Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Of gribbles and fish oil: plants and future security

By Lindsey Atkinson (@LJA_1)

In the week that the latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) was issued (31.03.2014) with its emphasis on risks and the importance of adaptation, the UK Plant Sciences Federation  (UKPSF) held their 2014 conference ‘Plant Science – Sustaining Life on Earth’ at the University of York.  This conference brings together a wide range of plant scientists from ecologists to molecular biologists and gives them the opportunity to share their knowledge across disciplines.

A key theme of the conference was food security1 and how plant science may help to meet some of the challenges we face.  The conference was opened with a keynote lecture from Prof Tim Benton (University of Leeds) on ‘Feed, food and fuel: plants and future security’ where he gave us an overview of some of these challenges.  Drivers of change include the growth in global demand for food, globalization and the changing climate.  Combine this with soil degradation and these things add up to make future food supplies look very uncertain!  On the other side of the coin, it’s not just about food supplies, but also about waste.   Some of these themes were echoed in Prof Peter Gregory’s (East Malling Research/University of Reading) talk in which he looked at the importance of sustainable agriculture and reducing waste and loss. 

Some of the headline figures from the recently published UKPSF report Status of UK Plant Science: Current Status and Future Challenges include:
  •  ‘There will be 2.4bn extra people to feed by 2050’
  •    ‘Global food production must increase by 60-110% to meet this demand’
  •    ‘Up to 40% of global crop yields are lost to plant pests and diseases each year’
  •    ‘Agriculture accounts for 70% of the world’s fresh water use’
  • ‘By 2030, global energy demand is predicted to rise by 40%’

At one level these challenges need to be tackled through politics and economics but plant scientists are using their knowledge and creativity to contribute too, which brings us back to gribbles and fish oil…

Gribbles are small, marine, wood-boring crustaceans and wouldn’t normally make an appearance at a plant science conference.  However, understanding and using their digestive enzymes may increase the efficiency with which we can break down woody materials to produce biofuels (read more). 

We also learned that fish oil isn’t made by fish – yes, you guessed it – it is made by plants (in this case marine algae) and accumulated by the fish.   Using fish as a source of these fish oils for fish farming is not sustainable but using transgenic crops could be… (read more).  

There were many more examples of how plant scientists are working to improve crop yield and yield stability, water and nutrient use in agriculture and the nutritional value of crops.  There is also a lot of current research on using plants as factories to produce additional nutrients and biofuels.  You can find more details of all the topics covered at the conference at

The future for plant scientists in the UK was the topic for a debate chaired by Dr Sandy Knapp of the Natural History Museum.  Although great strengths were recognized in the plant science research community, it was noted that it has an ageing population and skills shortages are predicted.  The importance of inspiring students from an early age was emphasized with calls for greater inclusion of plant science in the curriculum at both school and in higher education.  The next challenge is once inspired, providing the opportunities to keep scientists in this area.
The panel (from L to R): Sarah Gurr (University of Exeter), Jim Beynon (University of Warwick),  Sandy Knapp (Natural History Museum, London),  Mark Chase (Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew), Mike Bushell (Syngenta) and Dale Sanders (John Innes Centre).

The conference closed with a final talk from Prof Jackie Hunter, Chief Executive of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), who gave her view of a 21st Century Vision for Plant Science to tackle challenges in sustainable crop production.

1Food Security was defined at the World Food Summit of 1996 as occurring “when all people at all times have access to sufficient, safe, nutritious food to maintain a healthy and active life(  

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