New frontiers in crop research – addressing agri-food industry challenges

Posted on 09/01/2017

By Dr Liliya Serazetdinova, Knowledge Transfer Manager, Agri-Food 

The global agri-food industry currently faces a multitude of challenges, including growing demand for affordable food, decreasing land availability, changes in weather patterns and diseases, increasing production costs, volatile food prices and uncertain profit margins. Consumer demand for healthy and fresh food is on the increase and regulatory requirements must be met across the supply chain.

Food and drink producers relying on bulk commodities such as wheat, fruit, vegetables, oils and fats, are particularly affected by the need to source environmentally sustainable and resilient raw materials, and rely on technological innovations to meet this challenge. For example, advances in plant breeding techniques have improved crop resilience to pests and diseases, increased crop productivity and farm output, and enhanced the nutritional value and the processability of plant-based materials. Plant scientists have also been able to identify alternative raw materials with a lower environmental impact.

How is the UK plant science community helping to solve agri-food challenges?

Over 40 academic and industrial innovators from across the UK shared the latest scientific and technological advances in the improvement of crop yield, quality and sustainability at a recent Society of Chemical Industry (SCI) and Knowledge Transfer Network (KTN) conference, which was sponsored by the Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC).

The New Frontiers in Crop Research Conference provided a showcase of innovations in plant science that helping agri-food industry to address its challenges, from new genetic markers, high throughput phenotyping methods, to a crop protection knowledge exchange platform.

Professor Matthew Paul (Rothamsted Research) is studying the mechanisms by which plants recover after a period of stress, which could potentially lead to the development of a new natural chemical intervention to increase resilience and improve yields across a broad range of crops.

Varietal selection and evaluation is an important part of improving the processability of barley for malters, brewers and distillers. Dr Steve Hoad and Dr Maree Brennan’s (SRUC) developed plant screening and genetic tests for identification of barley lines susceptible for grain skinning (loss of outer coat or husk), and identified environmental and crop-handling risk factors that increase grain skinning. Professor Bill Thomas and Dr Hazel Bull (James Hutton Institute) identified genetic markers that affect processibility and correlate with a plant’s resilience of performance in both good and bad environments.

By working with the fresh produce companies Bakkavor, G’s Growers, and Rijk Zwaan, Dr Jim Monaghan (Harper Adams University) has developed new approaches for improving post-harvest quality in fresh produce. His research has identified genetic markers associated with “pinking” and “browning” of lettuce – a useful tool for breeding crop varieties with reduced propensity for postharvest discolouration.

Soil structure and nutrients need to be managed as efficiently as possible

Maintenance of soil health is recognised as one of the key challenges in the agricultural sector

For agricultural productivity to thrive and for environmental impact to be minimised, it is crucial that soil structure and nutrients be managed as efficiently as possible. New approaches are urgently needed to improve plant-soil-microbiome interactions.

Azotic Technologies have developed a new commercial seed treatment based on Azotic’s N-Fix® technology utilising a food grade bacteria Gluconacetobacter diazotrophicus (Gd), which improves nitrogen fixation and can increase yield in a range of crops.

Professor Gary Bending (University of Warwick) is working to improve oilseed rape yield by manipulating plant root exudation to attract beneficial bacteria into the rhizosphere, which in turn will enhance nutrient uptake, increase yield, and improve plant health and resilience.

Dr. Lionel DuPuy (James Hutton Institute) has developed a high throughput root phenotyping platform that can be used to screen crop varieties with resilience to compacted soils, nematode infections, or improved nutrient uptake.

From scientific research to industrial applications

The conference also provided a forum for discussions about the integration of these scientific innovations into industrial applications. Many of the approaches presented are already being taken into commercial development by industry as part of the BBSRC co-funded research industry clubs, which are working on pre-competitive research challenges and generating solutions that benefit a range of companies.

KTN’s agri-food team will be happy to discuss specific industry challenges and needs, and facilitate collaborations with the academic community.

KTN is also gathering feedback from the agri-food industry on the key priorities for industrial R&D and innovation to help influence the UK industrial strategy development through input to the AgriFood Tech Leadership Council. If you would like to provide input, please contact the KTN agri-food team.

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