“We are on the cusp of a golden era,” said Sir David Baulcombe at the launch of new Crop Science Centre, which aims to translate cutting-edge plant science into real change in how crops are developed and grown.
The Centre brings together excellence in discovery science from the University of Cambridge’s Department of Plant Sciences and unparalleled expertise in applied crop research from NIAB. The alliance is designed to fast-track technologies that will sustainably improve farmers’ yields worldwide.
Director of the Crop Science Centre, Professor Giles Oldroyd is internationally respected for his work on nitrogen fixation, which aims to replace inorganic chemistry with biological approaches.
Giles comments: “We are excited to be opening this new Centre, which can drive the transformative change we so desperately need.”
The Crop Science Centre will focus on three key areas:
- Pests and diseases – specifically how plants use their resources for defence against pathogens, utilising these mechanisms would increase resilience to environmental stress
- Nitrogen – how plants harvest the nutrients they need, enhancing this would reduce the need for inorganic fertilisers
- Photosynthesis – carbon capture by plants is the first stage of food production, increasing its efficiency would increase yields
Giles discussed how the work of the centre would be a force for good; highlighting how Sub Saharan agriculture is achieving less than 20 per cent of its potential and the impact that supporting those farmers would have on food security, overcoming nutritional shortages and improving farm incomes. “The future could be sustainable, climate ready agriculture that is accessible to all the world’s farmers.”
Driven by impact, fuelled by excellence
Professor Stephen Toope, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge, said: “Urgent action is required to sustainably provide enough quality food for the world’s growing population. By combining our expertise in fundamental plant science with NIAB’s long experience in crop improvement, I am confident that we will make progress towards this vital goal.”
The Centre will focus on improving the sustainability and equity of global food production. It will use an understanding of how plants work at the most fundamental level to drive transformative change in how food is grow, for example, reducing agricultural reliance on chemical inputs such as inorganic fertilisers, while maximising crop productivity.
NIAB, is an internationally recognised centre for crop innovation. Dr Tina Barsby, CEO of NIAB commented about the role of the centre which is to bring research to farmers and growers and tests products through its extensive field trials. The alliance will maximise the pace of research and accelerate crop improvements.
The new centre is at NIAB’s Lawrence Weaver Road campus in the north-west of Cambridge and will be next to Park Farm and its state-of-the-art glasshouses.
The Centre will serve as a global hub for crop science research and a base for collaborations with research partners around the world, to ensure global agricultural impact from the ground-breaking science.
Increasing diversity in crops
The speakers took questions from delegates. A question was raised about a recent report ‘The State of the Worlds Plants and Fungi – that identified over 7,000 species that have potential for new crops, but also highlighted that 90 percent of the world’s food energy comes from just 15 species.
David took this question and gave the example of Ground Cherry. “This is a plant that is highly nutritious and has the potential to be one of our 5 a day, but it is difficult to grow; with a gene editing technique this has been overcome. From a nutritional viewpoint we should be eating more variety of plants and seeds and ecologically there are benefits in growing a wider range of species.
“We have made great advances in understanding the fundamental science and have a tool kit of technologies – gene editing, speed breeding, sequencing, modelling and AI – now we have the opportunity to transfer this knowledge to crops; increasing the diversity of species we can grow and facilitating low input agriculture.”
Introducing new traits to small holders
Other questions were around how the knowledge and agri-tech would be implemented. Giles stressed that this could only be achieved through partnerships, with other groups and with local people on the ground.
He explained the four elements that are needed.
- Make the right products and talk to the farmers to ensure they meet their requirements
- Be visionary, transformational change cannot be envisioned by those concentrating on meeting short term needs, scientists need to looking at what is possible for the future
- Use the right technology for the right trait -in many situations plant breeding is best, but we shouldn’t be scared of using genetic modification if that would enable us to reduce the use of inorganic fertilisers.
- Build partnerships – this is also across different disciplines of science – engineering, robotics, social science.
Giles also cautioned about the need to see the big picture – “We want to be sure the impact we have is the impact we want” and warned of the dangers of creating waste and of the need to engage with the public.
Tina concluded “Through transformative crop science technologies, research at the new Centre aims to ensure even the world’s poorest farmers can grow enough food. I would like to thank David, in particular, for his persistance which has enabled to get us to this point and I am excited that Giles is in post to take this vision forward.”
Further information about the Crop Science Centre is available at www.cropsciencecentre.org and @cropscicentre