EU-wide initiative to ‘future proof’ our crops


29 January 2019 10:50
Crops

Researchers at Lancaster University have joined a major European research initiative taking on the monumental challenge of ‘future proofing’ our food crops.

Led by Wageningen University in the Netherlands, the CropBooster-P EU project brings together researchers from 18 EU partner with diverse strengths. The project team, which is made up of eight countries, will develop a plan for enabling agriculture to meet the challenges that lie ahead. These include providing safe and nutritious food, adapting to future climate change and dwindling land resources, and reducing environmental degradation.

Consumers, the food industry and farmers will be key to the success of implementing change and the project seeks to hear their views and encourage debate from the beginning.

Lancaster University researchers working in the project include Professor Martin Parry, Professor Mariana Rufino, Professor Steve Long, Dr Jess Davies and Dr Ling Liu.

Lancaster’s plant and crop science team includes some of the world’s most highly-cited researchers, working from the molecular to the crop scale across environmental and social sciences. Food demands are anticipated to rise by 60% to 100% by 2050. Meeting these demands in an environmentally sustainable way, whilst also providing nutritious food that supports healthy people and societies is a significant challenge.

“This is indeed a huge task, especially as we have to achieve this growth on the agricultural land that is already in use,” said René Klein Lankhorst, programme developer at Wageningen University & Research and coordinator of the CropBooster-P project. “Cutting down rainforests for extra agricultural land is not an option as it would destroy the world’s ecosystem.”

At the same time, the world needs to shift from fossil fuels to biobased raw materials in order to combat climate change. This is also easier said than done as it requires a further 30% rise in agricultural production.

He said: “We will need massive amounts of biomass to provide industries with alternative raw materials. This is a huge challenge. At the request of the EU, 18 European partners led by Wageningen University & Research are drawing up a roadmap on how to develop these new crops.”

Plant scientists working on the project believe it is technically feasible to double the yield of European agriculture by 2050. The key lies in optimising the photosynthesis process.

For example Lancaster University is working on a number of research projects which aim to increase the efficiency of photosynthesis is plants such as wheat.

Lancaster University’s Professor Martin Parry said: “Agricultural crops now convert a surprisingly low percentage of sunlight into plant biomass; some 0.5 to 1%. Doubling the percentage to 1 to 2% is all we need and this has already been scientifically proven to be possible.

“But there’s more involved than photosynthesis alone; the improved crops will also have to use water and minerals such as nitrogen and phosphorus very efficiently. Moreover, an increased yield should have no impact on quality and nutritional value. A great deal of additional research will be required to achieve this goal.”

Dr Jess Davies of Lancaster University said: “This project is not just about productivity. We need to understand the wider implications of future crop options for farmers, supply chains, consumers, and for economies and ecosystems if we’re to achieve a sustainable future. Our interdisciplinary team spanning environmental sciences, supply chains, politics and agronomy here at Lancaster will be working with farmers, businesses, regulators, consumers and our EU partners to think about these implications.” 

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