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Testing the air across Norfolk for a year

Member News
Earlham Institute Earlham Institute
The views expressed in this Member News article are the author's own and do not necessarily represent those of Agri-TechE.

Technology captures fragments of airborne DNA to reveal the sometimes invisible biodiversity around us 

Researchers at the Earlham Institute in Norwich have begun a year-long project of sampling and sequencing the air at sites across Norfolk.

The cutting-edge approach they have developed in collaboration with the Natural History Museum, London, sucks thousands of litres of air through a filter, trapping any biological material floating nearby. This is then prepared, sequenced, and analysed to identify the species present.

The bulk of the DNA captured on the first day of sampling came from plants, likely reflecting the high pollen count in springtime.

Over the course of the next 12 months, the work will reveal new insights about the hidden biodiversity around us, differences between habitats, and how this changes with the seasons. 

All living organisms continually, and unwittingly, shed fragments of their DNA into the surrounding environment. Even tiny traces of environmental DNA – sometimes called eDNA – can be detected in the air.

Researchers at the Earlham Institute are capturing and studying airborne eDNA from different environments to learn more about the biodiversity we can’t normally see. 

Dr Richard Leggett, who has been leading the technology development underpinning this project at the Earlham Institute, said: “There are extremely small amounts of biological material in the air for us to sample. We have to pull in a lot of air – thousands of litres – to be confident we’ll have captured any traces of the organisms that might be in a particular habitat.  

“The cutting-edge technology we’re using, alongside new techniques we’ve developed, allows us to quickly find and sequence any DNA that was in the air – which could originate from plants, animals, bacteria, viruses, or even allergens.” 

One of the research group’s interests is crop pathogens, many of which use the wind to spread. These pathogens can be devastating for farmers, who can’t usually detect them until visible signs of infection appear on the plants – at which point it is often too late to save them. 

Dr Darren Heavens, a postdoctoral scientist in the Leggett Group, said: “The approach we’ve developed can be used by farmers to alert them to the appearance of pathogens, allowing them to take immediate action to minimise crop losses. 

“It potentially provides an unbiased, ‘always on’ monitoring system to continuously read the DNA and RNA sequences of microbes collected from the air. And, because we’re looking at the genome, we can even identify resistance genes or new strains emerging.”

The latest project sees the technology being deployed across Norfolk’s diverse habitats, with the process repeated every three months to reveal any seasonal trends. Encompassing the county’s coastline, forests, broads, and urban areas, the project will catalogue the species detected across eight sites. 

On the first day of sampling, the group identified DNA from plants, animals, bacteria, and fungi from all of the sites they visited. The majority of the biological material came from plants, reflecting a season in which the air is carrying large amounts of tree pollen.

The group also detected many airborne plant pathogens, including yellow rust – a serious crop pathogen – detected at a wheat field.

Each of the sampling sites has produced a distinct profile, which will now be tracked over the next 12 months to better understand the impact of the changing seasons. 

“We’re blessed to be based in a county with such an exceptionally diverse range of habitats and species,” added Dr Leggett. “This gives us a fairly unique opportunity to use the air to explore biodiversity across different environments and seasons – all without leaving Norfolk. 

“We’ve got a fair idea of some of the species we might expect to find and, at this time of year, it’s no surprise to find a lot of pollen in the air. But we may pick up things we can’t identify, or that have never been recorded in the region before.

“I’m not suggesting we’ll capture evidence of a Loch Ness monster on the Broads but this is one of the best approaches for finding traces of species we’d normally struggle to spot by eye.”

A key innovation in the approach came from needing to identify the wildly different species whose eDNA had been captured. 

Mia Berelson, a PhD student in the Leggett Group, explained: “When we normally sequence the genome of an organism, we collect some cells from it and extract the DNA. There’s only one individual so we know all the bits of DNA will belong to that one species.

“With the eDNA we’re collecting from the air, there will be fragments from many different species. It’s like being given one or two jigsaw pieces from lots of different puzzles, and then trying to complete all of them at the same time.” 

To deal with this challenge, the group developed MARTi – a piece of open-access software specifically designed to analyse mixed samples. As the fragments of DNA are read, MARTi compares the sequence to online reference libraries.

“MARTi is a piece of extremely clever software that logs and analyses what we find, before sorting through all these fragments to tell us the different species they belong to,” explains Dr Leggett.

Dr Matt Clark, Natural History Museum, London, said: “It was fantastic to have been involved in the launch of this project, which will see the sequencing of eDNA be used to unlock rich data about the biodiversity of Norfolk’s unique habitats and a key agricultural region feeding the UK. 

“When we previously worked together to trial similar technology in the old urban gardens surrounding the Natural History Museum during 2020-21, before we updated these areas, we were blown away by how the air-biome changes hugely across the seasons as indeed the ecosystem does. 

“Earlham Institute’s project is building further on the technology and will show how impactful the study of airborne eDNA can be.”

The project has been enabled by funding from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), part of UKRI, through its support of the Earlham Institute’s Decoding Biodiversity strategic research programme.

More information here

 

‘Go softy’, and the grass will thank you

Member News
Barenbrug UK Ltd Barenbrug UK Ltd
The views expressed in this Member News article are the author's own and do not necessarily represent those of Agri-TechE.

After the wettest 18 months ever recorded in England, Barenbrug’s grass experts urge growers to ‘go softly’ with first cuts.

“Go softly and the grass will thank you,” says Janet Montgomery, Barenbrug’s agricultural product manager.

“You don’t need me to tell you it’s been a wet winter. And while grass is amazingly resilient – certainly compared to winter crops that have suffered from waterlogging and flooding – it’s not invincible.”

In fact, it’s not so much the grass itself as the soil beneath it, Janet stresses. “With all that rainfall – 1,695.9mm, to be precise – soils have been thoroughly saturated again and again and again. They’re in a fragile state.”

In emerging or establishing crops, there is little protection for the top layer of soil, which can lead to soil erosion, a compacted top layer and the loss of aeration, Janet points out. “But established silage grounds will have a more mature, more robust root structure. That will have helped to maintain a more favourable soil structure, despite the saturation.

“However, with soils still so wet, it will be very easy to cause lasting damage even in those fields. And that will have a lot of knock-on effects down the line, especially with future silage yields,” she warns.

The added complication is the relatively mild winter which, coupled with an abundance of moisture, has seen grass reach an unusually advanced growth stage by this time of year. That will put farmers under added pressure to proceed with an early first cut.

Field by field

“However tempting it may seem, my advice would be to hold off until you’ve made a thorough assessment of the field and soil conditions,” she advises. “All that heavy silage machinery will play havoc with soil structure if it’s too wet – visible surface damage to the crop, and the deeper, unseen but often more damaging effects brought about by compaction.”

Soil types often vary across a farm, especially where ground is rented away from the main holding. “Obviously, if you can attend to lighter soil types first, there’s less risk of damage and you give more time for the heavier types to come good.”

Do what needs to be done to check fields, Janet says. “Look at the drains, see how wet the soil is, even dig a hole if necessary to see how saturated the soil might still be.”

Optimise machinery

Pay particular attention to power to weight ratios, tyre pressures and axle weights, as well as trailer sizes if you have a choice.

Once a field is deemed ‘safe’ to travel, Janet says cut height should be chosen very carefully. “Having taken every precaution to protect the soil, the last thing you want to do is to damage the sward!

“That can often happen when a heavy crop is cut very short,” she explains. “Just avoid the temptation to go for a bumper first cut. That’s why we say go softly. If you’re easy on it now, it will reward you later in the season.”

Avoiding contamination provides another good reason not to cut too close to the soil surface. Any damage caused earlier in the season – poaching, or wheelings, for example – can increase the risk of silage contamination from soil.

“Set up the mower to be as flat as possible and again, don’t cut too short. Not only will regrowth be quicker and better from having left a decent residue, but it also reduces any chance of the rake catching the soil as well as providing better traction in the field for raking and carting.”

Janet says a combination of factors could see a wide variation in silage quality this season. “When you’ve taken your first cut, if you’re not happy with the quality, then come and discuss it with one of the Barenbrug team at one of the events we’ll be attending this spring and summer, such as Grass and Muck, or Groundswell.

“Bring along some photos of the field too, and we can not only help you index it but also give some pointers for improvement or remediation.”

Read more here

  • *I have permission from the copyright holder to publish this content and images.

Beet farm near Wymondham in colour-based aphid pest trial

Member News
The Morley Agricultural Foundation The Morley Agricultural Foundation
The views expressed in this Member News article are the author's own and do not necessarily represent those of Agri-TechE.

Scientists hope patchworks of multi-coloured crops will help hide them “in plain sight” from pests as a natural alternative to pesticides.

Using dyes, the so-called “camo-cropping” trial has been started by the Norwich-based British Beet Research Organisation (BBRO).

It has been introduced at Morley Farms, near Wymondham, Norfolk, in an attempt to protect sugar beet from aphids.

Farmer David Jones said pests can “reduce yield by 50% in a bad year”.

Fields of sugar beet have been dyed different colours using food dye at the farm.

Scientists hope to find out if the camo-crops deter aphids from landing on the sugar beet and, if they do, which colours prove most effective.

Mr Jones, from the Morley Agricultural Foundation, said growing sugar beet was a “a challenge”.

He said the farm has to cope with “lots of things all of the time, principally the weather, but also weeds, and particularly aphids come and attack the crops and transfer virus into the crop”.

“We’re always looking for new ways to control the problems we’ve got, if it’s without pesticide [then] that can be beneficial to what we do,” he said.

Dr Alistair Wright, from the BBRO, said had used “colour as a dye to reduce the contrast between the immature beet and the soil”.

He said: “We’re trying any approaches to deter the aphids from the crop and we know they use all sorts of senses when they are migrating in the spring.

“One of them is colour and the contrast between the plant and soil, so using the dye we are hoping to effectively hide the crops in plain sight form the aphids.”

Dr Wright said there were “early positive signs” but added results would not be fully known until the harvest.

He said the organisation was also trialling other methods such as increasing ladybirds and planting a grass from New Zealand which releases chemicals that kill aphids.

“There’s no silver bullet, no one thing we can rely on,” Dr Wright added.

PGRO Descriptive List expands with 12 new pea and bean varieties

Member News
Processors and Growers Research Organisation (PGRO) Processors and Growers Research Organisation (PGRO)
The views expressed in this Member News article are the author's own and do not necessarily represent those of Agri-TechE.

A total of six combining peas, two winter beans and three spring beans have completed the requisite number of years in trials and demonstrated the necessary qualities for inclusion.

Funded by the PGRO Pulse Levy, the Descriptive List trials are conducted annually at sites located in the major production areas. Summary data is based on a five-year rolling average to take account of seasonal variations.

The data gives growers the opportunity to compare different varieties and evaluate which will suit their situation. Promising new material from plant breeders is regularly submitted and those which suit the market and have traits of interest are likely to be supported and available for purchase in the future.

PGRO Senior Technical Officer Dr Chris Judge launched the 2024 list this morning during a webinar attended by almost 100 farmers, breeders, agronomists and industry stakeholders.

He explained that despite going through heatwaves, cold snaps and a wide variety of temperatures and conditions, trials were conducted successfully and the varieties grown across the country demonstrated good consistency in terms of yield and impressive disease resistance.

“The control yield for peas, spring beans and winter beans were all very similar to the 2023 Descriptive List,” Chris said. “Looking at the five years currently used in the datasets, yields were slightly down in 2023 compared to 2022 for all three pulse groups.”

New combining pea varieties

Two yellow combining peas – Concerto (LS Plant Breeding) and Batist (Senova) – are the new top-yielding varieties producing 115% and 113% of the control respectively. KWS Flam is the other new yellow pea, yielding 110%.

Pink peas

A new pink pea category has been created for the Descriptive List to accommodate the new variety Flamingo (Cope Seeds & Grain). In trials it was the lowest-yielding pea listed (78%).

Green peas

Shazam (Senova) and Reacher (IAR Agri) are the two green peas making their debut on the list, and both have good all-round qualities in terms of yield and disease resistance.

Marrowfats

Elsoms Seeds is the UK agent for a new marrowfat variety, Vision, which has become the highest yielder in that category, achieving 100% of the control.

Winter and spring beans

In 2023 many winter bean trials struggled with frost damage after two cold snaps in short succession last winter. Despite this, harvest conditions were good in the summer and two new varieties – LG Arctic (Limagrain) and Ninja (Senova) – have completed their ascent to the Descriptive List.

Conversely, spring bean trials suffered in the heat. The hotter-than-average June led to similar yields to 2022 when heatwaves also struck during key stages of crop development. Synergy (Saaten Union) is the highest yielding of the three varieties entering the list for 2024 (107%), closely followed by Navara (Senova) which yielded 106%, and LG Hawk (Limagrain) which returned 101%

A video of this year’s Descriptive List launch will be available on the PGRO’s YouTube channel this afternoon and the full Descriptive List data can be downloaded from the www.pgro.org.

Combining Peas

Concerto (115%) and Batist (113%) are the new top-yielding yellow peas.
Concerto joins LG Ajax and new variety Flamingo in having a downy mildew rating of 7, just behind Rivoli which has an 8.
New addition KWS Flam has a yield of 110%.
Flamingo is the first pink pea and has the lowest yield.
New green pea Shazam is a later-maturing variety with the joint tallest straw and a standing ability of 7.
New addition Reacher has resistance genes for pea seed-borne mosaic virus and pea enation mosaic virus and joins LG Aviator as the only green peas with resistance to powdery mildew.
Carrington (LS Plant Breeding) remains the top-yielding green pea at 111%.
Both Carrington and Bluetime have a rating of 8 for downy mildew.
Mantara and Rose remain the only two maple peas on the Descriptive List. Both have high levels of protein and good resistance to downy mildew.
New variety Vision becomes the top-yielding marrowfat with a yield of 100% and has the best downy mildew rating for any marrowfat (7).
Winter Beans

New addition LG Arctic has an above-average yield at 104% and has the joint highest downy mildew rating on the list (6).
Ninja is a new early maturing variety for the 2024 Descriptive List. As well as having the earliest maturity (8) it has the highest protein content of all winter beans.
Vespa continues to have the top yield (109%), with Vincent performing second best (107%).
Most winter bean varieties have scored a 5 for chocolate spot, with Vincent (6) and Vespa (7) having higher ratings.
Spring Beans

Synergy is a new low-vicine and low-convicine variety (LVC) and is higher yielding than the other two LVC varieties, Futura and Victus.
New varieties Navara and LG Hawk have yields of 106% and 101% respectively.
Genius remains the top yielding variety with 108%.
Yukon has the best downy mildew rating (8) and is the earliest maturing variety.
Maris Bead and LG Viper have good resistance to downy mildew (7), and LG Viper is also the top-rated variety for rust.

For more information or interview requests about the Descriptive List, contact ben@evecommunications.co.uk

Breeders’ notes:

Gemma Clarke, Cope Seeds and Grain Managing Director, said: “The inclusion of the Flamingo pink pea on the PGRO Descriptive List is the first time it has had a ‘pink’ section. This unique colour has attracted interest from human consumption markets via Hodmedods, bird and pet feed, and the Japanese snack pea market. We have experience growing it as a bi-crop with oats and separating them, taking the peas to a premium home and oats (husked or naked) to a milling or pet feed home. It has similar yields to marrowfat peas, so this premium is essential to warrant growing it.”

Senova has issued a press release on its four varieties which are joining the list today. Click here to read it.

Collaborative Efforts by Gardin Agritech and Bayer Crop Science: Improving Water Use Efficiency in Pepper Cultivation

Member News
Gardin Ltd Gardin Ltd
The views expressed in this Member News article are the author's own and do not necessarily represent those of Agri-TechE.

The growing concern over water scarcity in southern European regions due to shifting climate patterns poses significant challenges for agricultural activities. As highlighted in a recent report from the European Union, countries like Greece, Spain, and Italy are suffering more and more from acute water shortage events. The report estimated that up to 30% of European citizens live in areas with permanent water stress, while 70% in areas with seasonal water stress (Water scarcity report, European Environmental Agency, 2023)

Fig 1 – Worst seasonal water scarcity conditions for European countries in 2019, measured by the water exploitation index plus (WEI+)

The increases in frequency of hot and dry summers have led to tension building up between farmers and local authorities, in some cases leading to unprecedented limitation on the use of freshwater for agricultural uses, in some region of the Iberian peninsula with impact with the daily life: with a 20% reduction to the use of agricultural water and a complete ban on the irrigation of public parks, due to water reserves falling below 16% of their capacity at the beginning of the growth season and crippling droughts in the last year.

In response to these challenges, Gardin Agritech and Bayer Crop Science have decided to partner – utilising Gardin’s advanced phenotyping technologies, the collaboration aims to optimize water management strategies while maintaining crop productivity in protected cultivation under plastic cover.

The two companies chose Bayer’s Brenes Agricultural Innovation Hub (see Figure 2), in Sevilla, a global leading innovation facility for sustainable agriculture (Bayer turns Seville plant into benchmark for sustainable agriculture, March 2023).

Fig. 2. Bayer CropScience – Research Station Brenes. The site hosts a combination of fruiting crops, cereals and protected cropping.

The collaboration focuses on deploying Gardin’s sophisticated sensing solution (Figure 3), capable of real-time monitoring of plant photosynthetic performance, to tailor watering strategies to the plant’s physiological responses.

Fig 3. The Gardin phenotyping sensor – a small device that can be installed anywhere in the farm. It monitors plants several meters away, scanning in any direction and capable of autonomously measuring plant productivity and stress.

Research has extensively shown the suitability of PAM chlorophyll fluorescence for the early detection of abiotic stresses such as drought and heat across a wide range of crops, including both C3 and C4 plants (Arief et al., 2023; Takayama et al., 2011; Woo et al., 2008; Li et al., 2006). This makes the Gardin platform a valuable tool for assessing plant health and water stress levels directly in the farm. By integrating this technology in their practices, Bayer aim to develop targeted irrigation strategies that optimize water usage without compromising crop yields.

The partnership, which started in the summer of 2023, already produced striking results. In the first field trial, three conditions were compared: conventional irrigation, drought-stressed (-50% water), and plots with responsive irrigation schedules adjusted based on Gardin’s insights (See Figure 4)

Fig. 4. The trial setup with a close up of the Gardin sensors monitoring the crop.

The results were gathered across two harvests over a period of roughly 5 months. Yield data showed that the droughted plots experienced a reduction of yields of roughly 25% as compared to well-watered controls. In contrast, the crop managed with optimized irrigation schedules maintained yields comparable to control plants (circa 101%). During the trial well watered crops received roughly 2000l of water, as compared to only 1000l for the drought stressed plants (50% reduction). Excitingly, the optimised irrigation schedule only used 1490l of water, a reduction of 25% as compared to controls (See Figure 5)

Fig. 5. Summary of results from trial. (a) Total harvest by condition (Kg); (b) Yield in the drought and Gardin treatment groups, expressed as percent of control; (c) Water used in the Drought and Gardin treatment groups, expressed as percent of control; (d) Close up of plant response to drought as measured by the Gardin sensors. Dashed red line – moment drought stress was initiated; Blue dashed line – moment when Gardin recommendation on irrigation strategy was implemented. Controls maintained roughly stable performance throughout the observed period. Gardin treatment responded to interruption of irrigation within 7 days; photosynthetic performance recovered following intervention.

Innovation and sustainability are at the core for Bayer CropScience. Our facilities at the Brenes site are a pioneering centre for the development of new formulations, technologies and strategies to help farmers and under this regard, is open to such sustainable and innovative collaboration with Gardin. Gardin’s insights allowed us to maintain high yields while drastically reduce our water consumption at the farm. This technology has the potential to help growers to protect themselves again the effect of adverse weather conditions, all while reducing their water reliance.

The insights produced by the Gardin platform are delivered to growers and researchers via a simple application accessible from anywhere on the web (see Fig. 6). The app, which reports data and alerts in real time, empowers users to monitor trials and the performance of their farms much more flexibly and proactively, ensuring that farm managers take the most timely action when it comes to responding to challenges such as environmental stress.

Fig 6. The Gardin web application displaying plant performance information in real time and accessible from anywhere. Left – The application allows to compare at a glance the performance of multiple farm areas; Right – Detailed view of plant responses over time.

These findings underscore the potential of precision irrigation technologies in improving water use efficiency in agriculture. By tailoring irrigation schedules based on real-time physiological data measured by the Gardin platform, growers can achieve substantial water savings without compromising productivity.

Dr Fabrizio Ticchiarelli-Marjot, who led this project as Gardin’s Lead Biologist said:

“Water scarcity is one of the most pressing challenges faced by the agricultural industry globally, and we are committed to supporting farmers and researchers in identifying novel practices to reduce their environmental impact, while ensuring the food production needed to feed a growing population.

We are thrilled to work with our partners at Bayer CropScience and together spearhead a transition where agronomical practices are driven by physiological changes in real time.

The aim is to achieve potential savings of 25% of irrigation water while maintaining yields unchanged will support the thousands of businesses struggling every year to cope with increasingly challenging weather conditions and policy”.

Gardin Agritech and Bayer Crop Science, based on the actual achievements, believe that this technology can be refined and scaled for broader applications in agriculture. By continuing to collaborate and innovate, they aim to empower growers with tools and knowledge needed to sustainably manage water resources and ensure the long-term viability of crop production systems in regions experiencing challenging environmental conditions.

In conclusion, the collaboration between Gardin Agritech and Bayer Crop Science represents a significant step forward in addressing water scarcity challenges in agriculture. Through the integration of advanced technologies and scientific expertise, they are paving the way for a more water-efficient and resilient agricultural sector, capable of meeting the demands of a changing climate while safeguarding food security for future generations.

Fabrizio Ticchiarelli-Marjot*, Manuel Jesus Guillen Portillo, Jose Pablo Gonzalez Gonzalez, Jorge Manuel Silva Nunes da Fonseca, Juan Salvador Gongora Gongora, Steven Grundy

* For correspondence reach out to Dr Fabrizio Ticchiarelli-Marjot, Gardin, f.ticchiarelli@gardin.ag

Yield and maturity considerations for growers planting winter beans this spring

Member News
Processors and Growers Research Organisation (PGRO) Processors and Growers Research Organisation (PGRO)
The views expressed in this Member News article are the author's own and do not necessarily represent those of Agri-TechE.

The Processors and Growers Research Organisation (PGRO) has received a flood of calls from farmers who have winter seed sat in sheds after abandoning drilling last autumn.

While seed can be sown, research shows that rates should be increased to counter the yield impact, and that maturity will take up to 12 days longer in Eastern England.

The PGRO is re-issuing its advice to growers in light of the recent bad weather that has caused major disruption to farms across the UK.

Throughout October and November high levels of rainfall led to rivers overtopping and flood defences being breached, leaving tens of thousands of acres of farmland under water, sometimes washing away newly-sown crops.

This major disruption has caused the drilling of winter beans to be delayed or abandoned entirely, leaving frustrated growers with stockpiles of winter bean seed in their sheds.

Field trials in this area were last carried out in 2013 following an autumn characterised by torrential rain.

Principal Technical Officer Stephen Belcher drilled winter beans in the spring with four populations planted at three sites on three different sowing dates.

The trials work indicated that winter beans at 18 plants/m2 could be grown when planted in the spring, but on average the crop suffered a 34% yield reduction compared to when sown in the autumn.

The yield penalty was reduced to 18% by doubling the seed rate to 36-40 plants/m2.

Spring-sown winter beans also matured between 7 and 12 days later than autumn-sown seed.

Stephen said: “The autumn of 2023 has been extremely challenging for arable farmers and opportunities for fieldwork have been limited, resulting in many crops – including beans – being left unplanted.

“The situation has prompted many calls to the PGRO regarding the viability of using winter bean seed in the spring, and it is absolutely a viable option for growers, but they should expect a lower yield and later maturity than if autumn sown.

“Based on the work carried out in this area, our guidance is to treat the crop very much like a spring bean and to increase the plant population to around 36-40 plants/m2.”

For more information on drilling winter beans in the spring, you can visit PGRO website or read the original article from The Pulse magazine here.

For additional information and advice you can call PGRO on 01780 782585.

Episode 4 – To Till Or Not To Till?

Member News
Burleigh Dodds Science Publishing Limited Burleigh Dodds Science Publishing Limited
The views expressed in this Member News article are the author's own and do not necessarily represent those of Agri-TechE.

In the fourth episode of Agriculture 2050, Katherine from Burleigh Dodds Science Publishing is joined by Professor Amir Kassam who is a world-renowned expert on Conservation Agriculture. In this episode, Professor Kassam considers the lasting impacts of agricultural intensification and the emergence of Conservation Agriculture as an alternative to tillage-based agriculture.

Listen to Episode Four here:

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Acast

Episode 3 – How Sustainable Are Our Food Systems?

Member News
Burleigh Dodds Science Publishing Limited Burleigh Dodds Science Publishing Limited
The views expressed in this Member News article are the author's own and do not necessarily represent those of Agri-TechE.

In Episode 3, Katherine from Burleigh Dodds Science Publishing is joined by Dr Dave Watson who is a leading authority on sustainable development and optimising value chains in agriculture. In this episode, Dr Watson – who has held previous positions at the FAO, CIMMYT and CGIAR – explores the unsustainability of modern food systems and the contributing factors to its demise.

Listen to Episode Three now:

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University of Reading: VALUE4FARM Sustainable, renewable, energy value chains

Member News
University of Reading University of Reading
The views expressed in this Member News article are the author's own and do not necessarily represent those of Agri-TechE.

The University of Reading is a partner in an EU funded project, VALUE4FARM, which aims to increase on-farm production of renewable energy while preserving food production, soil health and biodiversity at the same time as reducing water and fertiliser use. VALUE4FARM will demonstrate the effectiveness of coupling sustainable food production and renewable energy production through a range of activities and measures:

Developing sustainable agricultural protocols which are compatible with renewable energy production and sustainable food production

Propose a wide range of renewable energy production and storage technologies, meeting farmers’ residue management, electricity, heat and mechanisation needs

Through demonstration, validate the sustainability and circular nature of three renewable-based local value chains

Ensure the renewable-based value chains are replicable and applicable within Europe

Within Value4Farm, the University of Reading is focusing on establishing the baseline framework and requirements essential for guiding project developments. This will involve exploring and addressing farmers’ needs, collecting information for the effective demonstration of value chains, creating the regulatory framework, and shaping the structure of a comprehensive decision support tool for farmers.

The decision support tool will bring together an educational online course on integrated food and energy production, an audit tool to enable farmers to assess and reflect on on-farm potential for energy production and a transition tool to support farmers adopting or moving towards integrated food and energy production on farm.

More information about VALUE4FARM is available from the project website or please contact Julian Park j.r.park@reading.ac.uk

eFeed: Cattle and Climate – A Comprehensive Review on Feeding Strategies to Control Enteric Methane Emission from Cattle

Member News
EFEED LIFE SCIENCE LIMITED EFEED LIFE SCIENCE LIMITED
The views expressed in this Member News article are the author's own and do not necessarily represent those of Agri-TechE.

Feeding strategies to mitigate methane emissions from dairy and beef cattle pertaining to ration balancing program and use of phytochemical feed additives: A Review

a. V. Vismitha Shree, b. Parag Ghogale, c. Kumar Ranjan

eFeed Life Sciences, Research and Development,

a. Product Manager, eFeed Life Sciences
b. Senior Dairy Nutritionist, eFeed Life Sciences
c. Chief Executive Officer, eFeed Life Sciences

Abstract

The escalating global demand for animal-derived foods places strain on livestock systems, notably contributing to the 14.5% of total greenhouse gases emitted by livestock. Among these emissions, methane from cattle, primarily in beef and dairy production, stands out as a major concern. This comprehensive review explores sustainable strategies to mitigate methane emissions, focusing on early-life interventions, Total Mixed Ration (TMR) balancing, and the use of phytochemical feed additives such as essential oils, allicin, tannins, saponins, and curcuminoids. These diverse approaches not only reduce methane production but also enhance animal productivity, emphasising the critical need for environmentally responsible and economically viable practices in livestock farming.

Keywords:
Methane emissions, Livestock, Sustainable feeding, Total Mixed Ration (TMR), Phytochemical feed additives, Essential oils, Allicin, Tannins, Saponins, Curcuminoids.

Introduction


The global demand for animal-derived foods continues to rise, placing immense pressure on livestock systems. Modern feeding patterns have introduced more concentrate based rations which are leading to more emissions from dairy cattle. Livestock emissions, contributing to 14.5% of total greenhouse gases, are a major focus, with cattle being primary contributors, particularly in beef and dairy production, notably in methane emissions (1-3). Almost 71% of total methane production originates inside the rumen during digestion and fermentation of feed and forages, leading to a higher production of metabolic hydrogen (H2), subsequently converted to CH4 as a protective mechanism (3). Sustainable animal feeding is a crucial aspect of modern agriculture, emphasising the efficient utilisation of natural feed resources while safeguarding the environment and ensuring the production of economically viable and safe animal products (Makkar, 2016)

Methane emission stands as a significant obstacle to environmental sustainability, being a major contributor to greenhouse gases (Chuntrakort et al., 2014). Beyond its environmental implications, methane represents a loss of carbon sources, leading to unproductive dietary energy use, with potential losses of up to 12% of dietary energy intake (Kim et al., 2012). eFeed is currently working on strategies to reduce methanogenic microbiota in calves during the process of rumen development.

To balance conventional feed and fodder through TMR feeding to limit methanogenesis by using RationCraft software and natural ingredients to use in cattle feed or feed supplements to reduce methane emissions and thereby improve FCR of dairy animals by diverting energy lost towards production and body maintenance. Calves fed with feed additives since birth to weaning showed decrease in methane emissions post-weaning to 1 year of age. However, further research and studies are required to reduced methane emissions from calving stage as developing rumen is further going to harbour more methanogenic bacteria and archeas in due course of time.

Balanced total mixed ration and improved feeding practices results in higher feed conversion ratio, thereby increasing milk production and weight gain and also reduces methane emission. Once the protein: energy (P:E ratio) is maintained in the diet, it will help to utilise amount of protein and amino acids for growth, production and reproduction. Utilising energy in this way will allow in more hydrogen ions to be used in the process, which leads to less availability of hydrogen ions for methane generation
Research is going on various feed additives to competitively reduce hydrogen ion availability and to inhibit methanogens. Many of the ingredients are synthetic and not environment friendly. Therefore using natural ingredients will be a sustainable approach to tackle this issue.

Plant secondary metabolites, including saponins, tannins, essential oils, organo-sulphur compounds, and flavonoids, are known for their antimicrobial properties (Hague et al., 2018). Herbs and spices, rich sources of these metabolites, present a natural and safe alternative to chemical feed antibiotics (Yang et al., 2015). Feeding bioactive-endowed plant products not only benefits in sustainable management practice but also improves productivity without posing any adverse effects. This approach has the potential to mitigate enteric methane and nitrogen emissions through the modulation of rumen function and microbial community (Kamra et al., 2012; Salami et al., 2019) The inhibitory effects of oils on Gram-positive bacteria, influencing H2 production and methanogenesis, have been demonstrated in various studies (17, 18).

In conclusion, the comprehensive exploration of sustainable animal feeding encompasses bioactive feed resources, medicinal herbs, and strategic feeding. By understanding the potential of these diverse elements, researchers seek to address the dual challenge of improving animal product quality while mitigating environmental impacts, particularly methane emissions. The findings from these studies are expected to contribute valuable insights and innovative solutions to the ongoing discourse on sustainable and efficient livestock production. As global demands for animal-derived foods continue to escalate, the imperative to develop environmentally responsible and economically viable practices in the livestock sector becomes increasingly valuable.

Mechanisms governing enteric methane production
Two primary mechanisms underpin the variation in methane production in cattle. The first revolves around the amount of dietary carbohydrate fermented in the reticulorumen. This intricate mechanism involves numerous diet-animal interactions that impact the equilibrium between carbohydrate fermentation rates and passage rates. The second mechanism regulates the available hydrogen supply and subsequent methane production through the ratio of volatile fatty acids (VFA) produced.
The critical factor in this regulation is the fraction of propionic acid produced relative to acetic acid. The acetic:propionic acid ratio has a profound impact on methane production. If all carbohydrate is fermented to acetic acid with no propionic acid production, energy loss as methane would be as high as 33% (Wolin and Miller, 1988). Given that the acetic:propionic acid ratio typically varies from approximately 0.9 to 4, the corresponding methane losses exhibit significant variability.

Research indicates that as the daily feed intake of an animal increases, the percentage of dietary gross energy lost as methane decreases by an average of 1.6% per level of intake (Johnson et al., 1993b). The type of carbohydrate fermented significantly influences methane production, likely through its impact on ruminal pH and microbial population. Fermentation of cell wall fiber results in higher acetic:propionic acid ratios and, consequently, higher methane losses (Moe and Tyrrell, 1979; Beever et al., 1989). Grinding and pelleting of forages can markedly decrease methane production (Blaxter, 1989). These effects become more apparent at high intakes, with methane losses per unit of diet potentially reduced by 20 to 40%.

The addition of fats to ruminant diets influences methane losses through multiple mechanisms, including the biohydrogenation of unsaturated fatty acids, enhanced propionic acid production, and protozoal inhibition (Czerkawski et al., 1966). While the addition of long-chain polyunsaturated fatty acids has been shown to decrease methanogenesis, the overall impact on total metabolic hydrogen remains relatively small. Ruminal protozoa may play a significant role in methane production, particularly when cattle are fed high-concentrate diets. Observations suggest possible interspecies hydrogen transfer between ruminal methanogens and protozoal species (Stumm et al., 1982)

Feeding strategies to control methane emissions
Feed & Fodder
Among the strategies aimed at mitigating methane emissions, dietary manipulation stands out as a straightforward and practical approach. This method not only promotes enhanced animal productivity but also contributes to the reduction of methane emissions. Dietary strategies can be categorised into two primary groups: i) enhancing forage quality and adjusting the diet proportions, and ii) supplementing the diet with additives that either directly impede methanogens or modify metabolic pathways, thereby reducing the substrate available for methanogenesis.

The prevailing method involves modifying the type or quality of forage and adjusting the concentrate-to-forage ratio in the feed. Opting for younger plants with higher fermentable carbohydrates, reduced non-digestible fiber (NDF), and a lower C:N ratio contributes to high-quality forage, ensuring increased digestibility and passage rate. This, in turn, steers rumen fermentation towards propionate production [34, 35]. As propionate serves as an alternative hydrogen (H2) sink, an elevation in propionate production results in less H2 available for methanogenesis [36]. However, solely relying on forage is insufficient to enhance animal performance, as concentrates are typically incorporated into the feed in varying proportions. Concentrates, with fewer cell walls and readily fermentable carbohydrates such as starch and sugar, play a crucial role. Studies have indicated that the addition of 35% or 60% concentrate to the feed leads to a reduction in methane (CH4) production, accompanied by improved productivity.

Essential oils and Plant extracts
Essential oils (EOs) are volatile, aromatic liquids derived from various plant sources, encompassing flowers, seeds, buds, leaves, herbs, wood, fruits, twigs, and roots [74]. Microbes exhibit varied responses to EOs, either promoting or inhibiting specific microbial groups like methanogens. Some EOs hinder protozoa growth indirectly or through biohydrogenation of unsaturated fatty acids, limiting hydrogen availability for methanogens [77, 78]. Guyader et al. demonstrated a 29% reduction in methane emissions and a 50% decrease in protozoal population with increasing saponin dosage in an in vitro batch culture [95].

The methane-suppressing effects of plant secondary metabolites (PSM), including essential oils, are attributed to their antimicrobial properties against bacteria, protozoa, and fungi in the rumen [77, 78, 79]. Due to their lipophilic nature, essential oils have a high affinity for microbial cell membranes, impacting microbial populations by interacting with functional groups on the cell membrane [58]. Methanogenesis is further inhibited by essential oils, influencing protein degradation and amino acid determination [59]. Ongoing research is essential to explore the potential incorporation of essential oils into mainstream livestock farming practices, considering their promising impact on mitigating methane emissions and optimizing microbial balance in the rumen.

a.Cinnamon extracts

Cinnamon powder, rich in flavonoids, saponin, and tannin, has demonstrated methane-reducing properties in livestock. The addition of cinnamon powder to the substrate resulted in a notable decrease in total gas methane production, with reductions ranging between 7% and 14%. The key bioactive compounds in cinnamon, such as polyphenols and cinnamaldehyde, contribute to its inhibitory effects on methane production. Studies confirm the presence of various secondary metabolites in cinnamon, including flavonoids, tannins, saponins, and alkaloids. The tannin content in cinnamon powder, determined through the Folin Ciocalteu method, was found to be 5.64%, along with other constituents like flavonoids (7.21%) and saponins (6.02%)

b.Saponin in Yucca schidigera extracts

Yucca schidigera (YS), belonging to the Agavaceae family, holds substantial potential for various applications, historically recognized for its effective treatment of inflammatory conditions. Originally native to North America, particularly the arid Mexican desert, YS extracts (YSE) offer diverse benefits in animal nutrition. Rich in phytochemicals, including steroidal saponins and polyphenolics like resveratrol, YS is regarded as a major commercial saponin source, contributing to odour control in intensive farming. Continuous discovery of new steroidal saponins in YS adds to its bioactive profile.
Studies primarily focused on ruminants, especially cattle and sheep, reveal promising effects of YSE on gas mitigation. Increased YSE feeding in lactating dairy cows demonstrated a significant linear effect on 4-hour and 24-hour gas production. Similarly, in vitro experiments with various ruminal substrates showed increased total gas production as dietary saponin levels rose. YSE addition effectively reduced methane production in multiple studies without adversely affecting gas production rates. Adjusting saponin levels in YSE treatments aimed to avoid potential side effects on ruminal fermentation, maintaining non-significant differences in methane production. Notably, a 1% sarsaponin concentration effectively inhibited methane in steers without compromising animal performance. Ongoing analysis of YS structures and bioactive components promises further insights, offering potential applications for environmental pollution mitigation in the livestock industry and improved feed efficiency.#

c. Allicin

Allicin has been reported to reduce the production of CH4 by reducing the number of methanogens (Kongmun et al., 2011). Busquet et al. (2005) reported that CH4 production was significantly reduced by allicin supplementation. They also found that the supplementation of allicin reduced the deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) of methanogens. Meanwhile, Liu et al. (2013) suggested that illite had a high CH4 adsorption capacity, which reduced CH4 production in the intestine and Biswas et al. (2018) found that CH4 production was reduced by 13% with 1% illite supplementations. As a result, it was presumed that allicin affected the methanogens, reduced CH4 production and thereby increased the concentration of CO2. Based on batch culture and dual flow continuous culture studies, the supplementation of garlic oil (300 mg/L) and allicin (a sulphur-containing bioactive compound in garlic; 300 mg/L) decreased CH4 yield (mL/g dry matter (DM)) by 73.6 and 19.5%, respectively, compared with control basal diets consisting of 50:50 forage:concentrate ratio, over 24 h [37]. Dietary supplementation of allicin at 2 g/d for 42 d decreased CH4 yield (mL/g DM) by 6% compared to a control diet in sheep [10
Garlic contains the organosulphur compounds allicin (C6H10S2O), alliin (C6H11NO3S), diallyl sulphide (C6H10S), diallyl disulphide (C6H10S2), and allyl mercaptan (C3H6S) [137–140] (Figure 3). These compounds are widely known for their unique therapeutic properties and health benefits, as they act as antioxidants to scavenge free radicals [141]. Garlic derived organosulphur compounds demonstrate different biochemical pathways that may provoke multiple inhibitions [142]. One potential pathway for the direct inhibition of methanogenesis by garlic is via the inhibition of CH4-producing microorganisms such as archaea [142]. Archaea possess unique glycerol-containing membrane lipids linked to long-chain isoprenoid alcohols, which are essential for cell membrane stability. The synthesis of isoprenoid units in methanogenic archaea is catalysed by the enzyme hydroxyl methyl glutaryl coenzyme A (HMG-CoA) reductase. Garlic oil is a potent inhibitor of HMG-CoA reductase Gebhardt and Beck [142]; as a result, the synthesis of isoprenoid units is inhibited, the membrane becomes unstable, and cells die.

d. Plant polyphenols

Early studies on the effects of dietary PP focused mostly on the effect of tannins on ruminants’ performance and feed utilization efficiency: in fact, tannins have been shown to possess both detrimental and favorable effects, depending on the diet composition, the animal species, the tannin source, and the level of their inclusion in the diet (Frutos et al., 2004; Waghorn, 2008). Tannins might have a toxic effect on some rumen microbes, by altering the permeability of membranes (Frutos et al., 2004). Moreover, tannins may inhibit the enzyme activity of ruminal microorganisms (Jones et al., 1994). However, the toxic effect is strongly dependent on the dose and the nature of tannins as well as the bacteria species. For instance, an in vitro study demonstrated that the activity of proanthocyanidin against Clostridium aminophilum, B. fibrisolvens, and Clostridium proteoclasticum depended to their chemical structure, whereas the growth of Ruminococcus albus and Peptostreptococcus anaerobius was strongly affected, regardless of the fraction of proanthocyanidin adopted or the dose applied (Sivakumaran et al., 2004). Condensed tannins have a direct inhibitory effect on hemicellulases, endoglucanase, and proteolytic enzymes of several rumen microbes such as F. succinogenes, B. fibrisolvens, Ruminobacter amylophilus, and S. bovis (Jones et al., 1994; Bhat et al., 1998). Conversely, P. ruminicola is able to counteract the negative effect of tannins by producing protective extracellular material (Jones et al., 1994).

I.Tannins

An interesting development in CH4 mitigation research is the development of forages with higher levels of tannins, such as clover and other legumes, including trefoil, vetch, sulla and chicory [29]. The anti-methanogenic activity of tannins has recently been investigated in vitro and in vivo [83]. The CH4-suppressing mechanism of tannins has not been described clearly; however, this mechanism may inhibit ruminal microorganisms [77]. Tannins may inhibit, through bactericidal or bacteriostatic activities, the growth or activity of rumen methanogens and protozoa [84]. Methane production was reduced (up to 55%) when ruminants were fed tannin-rich forages, such as lucerne, sulla, red clover, chicory and lotus [81]. Although tannins appear promising for CH4 mitigation, these impede forage digestibility and animal productivity when fed at a higher concentration, limiting their future wide-scale use in CH4 abatement [19]. However, more research may identify the balance between CH4 reduction and possible anti-nutritional side effects as associated with tannin supplementation.

II. Saponins

Saponins are naturally occurring surface-active glycosides that are found in a wide variety of cultivated and wild plant species that reduce CH4 production in the rumen [29, 79]. Saponins have a potent antiprotozoal activity by forming complex sterols in protozoan cell membranes [83] and, to some extent, exhibit bacteriolytic activity in the rumen [66]. Saponins are antiprotozoal at lower concentrations [85], whereas higher concentrations can suppress methanogens [77]. Saponins inhibit ruminal bacterial and fungal species [79] and limit the H2 availability for methanogenesis in the rumen, thereby reducing CH4 production [77]. Methane reduction of up to 50% has been reported with the addition of saponins [86]. However, a wider range of CH4 reduction (14–96% depending on the plant and the solvent that was used for extraction has been reported [62].

e. Curcuminoids

Turmeric, recognized for its medicinal properties, contains fat-soluble polyphenolic pigments known as curcuminoids, contributing to its status as a medicinal plant. Enriched with nonnutritive phytochemical constituents, turmeric is acknowledged for its disease preventive properties, containing approximately 3-6% phenolic compounds collectively referred to as curcuminoids (Niranjan and Prakash, 2008).
In experiments, turmeric consistently and significantly reduced gas production when included at levels above 5 mg/g of substrate throughout a 48-hour incubation period. Notably, at 10–15 mg/g inclusion, turmeric exhibited a significant reduction in methane, carbon dioxide, ammonia, total volatile fatty acids production, and substrate degradation. Concurrently, the inclusion of turmeric led to a reduction in rumen bacteria and protozoa at 10–15 mg/g, with fungi reduction observed at 15 mg/g inclusion. Microbial biomass reduction was evident at 15 mg/g of turmeric inclusion.
Turmeric’s impact on gas production, particularly the sustained reduction above 5 mg/g, suggests its potential to inhibit carbohydrate degradation in the rumen. The initial reduction effect diminishing at 5 mg/g after 27 hours implies microbial adaptation to turmeric at lower inclusion levels during fermentation. The observed decrease in total volatile fatty acids aligns with reduced acetic acid and butyrate production, given that gas production typically occurs during the fermentation of substrate carbohydrates to acetate and butyrate. Furthermore, turmeric’s inhibitory effect on ammonia production suggests potential benefits in optimizing dietary protein utilization in the rumen, showcasing its multifaceted impact on ruminal fermentation dynamics.

Conclusion

In conclusion, addressing methane emissions from cattle is imperative for environmental sustainability. Designing diets that reduce methane emissions while maintaining optimal nutrition and productivity can be challenging. Research and development are needed to identify and refine additives that are both practical for on-farm use and environmentally sustainable. Many farmers may not be aware of or understand the importance of methane mitigation strategies. Implementing effective educational programs to disseminate knowledge and encourage the adoption of sustainable practices among farmers is challenging. Developing standardized and cost-effective measurement techniques to monitor emissions on a large scale is essential and still needs research. Methane emissions from cattle are a global issue that requires international collaboration. Coordinating efforts and policies across countries to address methane mitigation uniformly and effectively is of great importance. This comprehensive review highlights importance of mitigating methane emissions early life stage of cattle, diverse feeding strategies through TMR balancing and using advanced software , emphasising use of phytochemical additives, essential oils, and naturally occurring compounds like allicin, tannins, saponins, and curcuminoids. These approaches offer multifaceted benefits, from inhibiting methanogenesis to improving animal productivity. Phytochemical feed additives are emerging as a particularly impactful candidate, consistently reducing gas production and methane while influencing microbial populations in the rumen. The ongoing pursuit of sustainable animal feeding practices is essential for meeting global food demands while mitigating environmental challenges.


Institutional Review Board Statement: This study neither involved human/animal participation, experiment, nor human data/tissues.
Data Availability Statement: All data generated during the study are included in the published article(s) cited within the text and acknowledged in the reference section.
Acknowledgments: Open Access Funding by eFeed Life Sciences
Conflicts of Interest: The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest
References

Verdesian Europe and Africa: Circular Economy

Member News
Verdesian Europe & Africa Verdesian Europe & Africa
The views expressed in this Member News article are the author's own and do not necessarily represent those of Agri-TechE.

What Is A Circular Economy?

How many natural resources do we have left on this planet? Do we want to take resources, consume them and then dispose of them? Given the challenges of climate change, pollution and waste, a circular economy aims to reduce the usage of finite resources and wastes.

A circular economy is based on three basic principles:

1. Design Out Waste & Pollution
2. Keep Products & Materials In Use
3. Regenerate Natural Systems

In contrast to a linear economy which takes natural resources and turns them into consumable products then disposes of the waste, a circular economy will recycle, reuse and remanufacture with the aim of reducing waste by limiting the use of natural resources.

Why Use A Circular Economy?

The obvious benefits are a reduction of wastes and conservation of natural resources but also this can directly benefit businesses, the environment and society in general.

In a circular economy, the value of products and materials is maintained for as long as possible, while waste and resource use are minimised.

A product produced from a circular economy will have minimal need for natural resources and are designed to be efficient and environmentally friendly.

Back in 2014, the circularity rate of materials in the EU was 3.6%.In 2019, this figure jumped up to 11.8%. As can be clearly seen from this trend, the propensity of the EU is to adopt a circular economy going forward to allow for a greener environment.

How does the circular economy work in farming?

Many industries are already adopting a circular economy and one of these industries is the agricultural sector.

The aim of a circular economy within agriculture, just like in other industries, is to minimise external inputs for the production of food and reduce the impact on the environment.

This helps increase economic and ecological efficiency.

Advantages of a Circular Economy

Perhaps one of the most useful aspects of a circular economy in agriculture is upcycling or reusing by-products which in a linear economy would be discarded as waste.

In fact, a circular economy has already existed in some form since antiquity, as animal waste from livestocks is re-used or processed into fertiliser. Biomass digesters are also using low value organic matter from plants or animals and upcycling to produce a source of energy plus fertliser.

Regenerating Natural Systems

With the amount of pollution and food wastage going on around the world, adopting a circular economy within the agricultural industry is imperative, as we continue to minimise wastage and reduce the impact on the environment.

Verdesian is one of the world’s leading companies in producing products that help develop a sustainable economy. Verdesian is developing a new range of products to help support the circular economy, through the upcycling of marine resources and by-products normally discarded as waste.

More information and results on this new range of Circular Economy products will be shared from the Verdesian Research and development team in the coming months.

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John Innes Centre: Future Farming funding boost to Sugar Beet innovation in Norwich

Member News
Norwich Research Park Norwich Research Park
The views expressed in this Member News article are the author's own and do not necessarily represent those of Agri-TechE.

The John Innes Centre, Norwich Research Park partners and British Sugar have secured significant new funding to develop innovative gene editing approaches to protect the British sugar beet crop against potentially catastrophic losses to virus yellows disease. 

The award from Innovate UK’s Farming Futures Research and Development Fund, is made jointly to British Sugar, agricultural biotechnology company Tropic and the John Innes Centre. The British Beet Research Organisation – the UK’s beet sugar industry’s dedicated research centre – will also support the project which aims to build resilience and productivity in this economically important crop. 

The project’s full budget is £1m, of which £663,443 is grant funded by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’ (Defra) Farming Innovation Programme, and the remainder by British Sugar, Tropic and the John Innes Centre. 

Professor Steven Penfield, whose group at the John Innes Centre will develop the technology necessary to support the gene-editing of sugar beet, said: “This welcome investment recognises the role of the John Innes Centre as a national capability in developing and applying precision breeding approaches such as gene editing to crop protection. 

“We look forward to deploying this expertise in partnership with British Sugar and Tropic for the benefit of British sugar beet growers.” 

The project will use Tropic’s Gene Editing induced Gene Silencing (GEiGSⓇ) technology platform to introduce minimal, precise genetic changes to redirect sugar beet’s own natural defence mechanisms towards enabling resistance to virus yellows – a crop disease spread by aphids, which had a severe impact on the homegrown sugar industry with significant impacts on the livelihoods of British sugar beet growers. 

Ofir Meir, Chief Technology Officer at Tropic, said: “The GEiGS® technology, which combines elements of precision breeding techniques like gene editing and a naturally occurring immunity mechanism known as gene silencing, is a game changing platform allowing us to develop improved varieties of sugar beet that are better able to withstand disease – and environmental – pressures to enable much more sustainable cropping practices.” 

Ultimately, successful project outcomes will protect British sugar beet farmers from potentially catastrophic losses to virus yellows disease, increase crop productivity, resilience, and sustainability, while supporting progression towards net zero emissions in English agriculture.  

It will also build technical capabilities in sugar beet gene editing for the UK and more generally, develop other traits to protect and enhance the crop.  

This approach has been enabled by the recent passing of the Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Act 2023.  

In 2020, the UK beet sugar industry suffered an extreme and unprecedented impact of virus yellows disease, with at least 40% of the crop affected nationally, and overall yields were down 25% on the five-year average. Work has since been ongoing to protect the crop from this disease. 

Dan Green, British Sugar Agriculture Director, said: “We are delighted to have been awarded this funding, which will help us make great strides in our work towards protecting the sugar beet crop from virus yellows disease, and potentially other crop diseases in the future. We look forward to continuing to work with our partners, Tropic and the John Innes Centre, to progress this work over the coming years, for the benefit of the whole UK beet sugar industry.”