Crop science key to climate change response

30 Sep 2019
Originally published in NIAB TAG Landmark - Issue 39 (September 2019)

Climate change is undoubtedly one of the greatest challenges facing our generation, with huge implications for the food, water, energy nexus which sustains life on earth. Tackling the causes and effects of climate change is increasing the focus and importance of NIAB’s research, at all stages of the crop improvement pipeline, writes Dr Tina Barsby, Chief Executive of NIAB.

Recent months have seen an unprecedented policy focus on the issue of climate change and agriculture. In August, the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a major report on global land use and agriculture, followed in September by a report on climate change and adaptation in EU agriculture from the European Environment Agency (EEA), and a manifesto from the NFU to achieve net zero greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions across the whole of agriculture in England and Wales by 2040.

The common theme across these reports is that, compared to other industries, agriculture is unique in its relationship to climate change – at the same time a major cause, victim and source of solutions.

It is particularly disappointing, therefore, that media coverage of the IPCC report took aim at livestock production and meat-eating, prompting claims of an anti-farming agenda and diverting attention from the enormous opportunities for agriculture to contribute positively to the causes and effects of climate change.

In fact, the IPCC report specifically highlights the importance of increasing crop productivity and resource-use efficiency through technological solutions such as precision farming and new breeding techniques, and explicitly mentions the promise of genome-editing crops.

This recognition of progressive, science-based crop production is hugely significant, particularly for farming systems in temperate regions such as northern Europe which, the IPCC report confirms, are predicted to be less susceptible to the yield-limiting effects of changes in temperature, rainfall and increasing weather extremes.

Cultivated plant species offer the ultimate clean and green technology, capturing carbon dioxide from the air and transforming solar energy, water and mineral nutrients into valuable and renewable sources of food, fibre and fuels. At the same time, our improved scientific understanding of how plants function at the level of individual genes is opening up major new opportunities to improve crop productivity, sustainability and resilience in areas such as nitrogen use efficiency, pest and disease resistance, and drought and stress tolerance.

In singling out the role of crop science in tackling climate change, the IPCC report underlines the critical importance of NIAB’s scientific mission. Indeed, responding to the challenge of climate change is central to much of the research taking place across the NIAB Group.

At the start of the crop improvement pipeline, NIAB’s trait characterisation and pre-breeding supports the development of more climate resilient wheat requiring fewer inputs, while our in-house GM wheat capability recently helped scientists at the University of Sheffield to create wheat plants modified to survive drought conditions.

The phenomenal success of NIAB EMR’s strawberry breeding programme, most notably through the market-leading MallingTM Centenary variety, is helping to increase productivity and reduce wastage in the UK soft fruit sector, while the Water Efficient Technologies (WET) Centre at East Malling is pioneering the development and application of high performance irrigation and moisture sensing technologies in horticulture.

Optimising the water use efficiency of crop production is also the focus for unique developments at NIAB CUF, harnessing innovations in data science, remote sensing and satellite technology to help potato growers plan their irrigation scheduling.

Alongside the requirement to improve crop performance at farm level, the IPCC report also highlights the urgent need to reduce food waste. This is the core research focus of the Eastern Agri-Tech Innovation Hub, established by NIAB in 2014 to help food businesses reduce their waste or develop new ways to channel waste into alternatives uses and products.

The central objective of NIAB TAG’s nationwide programme of applied agronomy research and knowledge transfer is to support improvements in productivity and input use efficiency across a range of crops, rotations and farming systems. Innovations in plant genetics and crop production systems offer crucial opportunities to mitigate farming’s contribution to a changing climate, while at the same time adapting to its effects and securing a sustainable food supply for future generations.

As the examples above demonstrate, NIAB’s crop science programme is already responding positively to this agenda, and in the years ahead, climate change will increasingly be the core driver of NIAB’s research strategy.