Developing smart food for a new generation – safe and secure, competitive and sustainable

© Rothamsted Research

Professor Achim Dobermann

“Fresh thinking plus global science yields lasting benefit.” It’s the modern mantra of the world’s oldest research institute for agricultural science, which today launches an ambitious vision for the next five years at a time of unprecedented international uncertainty and diverse challenges, socially, economically and environmentally.

“Our purpose is to bring together global science and innovation to benefit farmers and communities worldwide, to secure food production and to protect the environment,” says Achim Dobermann, Director and Chief Executive of Rothamsted Research, which celebrates its 175th anniversary next year.

In a landmark speech at the institute’s headquarters in southern England, Dobermann outlined a vision that combined ambitious research objectives to develop better food sustainably with a hard-nosed approach to the business of food production, globally and in the UK. He was supported by Rothamsted’s senior scientists, who are among the world’s leading experts in fields ranging from genetics, soil science, agronomy, metabolomics, ecology and pathology.

“We are one of the few institutions left in the United Kingdom that still has both the breadth and depth to do integrated agricultural science,” noted Dobermann. “We have always been at the forefront of agricultural science worldwide and we will remain there,” he said, before introducing the institute’s three big Science Portfolios: Superior Crops; Securing Productivity; and Future Agri-Food Systems.

Under Superior Crops, research programmes aim to develop seeds with key genetic traits tailored to their cultivation, their environment and their potential nutritional and industrial value as products. For instance, some remarkable science has already crafted plants to mimic the nutrient-producing potential of algae, creating the opportunity for crops rich in long chain omega-3 fatty acids, or “fish oils”. And Rothamsted chemists are exploring willow to see what can be extracted before the crop is burned as biomass fuel; the focus is on precursors for new drugs and feedstocks for a range of industrial processes.

Securing Productivity is about finding smarter ways to control biotic threats – pests, pathogens and weeds – more efficiently and sustainably. For instance, wheat pathogens are so pervasive and genetically adaptable that they easily overwhelm the natural defences of the cereal’s huge and complex genome. Rothamsted scientists are hunting for genetic fixes to enable the crop to look after itself better and also for natural microbes to act as allies. In another branch of the portfolio, agronomists and ecologists are working together to exploit ecosystem services; they are investigating what level of the biosphere’s “natural capital”, such as the pest control offered by ladybirds and the pollination service provided by bees, can replace agriculture’s technological innovations, such as chemical sprays.

The third portfolio, Future Agri-Food Systems, is about making both arable and livestock farming more efficient and productive. The associated research programmes are also exploring ways of improving soil health and structure, of enhancing biodiversity, of reducing carbon footprints, and of raising the nutritional quality of produce. On Rothamsted’s experimental farms at North Wyke in Devon, researchers are looking for ways to transfer nutrients more efficiently from soil to livestock rather than lose them as pollutants, and so yield higher value food from grazing land. Elsewhere, soil and crop scientists are exploring the links between soil, food and human health to assess the value of “biofortifying” crops to enhance their nutritional benefits. Such work has implications for the UK and overseas.

The institute’s vision is one of engagement and communication – open, honest, direct – with the general public, with independent and state institutions, with industrialists and academics, and on national and international scales. It sees opportunities in the pressures driving change in the UK, Europe and around the world.

“There are five global drivers of change to which we want to contribute: global food security; highly interconnected risks; technology integration; healthier diets; and the needs of a wider, greener bioeconomy,” said Dobermann. “In the UK, crop productivity is challenged by increasing biotic threats to plant and animal health, by resistance to agrochemicals, by poor soil health, and by a slow rate of increase in yield and profitability.”

To improve farming’s competitiveness, Rothamsted is expanding and extending its approaches to partnerships and innovation, its sharing of knowledge and its development of business opportunities, in the UK and abroad. “Such engagement is being woven into our science,” said Angela Karp, Director for Science Innovation, Engagement and Partnerships. “Over the next five years, we will become an even more internationally vibrant hub for the agricultural sciences.”

Karp is also leading the institute’s moves towards “lean science” in which laboratory ideas and anticipated outputs are shared with stakeholders early in a programme of research. “This new thinking will encourage a more dynamic and responsive approach that is aligned with the needs of users, even pivoting to other ideas when changes of direction are called for,” she said.

The core of Rothamsted’s success “is having the right people doing the right work in the right way,” said Donna Lipsky, Director of Operations. She cites the recruitment of outstanding scientists, the creation of internationally competitive fellowships and investment in leadership development and talent management programmes. “Not only are we focusing on having the best institute for today, we are also investing in our future,” she noted, pointing to new student accommodation under construction at the institute’s headquarters that will build on the growing number of postgraduate and postdoctoral students who seek to develop their expertise and careers at Rothamsted.

Rothamsted is also launching its new website today. The site is designed as a dynamic platform for presenting updates of the institute’s developing partnerships and work in the UK and overseas, and also to offer ready access to Rothamsted’s agricultural databanks and to its research staff.

Article source: Rothamsted Research