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Sustainable crop production is a challenge in both developed and developing countries. In developed countries the existing yields are maximised but practice is often not sustainable whereas, in developing countries, the need is for both increased yield and greater sustainability. To meet this challenge will require many types of change, from markets and human behaviour to advances in diverse technologies including those based on engineering and information handling.

Advances in sustainable crop production will depend to a large extent on progress in the science of plants, microbes and soils. Plant and microbial science, like other branches of biology, has advanced rapidly in recent years and there is now greater potential to advance and apply this research than ever before.

An alliance in Cambridge of the University and NIAB - the 3CS initiative - is well placed to play a leading and unique role in realising this potential.

There are collaborations in the area of wheat and rice pre-breeding and potato agronomy, as well as the molecular basis to circadian control, genetic bottlenecks and maximising crop diversity. There is also an existing programme of shared research studentships via the BBSRC DTP and external benefactions.

Strategic Research Areas

Fundamental science to underpin yield enhancement

Advances in applied crop research at NIAB will be underpinned by research innovations being undertaken by the Department of Plant Sciences and Sainsbury Laboratory.

Key areas include Plant Development, Epigenetics, Synthetic Biology, Photosynthesis, Physiology of stress tolerance, Plant-Pathogen interactions, and Epidemiology/modelling.

This expertise is supported by a platform of modern techniques, including transcriptomics, metabolomics and associated bioinformatics, as well as modern growth facilities. Key goals are to allow new fundamental advances in model organisms to be applied to selected crops, so as to enhance yield capacity and radiation use efficiency. Gains could also include improved resistance to pathogens and tolerance of drought, whilst minimising agronomic inputs and their associated costs.

Crop breeding

NIAB have pioneered the production of re-synthesised wheat by re-crossing the diploid goat grass (Aegilops tauschii) with an early tetraploid wheat (Emmer, or Durum: Triticum dicoccoides).

It is hoped that a range of pathogen and stress resistant traits will be conferred by backcrossing into modern elite varieties.

NIAB is also selectively introducing genes via embryo transformation, and is part of a major research platform encompassing the evaluation (via phenotyping and genotyping) of landraces, resynthesised lines, GM and elite varieties. As the Cambridge Centre for Crop Science develops (Stage 1-2) it would be advisable to focus on these existing strengths, as well as other on-going collaborations within the University’s Department of Plant Sciences focussing on genetic diversity in rice. In time, it is to be hoped that additional fundamental research would be conducted on other priority crops for the Indian subcontinent, such as legumes, brassicas and other orphan crops.

Focus for sustainable agriculture and extension services

Agritech outreach and training courses
Building upon the pure and applied research associated with Crop Breeding and Yield Enhancement sections, the goal of this division of the Cambridge Centre for Crop Science would be to translate practical solutions for crop production and agronomy for key stakeholders.

Agritech: will involve developing models to translate disease forecasting and nutrient requirements according to climatic conditions, crop phenology and likelihood of pathogen attack. Such packages will be produced as apps to disseminate precision farming techniques to smallholder and large scale farmer alike. It would also allow farm scale modelling of land partitioning into areas for intensification and biodiversity, according to soil quality and water availability.

Training: In the first instance, capacity building will be provided by a combination of training courses, including a conventional Masters’ course in Crop Science, as well as short term professional Master of Studies (MSt) courses which are the trademark for updating and re-skilling of professionals pioneered at the Institute for Continuing Education (ICE), Madingley Hall, University of Cambridge, as well as short term “walk the field” courses provided at NIAB to improve crop breeding and pathogen control skills. Ultimately, such courses would then be rolled out by the host Institute in India, by those newly trained in the UK and at quality agricultural university and research institutes in India.