Temperate matters in agriculture

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Most of the world’s food is produced in temperate zones. The Global Food Security program’s Evangelia Kougioumoutzi reports on the TempAg network.

Agricultural production in temperate regions is highly productive with a significant proportion of global output originating from temperate (i.e. non-tropical) countries – 21% of global meat production and 20% of global cereal production [link opens PDF] originate from Europe alone. This proportion is very likely to increase in light of climate change.

Temperature zones

Little fluffy clouds: temperate zones are well suited to agricultural production. Image credit: connect11/Thinkstock

TempAg is an international research collaboration network that was established to increase the impact of agricultural research and inform policy making in the world’s temperate regions. Its work does not solely focus on research, but also provides insights into current thinking through mapping existing scientific findings and outstanding knowledge gaps. In this way, the network aspires to become a platform for the alignment of national agricultural research and food partnership programs (such as Global Food Security) that will enable the development of more effective agricultural policies with a long-term vision.

Since its official inauguration in Paris in April 2015, TempAg has been leading a series of on-going workstreams around:

  • Boosting resilience of agricultural production systems at multiple scales and levels
  • Optimising land management for ecosystem services and food production
  • Improving sustainability of food productivity in the farms & enterprise level

You can read more about these themes on the TempAg website: http://tempag.net/themes/.

Future foresights

After 18 months of existence, TempAg held a foresight workshop in London on 5–7 October to determine its future priorities.

Forty delegates took part in the workshop, coming from the 14 different countries in the temperate region, and from academia, policy, industry, and professionals at the science–policy interface. Through a series of presentations and interactive sessions, participants were invited to consider what the current and future challenges are in temperate agriculture, taking into account the needs of policy makers and industry in helping them to improve sustainable agriculture practices.

 

Temperate zones

Temperate zones cover much of the world’s major food-growing areas. Image from Wikipedia/CIA-Factbook

 

To tackle sustainability in temperate agriculture, there is a need to better manage risks and stresses (both biotic and abiotic), as well as finding ways to manage the restoration of natural capital, ecosystem services, and soils. During the workshop, it was noted that utilizing the diversity within different agricultural systems, via identifying the best practice and using the appropriate technological mix, may be a way forward in making production systems more sustainable.

Participants stressed the importance of taking a holistic view of the sustainability agenda within agriculture, without just focusing on environmental aspects. This means also taking into consideration socioeconomic factors, such as making food value chains (like turning milk into cheese), more equitable by identifying who gets the equity from the food commodities’ prices, or identifying what the optimum legal framework for sharing data might be.

The group also considered sustainable agriculture issues from a policy and industry needs angle. It was interesting to see that dealing with shocks (environmental, socioeconomic, and technological) featured highly in this discussion as well. It was suggested that increasing resilience to these shocks could be facilitated via the widespread diffusion of existing technologies. Engaging with farmers during this time would be necessary to identify technology uptake barriers.

Forward moves

Future-proofing agricultural resilience and enhancing the capacity to respond to shocks was deemed an urgent priority, so the development of a comprehensive map identifying the multiple shocks that could impact on farm resilience in temperate zones might be a future workstream for TempAg. Work in this area could help develop models to assess the flexibility within agricultural production systems.

 

What we eat is largely based on the types of food we produce. Therefore, healthy diets are intrinsically linked with our production systems. Another area of interest for TempAg could be to explore what the nutritional value of crops should be for better health, and what a nutritional diet will look like for sustainable temperate agriculture. Developing frameworks in this area could further inform future farming practices in temperate areas.

Since TempAg’s initiation, two major global policy agendas have been adopted by the international community: the Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris COP21 agreement. Identifying what types of data and scientific evidence policy makers will need to achieve the agriculture-relevant targets was another area where TempAg could focus its activity moving forward.

Finally, delegates highlighted areas of work that could help to build more effective policies with a longer-term vision. These included developing economic tools for valuing natural capital and ecosystem services, as well as integrated assessment tools to monitor the performance and impact (environmental cost) of existing policies.

This article is cross-posted with the Global Food Security blog.


About Evangelia Kougioumoutzi

Evangelia is International Coordinator & Programme Manager for the Global Food Security program (GFS). Before joining GFS, Evangelia worked as an Innovation Manager for GFS partners BBSRC. She holds a PhD in plant development and genetics from the University of Oxford.

 

Flipping the symposium

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Answers to the question: “Which crop species are most critical with regard to stress resilience?”

Lisa Martin, GPC Outreach & Communications Manager

GPC Executive Director Ruth Bastow and I recently travelled to Australia to hold the GPC’s annual general meeting – but we didn’t go all that way for a one-day meeting! We also took the opportunity to attend ComBio 2016, a large conference jointly hosted by the Australian Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology, the Australia and New Zealand Society for Cell and Developmental Biology, and GPC Member Organization the Australian Society of Plant Scientists.

Sadly, one person was conspicuous by his absence – GPC President Bill Davies, who had been due to give more than one talk at the conference, was unable to fly out to Australia at very short notice. While Ruth and our Chair Professor Barry Pogson could cover his talk during the GPC’s own lunchtime symposium, this left Dr Rainer Hofmann’s ‘Abiotic Stress and Climate Change’ session one speaker short at the last minute!

Answers to the question, "Which challenges do these crops face?"

Answers to the question, “Which challenges do these crops face?”

Fortunately Rainer, who happens to be a representative to the GPC for the New Zealand Society of Plant Biology, found a quick solution to the hole in his program: it was time for a bit of audience participation!

The ‘flipped classroom’ is an approach I’d heard of, but was not overly familiar with – however, according to Rainer it is used quite extensively in New Zealand, where plant biologists can be geographically isolated. Unlike the traditional university lecture, in which the teacher gives a presentation and the students go away to consolidate what they have learned with revision notes or problems to solve, the flipped classroom turns this model on its head. Instead, students are given the subject content to learn in advance, then bring their own questions to the lecture.

Arguably, this approach makes better use of students’ contact time and the lecturer’s expertise, and provides a richer and more independent learning experience. This model also works very well in distance learning: topic notes and presentation slides can be emailed out in advance, then a video-linked webinar can be used to connect students and teachers, and a web-tool like Socrative Student can be used to ask and answer questions online.

Answers to the question, "What are key solutions to address these challenges, in the next 3 years and in the longer term?"

Answers to the question, “What are key solutions to address these challenges, in the next 3 years and in the longer term?”

Rainer used this idea to fill the gap in his symposium – and it was great! He asked three important questions, and members of the audience were invited to provide short answers via the Socrative Student platform using their computers, cell phones or tablets – answers were then displayed on a screen in real time. Thank goodness for WiFi! The questions and answers can be seen in the word clouds we’ve created here – the size of the word provides an indication of the frequency of that particular response, so it’s easy to see which were the most and least popular answers. These responses provided useful, engaging stimuli for audience-led discussion – I’d really like to see this model used at other meetings!

The three questions asked were:

  1. Which crop species are most critical with regard to stress resilience?
  2. Which challenges do these crops face?
  3. What are key solutions to address these challenges, a) in the next three years, and b) in the longer term?

What would your answers have been? Leave us a comment below!

Down Under: the Global Plant Council’s 2016 AGM

img_20161006_075356Lisa Martin, GPC Outreach & Communications Manager

As a truly global organization, the Global Plant Council hosts its annual general meeting (AGM) on a different continent each year, to give our members from far-flung corners of the globe the opportunity to come together to celebrate progress and discuss future strategies to develop plant science for global challenges.

With our current Chair Professor Barry Pogson hailing from ‘down under’, this year’s AGM was held in Brisbane, Australia, which made for a warm, sunny change from autumnal London for Ruth and I!

Starting bright and early at 8 am on Monday 3rd October, representatives from the GPC’s member societies joined the GPC’s Executive Board at a hotel in Brisbane’s central business district. After a welcome from the Chair, and a minute’s respectful silence to remember our former Board Member Professor Carl Douglas, who sadly passed away earlier this year, introductions were made and we got down to business. Ruth and myself first provided introductions to, and updates on, the main GPC initiatives and activities.

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While waiting for our Stress Resilience white paper to be published, why not read our Nutritional Security report? (Link opens PDF – right-click and save-as to download a copy to your computer!)

The DivSeek initiative continues to grow in strength and numbers, with 67 partner organizations now committed to working together to address genomic and phenomic data challenges in plant science. With funding from the UK’s Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council Ruth has been providing essential coordination services specifically for this project, and with DivSeek Chair (Professor Susan McCouch) and a Steering Committee in place, the initiative is making real progress; a number of working groups have been launched to actively engage DivSeek partners and help the initiative advance its mission and aims.

Our other major, current initiative is in the area of Stress Resilience. As you may have read around this time last year, the GPC held a workshop and discussion forum on the subject of ‘Stress Resilient Cropping Systems for the Future’, in conjunction with our 2015 AGM in Brazil. This successful two-day event brought together experts in this area to share and showcase new research, tools and techniques. We are now turning our discussions from this meeting into a forthcoming white paper, and hopefully a commentary or two for publication in a high impact journal – we’ll let you know when these have been launched!

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Lisa talked to the Global Plant Council about our successful outreach and communications activities. Do you follow us on Twitter or Facebook?

Then it was my turn to speak on the subject of outreach and communication. With much help from our New Media Fellow (NMF) Sarah Jose (and our former NMF Amelia-Frizell Armitage, who left the GPC for a new job earlier this year), the GPC’s social media efforts have been tremendously successful this year. We now have nearly 3000 followers on Twitter, hundreds of ‘fans’ on Facebook, and over 1200 subscribers to our monthly e-Bulletin (though readership is much wider, thanks to many of our Member Organizations who also distribute this newsletter!). We were also pleased to welcome Current Plant Biology to our journal supporters; they join Journal of Experimental Botany, Nature Plants and New Phytologist in providing some financial sponsorship to support our outreach efforts.

In other activity updates, we discussed Plantae, the social media-cum-knowledge hub that the GPC has been working on developing with the American Society of Plant Biologists. Plantae is in beta testing mode to capture feedback on the design and user experience, but is growing and evolving all the time. We encourage you to register an account and sign up, if you haven’t already done so!

Sadly our President Bill Davies was unable to attend the AGM, but Ruth and Barry explained the premise of a new GPC Knowledge Exchange initiative that Bill is working hard to get off the ground. If successful in securing funding to progress this project, we hope to be involved with the development of an online training platform to transfer knowledge from the laboratory to the field – an exciting idea that will, we hope, be of invaluable benefit to communities in developing regions.

screen-shot-2016-11-09-at-14-37-18As with many research networks and non-profit organizations, securing long term funding for the GPC is a continual challenge. The GPC’s main source of income is its member organizations; a revised membership fee structure was agreed at last year’s AGM, but further refinement and additional sources of funding will be required to ensure the continued sustainability of the GPC. As such we are actively seeking donations to help us continue the work of GPC so if you would like to make a contribution to support our efforts, you can do so via our PayPal giving link here: http://globalplantcouncil.org/donate.

Happily, we are pleased to welcome three new affiliate members to our ranks – the Center for Plant Aging Research in Korea, the Max Planck Institute for Molecular Plant Physiology in Germany, and the ARC Centre of Excellence in Plant Energy Biology in Australia.

Before discussing the GPC’s vision for the future, we took the opportunity to hear from our Member Organizations about what they would like the GPC to do for them, and what they can do for us. Lots of excellent suggestions for cross-collaborations, outreach, and novel funding sources were made, and we will be eagerly following up on these in the coming months – watch this space!

Aside from plant science, we found some time to familiarize ourselves with the local wildlife!

Aside from plant science, we found some time to familiarize ourselves with the local wildlife!

In addition to the AGM GPC also hosted a lunchtime symposium during the ComBio 2016 meeting, entitled, “Addressing Global Challenges in Plant Science: the Importance of Co-operation beyond National Boundaries”. During this session, we showcased exemplar projects involving multi-national stakeholders, stressing that global challenges need global solutions, and highlighting the unique and essential role that GPC plays.

Ruth spoke about DivSeek, GPC Treasurer Vicky Buchanan-Wollaston spoke about our Stress Resilience initiative, and Barry provided an overview of the Nutritional Security Initiative and also filled in for Bill by talking about our proposed plans for the knowledge exchange platform mentioned above. Professor Andy Borrell from the University of Queensland also gave an engaging and insightful talk about why a transnational approach to plant, crop and agricultural science is needed, highlighting some of the real-world scenarios where the GPC might offer practical, proactive support for research across borders.

It was fantastic to see over 70 plant scientists who gave up their lunchtime to attend our symposium – there were plenty of questions and very positive feedback at the end that we hope this will spark new ideas, interactions and collaborations. We felt very encouraged by the interest in and support for the GPC and its initiatives, and look forward to being able to continue serving the global plant science community.

Using plants to convert explosives to fertilizers: an interview with Neil Bruce

Neil Bruce

Professor Neil Bruce

This week we spoke to Professor Neil Bruce, whose research at the University of York (UK) focuses on metabolic pathways. His insights into the detoxification of pollutants by plants and microorganisms has led to promising new solutions to help clean up polluting explosives from military testing.

 

Could you begin by telling us a little about your research interests?

I have very broad research interests that often revolve around finding enzymes for biotechnological applications. A particular focus of my lab is the biochemistry and molecular genetics of plant and microbial metabolism of xenobiotic (foreign) compounds, such as environmental pollutants. Elucidating these metabolic pathways often results in the discovery of new enzymes that catalyze interesting chemistries. Being a biologist at heart, I’m interested in the evolutionary origin of these enzymes, but also by studying their structure and function I’m exploring how these enzymes can be engineered to further improve their properties for a particular application, such as environmental remediation or biocatalysis.

 

 

You spoke at the GARNet 2016 meeting about engineering plants to remediate explosives pollution. Could you explain what this problem is and how it affects both people and the environment?

Explosive compounds used in munitions are highly toxic and the potential for progressive accumulation of such compounds in soil, plants, and groundwater is a significant concern at military sites. It is estimated that in the US alone, 10 million hectares of military land is contaminated with components of munitions. The explosives mainly used in artillery, mortars and bombs are 2,4,6-trinitrotoluene (TNT) and Composition B (containing TNT and hexahydro-1,3,5-trinitro-1,3,5-triazine (RDX)). The US Department of Defense estimated that the clean-up of unexploded ordnance, discarded military munitions and munition constituents on its active ranges would cost between $16 billion and $165 billion. Explosives pollution is, however, a global problem, with large amounts of land and groundwater contaminated by TNT and RDX, including polluted sites in the UK that date back to the First and Second World Wars. Explosives pollution will continue to be a pressing issue while there is a requirement for military to train and the existence of armed conflict requires munitions to be manufactured. There is an urgent need to develop sustainable in situ technologies to contain and treat these pollutants.

 

TNT toxicity in plants

TNT is toxic to plants because of the actions of an enzyme called monodehydroascorbate reductase, which breaks TNT down into a toxic form. Plants lacking this enzyme, such as the mdhar6 mutant plants on the right, can grow very well on TNT-polluted soil. Credit: Johnston et al. (2015).

 

How did you develop the idea of using plants to remove explosives pollution? What benefits do plants have over the microorganisms from which the enzymes are obtained?

We have worked closely with the UK Ministry of Defence and US Army to understand the fate of explosives in the environment. Knowledge of their effects on biological systems is important, as this information can be used to support the management of contaminated sites. We have, therefore, been uncovering the molecular mechanisms behind these detoxification processes in plants, and have used this knowledge, in combination with studies on the bacterial degradation of pollutants, to successfully engineer transgenic plants able to remediate toxic explosive pollutants in a process called ‘phytoremediation’.

An innovative aspect of our work has been the use of genetic engineering to combine the biodegradative capabilities of explosives-degrading bacteria with the high biomass, stability and detoxification systems inherent in plants. While it is possible to find explosives-degrading bacteria on polluted land, they do not degrade the explosives fast enough to prevent leaching into the groundwater. Our engineered transgenic plant systems, however, can efficiently remove toxic levels of TNT and RDX from contaminated soil and water.

 

You mentioned that you are currently testing transgenic switchgrass to remove RDX and TNT pollution in the US. Why did you choose this species and have you considered developing other species suited to different environments?

Plants appropriate for the phytoremediation of explosives need to be adaptable to conditions on military ranges, for example, they need good fire tolerance, and to be able to grow over a wide geographical range. Switchgrass meets these criteria, and is also deep-rooting, can be grown on marginal lands, and researchers can benefit from established methods for genetically engineering switchgrass. We have also been engineering other grass species and have considered fast-growing deep-rooting trees such as poplar.

 

Turning explosives into fertilizers

In a poetic twist, rather than turning fertilizers into explosives, Professor Bruce’s phytoremediating plants convert explosives into fertilizer. Credit: Neil Bruce.

 

How quickly can engineered plants remove this pollution?

In the lab these plants can remove levels of explosives pollution found in the environment within a matter of days. We are currently carrying out field trials with our transgenic plants on a military site in the US, to observe their phytoremediation effectiveness in the real world. If these trials are successful, a number of demonstration studies on contaminated sites will be required to convince end users of the benefits of phytoremediation for remediating and maintaining military land. These demonstration studies will also allow us to evaluate any risks, which will be important to obtain further approval from the US Department of Agriculture to be able to use these plants on a larger scale.

 

What other projects are you working on? Could you elaborate on any recent discoveries?

As well as explosives, we are also working on the use of plants to extract platinum group metals (PGMs) from mining waste. PGMs are used in an ever-expanding array of technologies and demand is spiralling upwards; however, these are rare and expensive to mine. It is essential that these metal reserves are utilized and recycled responsibly, not dispersed and lost into the environment. Plants can take up metals from their environment and, in the case of PGMs, can deposit them as nanoparticles within their tissues. Importantly, we have recently shown that plants containing palladium nanoparticles can also be used to make efficient biocatalysts, and we are currently using synthetic biology in plants to improve palladium uptake and nanoparticle formation.

 


More information:

Johnston, E.J., Rylott, E.L., Beynon, E., Lorenz, A, Chechik, V. and Bruce, N.C. (2015) Monodehydroascorbate reductase mediates TNT toxicity in plants. Science. 349: 1072-1075.

Gunning, V., Tzafestas, K., Sparrow, H., et al. (2014) Arabidopsis glutathione transferases U24 and U25 exhibit a range of detoxification activities with the environmental pollutant and explosive, 2,4,6-trinitrotoluenePlant Physiol. 165: 854-865.

Rylott, E.L.. Budarina, M.V., Barker, A., Lorenz, A., Strand, S.E. and Bruce, N.C. (2011) Engineering plants for the phytoremediation of RDX in the presence of the co-contaminating explosive TNT. New Phytologist, 192: 405-413.