Brexit and agriculture

Professor Wyn Grant

Professor Wyn Grant

In June 2016, the UK Government will hold a public referendum for the people to decide whether or not Britain should exit the European Union. This contentious issue, popularly known as “Brexit”, has even divided the governing political party, with key parliamentary figures standing on either side of the debate.

There are many complex political issues for the UK to consider ahead of this referendum. One of these issues is: “what would be the consequences for UK agriculture if Britain were to leave the EU?” Professor Wyn Grant, a member of the Farmer–Scientist Network in the UK, tells us about a new report asking this very question.

Brexit and agriculture

by Wyn Grant

The Farmer–Scientist Network was set up by the Yorkshire Agricultural Society (UK) to facilitate practical cooperation between farmers and academics on the challenges facing agriculture. The Network felt there was a need to produce an assessment of the possible consequences of Brexit for agriculture. A working party was established, made up of leading experts on the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy and farmer members. I chaired this working party, and we produced what we hope is a comprehensive report, available here: http://yas.co.uk/charitable-activities/farmer-scientist-network/brexit.

Brexit ReportIn producing the Brexit report, one of our objectives was to provide information that farmers and others concerned with agriculture could use to question politicians during the referendum campaign. We also felt that agriculture and food had not been given sufficient attention during the negotiations and subsequent discussions. Should Brexit occur, our report draws attention to the issues that would have to be considered in exit negotiations.

The ins and outs of leaving

When evaluating the implications of Brexit for agriculture, we expected there would be complexities and uncertainties, but these were, in fact, greater than we anticipated. One reason for this is that, although the Lisbon Treaty on which the EU is founded makes provision for Member States to leave the EU under ‘Article 50’, none have ever done so before. It is difficult to know in advance how Britain’s exit would proceed, but it would almost certainly be necessary to use the entire two-year negotiating window provided for in the Treaty. Another complication is that the UK Government has not undertaken any formal contingency planning for exit, so it is difficult to know what a future domestic agricultural policy would look like.

In the event of Brexit taking place, the Farmer–Scientist Network feels that an optimal arrangement for the UK would be to establish a free trade area with the rest of the EU, with tariff-free access for UK farm products to the internal market. However, we don’t think the EU would want to give too generous a deal for fear of encouraging other member states to think about the benefits of exit.

Subsidies

Currently, two ‘pillars’ of financial subsidy are awarded to stakeholders in EU agriculture. We believe that the existing ‘Pillar 1’ subsidies that are given to EU farmers would be vulnerable after Brexit. This is an important issue, as for many farmers these subsidies make the difference between making a profit and running at a loss. Supporters of Brexit argue that the savings made from contributions to the EU budget would more than allow for subsidies to continue to be paid at the existing level. However, this overlooks the fact that the UK Treasury has for a long time targeted these subsidies as “market distorting”, and in the current climate of austerity in the UK, they could be at risk of being phased out as a means to reduce public expenditure.

We did, however, think that the ‘Pillar 2’ subsidies directed at agri-environmental and rural development objectives would be continued in some form. This is in part because they are embedded in contracts that continue beyond 2020, and because they have a coalition of domestic support from outside the industry from environmental and conservation lobbies.

Regulation

Some farmers resent what they see as excessive regulation emanating from Brussels. However, we think it is unlikely that many of these controls would be dropped or relaxed following Brexit. There are good reasons for regulations covering such areas as water pollution, pesticide use and animal welfare that have nothing to do with membership of the EU. Domestic support for such regulations would continue from environmental, conservation, public health, animal welfare and consumer organisations.

Some farmers hope that plant protection products that have been banned under EU regulations could be used after Brexit. However, there would still be domestic pressure to regulate these products and manufacturers might be unwilling to produce them just for the UK market.

Negotiation and trade

The UK at present negotiates in the World Trade Organisation (WTO) as a part of an EU bloc which provides additional leverage against powerful countries such as the United States. The agreements that the EU has with ‘third’ countries (those outside of Europe) would have to be renegotiated on a single country basis. Supporters of Brexit are confident that this task could be completed within two years. However, given that the UK has relied on the negotiating resources of the European Commission, it does not have many international trade diplomats and the process could take considerably longer.

Migrant labour

The horticulture industry in the UK is substantially dependent on migrant labour from elsewhere in the EU. This could not easily be replaced with domestic labour. It would be necessary to try and negotiate a new version of the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme (SAWS) – a scheme (redundant since 2013) that was established to allow migrant workers from certain countries outside of the EU to work in UK agriculture – to ensure that the sector would have the labour it needs to function.

Conclusions

Being part of a larger political community gives British farmers some political cover from countries where farming makes up a large share of GDP or has strong cultural roots. The Farmer–Scientist Network concluded that it was difficult to see Brexit as beneficial to UK agriculture. However, we also emphasised that there are broader considerations about UK membership that needed to be weighed in any voting decision.

 

Witty gene names

It is a well known fact that biologists are a clever bunch. Most of the time they’re out applying their intellect and tackling the world’s problems, but occasionally (probably at happy hour on a Friday evening) they sit around coming up with witty names for genes.

Drosophila (fruit fly) geneticists have some classics, including the tinman mutant (which lacks a heart), Smaug (represses the ‘dwarves’ – Nanos), and the tribbles mutant (which has out of control cell division – don’t add water!).

Don’t worry though – plant scientists have come up with some clever gene names of their own! I asked the #plantsci community on Twitter for their favorites:

The superman mutant in Arabidopsis lacks the female parts of the flower, replacing it with more stamens. Fairly funny on its own, but naming its suppressor KRYPTONITE was even better!   

Like the 1970s TV cop Kojak, the kojak mutant is completely (root) hairless! In contrast, the werewolf  mutant produces LOTS of root hairs.

kojak

The kojak mutant (B) is completely bald! Image credit: Favery et al., 2001 and Universal Television

 

Ah yes, we can partially blame GPC’s Ruth Bastow for this one as she was co-first author on the discovery paper! TIMING OF CAB EXPRESSION1 (TOC1) had been shown to be involved in the circadian clock, and when Ruth and her colleagues discovered a gene that appeared to regulate TOC1, they named it TIC for the clever TIC-TOC of the circadian clock, then fit the full name (TIME FOR COFFEE) around it! The official reason was, “We located TIC function to the mid to late subjective night, a phase at which any human activity often requires coffee”. Hmm!    

My thesis is on stomatal development, so these are close to my heart! The word ‘stoma’ is  ancient Greek for ‘mouth’, so lots of stomata genes are mouth-based puns!

Where does YODA fit into this, you ask? This gene is the (Jedi) master regulator of stomatal development, of course!

tmm

The too many mouths mutant produces too many stomata. Image credit: Guseman et al., 2010.

 

In the run-up to the Brexit referendum on the United Kingdom leaving the European Union, SCHENGEN is a topical choice! This gene is involved in establishing the Casparian Strip, a lignified type of cell wall located in the endodermis. The schengen mutants don’t form this barrier, so were named after the Schengen Agreement that ‘established a borderless area between European member states’.  

Lisa’s spot on with these. The pennywise mutation was discovered first, named after a band, then when a paralogous gene was identified by the same authors, they continued the finance theme with POUND-FOOLISH.

The armadillo mutant in Drosophila has abnormal segment development, which looks a little like the armor plating of an armadillo. This protein contains ‘Armadillo repeats’, which is actually found in a huge variety of species including plants. The ARABIDILLO genes in Arabidopsis promote lateral root development, while PHYSCODILLO genes affect early development in the moss Physcomitrella patens.

 

Thanks, Ian!

Thanks to everyone who participated in this list. If you have a favorite whimsical gene name that hasn’t been mentioned, let us know in the comment section!

Lessons from the oldest and most arid desert on Earth

Atacama Desert

Image credit: Center for Genome Regulation

The Atacama Desert is a strip of land near 1000 km in length located in northern Chile. With an average yearly rainfall of just 15 mm (close to 0 in some locations) and high radiation levels, it is the driest desert in the world. Geological estimates suggest that the Atacama has remained hyperarid for at least eight million years. Standing in its midst, one may easily feel as though visiting a valley on Mars.

Despite these harsh environmental conditions, it is possible to find life in the Atacama. At the increased altitudes along the western slopes of the Andes precipitation is slightly increased, allowing plant life.

Convergent evolution

The driest and oldest desert in the world acts as a natural laboratory where for 150 million years plants adapted to and colonized this environment. These adaptations are likely present in multiple desert plant lineages, thus providing an evolutionary framework where these traits can be associated with a signature of convergent evolution.

Surviving a nitrogen-limited landscape

Plant in the Atacama Desert

Image credit: Center for Genome Regulation

The interplay of environmental conditions in the transect of the Atacama, ranging from 2500 to 4500 meters above sea level, results in three broad microclimates; Pre Puna, Puna, and High Steppe. These microclimates have different humidities, temperatures, levels of organic matter and even different pH levels, but share one common feature: low nitrogen levels.

To engineer crops with higher nitrogen use efficiency, it is very useful to first learn how plants adapt to growth in low nitrogen environments. Here the Atacama Desert enters into the game. Plants growing in the desert can survive 100-fold less nitrogen below optimum concentrations. Using phylogenetics it is possible to uncover novel genes and mechanisms related to adaptation to these extreme conditions, which have not been discovered through traditional genetic approaches.

Currently, nitrogen fertilizers are widely employed to increase crop yield. In 2008 100 million tons of this fertilizer were used and it is projected that for 2018 the demand for nitrogen will rise to 119 million tons. Regretfully, the production and over-usage of this type of fertilizer has an enormous impact in the environment and human health. Around 60% of the nitrogen introduced to the soil for agricultural purposes is leached and lost. Moreover, nitrogen runoffs to the water cause eutrophication in both freshwater and marine ecosystems, leading to algae and phytoplankton blooms, low levels of dissolved oxygen, and finally the migration or death of the present fauna, forming dead zones such as the one in the Gulf of Mexico.
 

Plants in the Atacama Desert

Image credit: Center for Genome Regulation

Nitrogen fertilizers are not the only major concern in modern agricultural procedures. The co-localization of drought and low nitrogen levels is especially detrimental for plant growth and development. We need to support not only the nutritional requirement of an expanding global population but also new energetic strategies based on production of biomass for biofuels on marginal nutrient poor soils. In order to increase crop yields while reducing the environmental impact of nitrogen fertilizers, it is necessary to develop new agricultural strategies and cutting edge technologies.

Learning from the desert

What if we could profit from the extraordinary plants that have had thousands of years to learn how to cope with nitrogen scarcity, drought and extreme radiation? Specifically, can we unravel the genes and mechanisms that allow them to survive in such a barren place?

Atacama Desert

Image credit: Center for Genome Regulation

Over the past three years our group has identified 62 different plant species that inhabit the Atacama Desert, and established a correlation between their habitat attributes and biological characteristics. Using tools such as whole transcriptome shotgun sequencing or RNA-Seq complemented with different bioinformatics approaches, we have identified over 896,000 proteins that are expressed in these conditions.

In this way we aim to learn which processes are highly utilized in these “extreme survivors” compared to similar species that are present in the deserts of California, where the climatic conditions are similar but there is no nitrogen scarcity. That is how we expect to find new mechanisms (or, more precisely, very old mechanisms) that enable plants to survive and grow efficiently in extreme environments.


 
Susana Cabello

Dr Susana Cabello

Written by Dr Susana Cabello, Center for Genome Regulation, Millennium Nucleus for Plant Systems and Synthetic Biology, Chile. Susana would like to acknowledge Maite Salazar & Rodrigo Gutierrez for their suggestions and edits.

A year at the Global Plant Council

Last April I joined the Global Plant Council as a New Media Fellow along with Sarah Jose from the University of Bristol. The GPC is a small organization with a big remit: to bring together stakeholders in the plant and crop sciences from around the world! As New Media Fellows, Sarah and I have have assisted in raising the online profile of the GPC through various social media platforms. We wrote about our experiences in growing this blog and the GPC Twitter and Facebook accounts in the The Global Plant Council Guide to Social Media, which details our successes and difficulties in creating a more established online presence.

 

Why do it?

My wheat growing in Norfolk field trials. I have spent every summer for the past 3 years out here analysing photosynthesis and other possible contributors to crop yield

My wheat growing in Norfolk field trials. I have spent every summer for the past 3 years out here analysing photosynthesis and other possible contributors to crop yield

I chose to apply for the fellowship during the third year of my PhD. Around this time I had started to consider that perhaps a job in research wasn’t for me. It was therefore important to gain experience outside of my daily life in the lab and field, explore possible careers outside of academia and of course to add vital lines to my CV. I still loved science, and found my work interesting, so knew I wanted to stay close to the scientific community. Furthermore, I had always enjoyed being active on Twitter, and following scientific blogs, so the GPC fellowship sounded like the perfect opportunity!

 

The experience

I think I can speak for both Sarah and myself when I say that this fellowship has been one of the best things I’ve done during my PhD. Managing this blog for a year has allowed me to speak to researchers working on diverse aspects of the plant sciences from around the world. My speed and writing efficiency have improved no end, and I can now write a decent 1000 word post in under an hour! I discovered the best places to find freely available photos, and best way to present a WordPress article. Assisting with Twitter gave me an excuse to spend hours reading interesting articles on the web – basically paid procrastination – and I got to use my creativity to come up with new ways of engaging our community.

Next career move, camera woman?

Filming interviews at the Stress Resilience Forum. Next career move, camera woman?

Of course going to Brazil for the Stress Resilience Symposium, GPC AGM and IPMB was a highlight of my year. I got to present to the international community both about my own PhD research and the work of the GPC, Sarah and I became expert camera women while making the Stress Resilience videos, and I saw the backstage workings of a conference giving out Plantae badges on the ASPB stand at IPMB. It didn’t hurt that I got to see Iguassu Falls, drink more than a few caipirinhas and spend a sneaky week in Rio de Janeiro!

Helping out on the ASPB stand

Helping out on the ASPB stand with Sarah

 

Thank you

Working with the GPC team has been fantastic. I learnt a lot about how scientific societies are run and the work they do by talking to the representatives from member societies at the AGM. The executive board have been highly supportive of our activities throughout. Last but not least, the lovely GPC ladies, Ruth, Lisa and Sarah have been an amazing team to work with – I cannot thank you enough!

I have now handed in my PhD, left the GPC, and moved on to a new career outside of academic research. I’m going into a job focused on public engagement and widening access to higher education, and have no doubt my GPC experiences have helped me get there. My advice if you’re unsure about where you want to end up after your PhD? Say “yes” to all new opportunities as you never know where they will take you.

Thank you the GPC! Hopefully I’ll be back one day!

 

Thank you! It's been amazing!

Thank you! It’s been amazing!