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ATW23: Research to tackle the impacts of climate change 

Agri-TechE Article
Norwich Research Park Norwich Research Park

At Agri-Tech Week 2023, “Ferrari” sugar beet met “Caveman” sea beet. Delegates learned that soil carbon can be categorised as either “scones with jam and cream” or “Brussels sprouts”, according to a soil carbon fate model, and heard about a novel cover crop proposed by the farmers  – all inspired by research underway at the Norwich Research Park

Roz Bird, CEO of Anglia Innovation Partnership. Photo by Farrel O’Keeffe, Norwich Research Park

All Carbon is Not Created Equal 

A “soil carbon fate model” developed by Brian Reid at the University of East Anglia (UEA) is providing a better understanding of the long-term fate of this increasingly valuable commodity in our soils.  

Crucial to this is the recognition that not all carbon is the same. Some, such as the carbon from fresh and degraded crop residues, is degradable and supports soil life, health and ecosystem services. Other organic carbon, such as humus, is stable, and delivers long-term carbon storage.  

“The degradable carbon is like jam and cream scones in the soil!”

Brian explained: “It’s the preferred and easy choice to be broken down and digested. The longer-term storage is not so easily degraded by life in the soil. Thus is the “Brussels sprout” option when it comes to being chosen by soil life to support itself.” 

Understanding the ratio of the two, and how to enhance them is key to UEA’s model and for informing payments that farmers might receive for their carbon. Profiling carbon stability, advised Brian, will help with decision-making around how best to manage soils for effective carbon management.  

Of Prof. Brian Reid, UEA

Cavemen and Ferrari – breeding better sugar beet 

Sugar beet accounts for 50% of the UK’s sugar demand and is proving not only a model system to understand crop domestication, but it also yields new insights into options for disease resistance.  

“Sugar beet was only relatively recently domesticated from its wild relative – sea beet,” explains Mark McMullan from the Earlham Institute.

“You can imagine one is a high-performance Ferrari, while the other is a relatively undeveloped caveman. But the caveman version is well adapted for the conditions in which it is growing. So, there’s a big, untapped reservoir of locally adapted genetic diversity for UK growing conditions which we can potentially introduce into commercial beet varieties.” 

Working with the British Beet Research Organisation and breeders KWS, the team at Earlham is working to identify novel genes for disease resistance and other “climate sensitive” genes that could improve the UK sugar beet crop. Over 50,000 sea beet seeds have been collected from populations in East Anglia, the Humber and Merseyside and they are being screened for genes that have a potential role in breeding for the climate of tomorrow.  

The grass pea’s promise and peril: overcoming its toxicity barrier

Grass pea is a highly nutritious relative of sweet peas and, like all legumes, it can fix atmospheric nitrogen and is drought tolerant, due to its origins in parts of Africa and Asia. Surely a wonder crop ready to transform agriculture and food security? 

Alas not – or not yet anyway.  

“Grass pea currently has one big drawback,” says John Innes Centre PhD student, Jasmine Staples: “It is toxic to humans and livestock if eaten in large quantities over a long period of time”.  

This toxicity has created a stigma about the grass pea which Jasmine’s research aims to address, by transforming the performance and reputation of this legume. There are few commercial varieties, so identifying the genetic pathway of the toxin’s production would pave the way for breeding new varieties in which this toxin-producing pathway removed.  

Toxin-free grass pea could be a major new opportunity for both human and livestock nutrition which – as one delegate pointed out – could make for a very exciting new cover crop if sheep could safely graze it down.  

Nick Goodwin, Anglia Innovation Partnership; Sanu Arora & Jasmine Staples, both JIC; Mark McMullan, Earlham Institute; Jonathan Jones, The Sainsbury Laboratory

P(r)ea-dicting root rot in pea crops 

Sticking with the pea theme, the John Innes worldwide pea collection has been harnessed to help understand more about the genetic basis of disease resistance in peas.  

Group Leader Sanu Arora is working with the Processors and Growers Research Organisation (PGRO) to tackle yield instability in green and dry peas.  

“Peas are susceptible to many pests and pathogens,” explained Sanu, “they differ across the world but in the UK it is mainly root rot and downy mildew, and key chemicals to combat them are starting to be withdrawn.” 

By screening the JIC pea collection, a “genetic diversity panel” has been developed which is helping identify new ways of identifying root rot. This has led to a new diagnostic, to predict if a field is low, medium or high risk for root rot.  

Sanu is looking for farmers keen to help trial the new device – those interested should get in touch with us and we will connect you with Sanu.  

New Genetics for a New Revolution 

Today’s talk made clear that it’s the combination of traditional plant breeding and new tools, such as gene-editing, that holds the key to a new, genetically powered agriculture. On behalf of the Royal Society, Jonathan Jones, Senior Scientist at The Sainsbury Laboratory has just co-authored a new report entitled “Enabling Genetic Technologies for Food Security.” 

Alongside the world-leading technologies and science being deployed at the Norwich Research Park, one thing is certain – biology is the future for adapting to climate change.