover crops and the impact on subsequent yields
- Dr Myriam Charpentier, John Innes Centre, who covered the importance of root endosymbiosis
Open science accelerates discovery
“An open science approach enhances data integrity. It fosters transparency, encourages cooperation among researchers to accelerate scientific discovery, and realises the benefits of research much more rapidly”, explained Dr Win.
Dr Win’s research focuses on wheat blast disease, which was first identified in Brazil in 1985, and which causes between 75% and 100% yield loss in affected crops. Since then the disease has spread to a number of other South American countries, and more recently to other continents. It was identified in Bangladesh in 2016 and Zambia two years later, and Dr Win’s work has been instrumental in understanding and publicising the spread to help reduce the risk of the disease spreading further. The data and other elements of the research which Dr Win has been involved in is all published at www.OpenWheatBlast.net.
Will there be a ‘carbon bubble’
Delegates also heard from Professor Brian Reid who explained the science behind some of the risks associated with the current rush for soil carbon trading, a rush which some have described as a ‘carbon bubble’.
There is current huge interest in the concept – and practice – of farmers and landowners trading their soil carbon credits, which they can potentially increase through adopting regenerative and associated agricultural management approaches, to corporate customers seeking to offset their own emissions.
“But not all soil carbon is created equal,” warned Prof Reid, who explained that some soil carbon is ‘labile’ and supports soil biology and soil health but is not stable in the long term, and is subject to respiration by organisms and release back into the atmosphere. This includes the carbon found in crop residues. On the other hand, ‘stable’ carbon, such as that found in humus and in some inert organic forms, delivers long term carbon storage and is appropriate to use as the basis for carbon credits in carbon trading and offsetting schemes.
“People today are often trading all of their soil carbon, including the labile stocks which are not stable in the long term. This means that the buyers of these credits face the risk that this carbon will at some point be lost to the atmosphere. So it’s not enough just to measure your soil carbon – you really need to understand what different types you’ve got.”
Resilience to climate change
Dr Jose De Vega’s research focuses on finding novel rice diversity in Vietnam to help breed more resilient varieties.
“The impacts of climate change on food production are obvious, but to help reduce these impacts we need to make crops more resilient,” he explained. “The great changes in plant breeding we’ve seen over the past 100 years have seen wheat plants reduced in height from shoulder height to our modern dwarf varieties, which are less susceptible to lodging. But we now need to focus on breeding for other traits, such as resilience to the impacts of climate change.”
“The developments which we’ve seen historically underline the importance of gene banks and diversity – all of the genes which have been exploited to improve crops are a product of natural diversity.”
Dr De Vega described how rice production in Vietnam is highly susceptible to climate change, due to a combination of factors including increasing salinity and drought. But the rice landraces found in Vietnam contain a vast amount of genetic diversity. In fact, 672 varieties of rice from throughout the country have now been genetically sequenced and work is underway to identify the different genes in these ancient varieties which can impart greater resilience to modern crops.
Below ground biodiversity and importance of roots
Also presenting at the event were Marco Fioratti who gave an excellent presentation entitled ‘Below ground biodiversity’, which covered his research on how the management of cover crops affected a range of variables such as soil biodiversity and crop yield, and Dr Myriam Charpentier who covered the importance of root endosymbiosis in nutrient uptake by plants and supporting crop growth.
This event was hosted by Norwich Research Park.
Agri-Tech Week features a mix of in-person and virtual events that are designed to showcase exciting developments in agri-tech. It is coordinated by Agri-TechE working closely with partners across the innovation ecosystem and aims to provide opportunities to attract new customers and partners and to broker collaborations and international connections.