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agriculture Archives - The Global Plant Council

Photosynthesis olympics: can the best wheat varieties be even better?

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Scientists have put elite wheat varieties through a sort of “Photosynthesis Olympics” to find which varieties have the best performing photosynthesis. This could ultimately help grain growers to get more yield for less inputs in the farm.

“In this study we surveyed diverse high-performing wheat varieties to see if their differences in photosynthetic performance were due to their genetic makeup or to the different environments where they were grown,” said lead researcher Dr Viridiana Silva-Perez from the ARC Centre of Excellence for Translational Photosynthesis (CoETP).

The scientists found that the best performing varieties were more than 30 percent better than the worst performing ones and up to 90 percent of the differences were due to their genes and not to the environment they grew in.

“We focused on traits related to photosynthesis and found that some traits behaved similarly in different environments. This is useful for breeders, because it is evidence of the huge potential that photosynthesis improvement could have on yield, a potential that hasn’t been exploited until now,” says Dr Silva-Perez.

During the study, published recently in the Journal of Experimental Botany, the scientists worked in Australia and Mexico, taking painstaking measurements in the field and inside glasshouses.

“The results that we obtained from our “Photosynthesis Olympics”, as we like to call them, are very exciting because we have demonstrated that there is scope to make plants more efficient, even for varieties working in the best conditions possible, such as with limited water and fertiliser restrictions. This means for example, that breeders have the potential to get more yield from a plant with the same amount of nitrogen applied,” says CoETP Director Professor Robert Furbank, one of the authors of this study.

Photosynthesis – the process by which plants convert sunlight, water and CO2 into organic matter – is a very complex process involving traits at different levels, from the molecular level, such as content of the main photosynthetic enzyme Rubisco, to the leaf, such as nitrogen content in the leaf and then to the whole canopy.

“This work is an important result for the CoETP, which aims to improve the process of photosynthesis to increase the production of major food crops such as wheat, rice and sorghum. There is a huge amount of collaboration, both institutional and interdisciplinary, that needs to take place to achieve this type of research. Without the invaluable cooperation between statisticians, plant breeders, molecular scientists and plant physiologists, we would have never achieved these results,” says co-author Tony Condon from CSIRO and the CoETP.

Read the paper: Journal of Experimental Botany

Article source: Arc Centre Of Excellence For Translational Photosynthesis

Author: Natalia Bateman

Image credit: Dr Viridiana Silva-Perez/COETP

The next agricultural revolution is here

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As a growing population and climate change threaten food security, researchers around the world are working to overcome the challenges that threaten the dietary needs of humans and livestock. A pair of scientists is now making the case that the knowledge and tools exist to facilitate the next agricultural revolution we so desperately need.

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EXPERT REACTION: Global food sustainability needed to avoid catastrophic damage to the planet (The Lancet*)

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Back in the 1960s, when the Green Revolution started, the need was to provide calories for a starving world. Today, food is cheap. But it comes at great environmental cost. Climate change and the need to feed an ever-growing world population in a healthy way without ruining the natural environment are inextricably linked. It’s hard to see how to solve such “wicked problems”. The authors show that a dramatic change in the human diet could make a huge difference.

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Brexit and agriculture

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Professor Wyn Grant

Professor Wyn Grant

In June 2016, the UK Government will hold a public referendum for the people to decide whether or not Britain should exit the European Union. This contentious issue, popularly known as “Brexit”, has even divided the governing political party, with key parliamentary figures standing on either side of the debate.

There are many complex political issues for the UK to consider ahead of this referendum. One of these issues is: “what would be the consequences for UK agriculture if Britain were to leave the EU?” Professor Wyn Grant, a member of the Farmer–Scientist Network in the UK, tells us about a new report asking this very question.

Brexit and agriculture

by Wyn Grant

The Farmer–Scientist Network was set up by the Yorkshire Agricultural Society (UK) to facilitate practical cooperation between farmers and academics on the challenges facing agriculture. The Network felt there was a need to produce an assessment of the possible consequences of Brexit for agriculture. A working party was established, made up of leading experts on the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy and farmer members. I chaired this working party, and we produced what we hope is a comprehensive report, available here: http://yas.co.uk/charitable-activities/farmer-scientist-network/brexit.

Brexit ReportIn producing the Brexit report, one of our objectives was to provide information that farmers and others concerned with agriculture could use to question politicians during the referendum campaign. We also felt that agriculture and food had not been given sufficient attention during the negotiations and subsequent discussions. Should Brexit occur, our report draws attention to the issues that would have to be considered in exit negotiations.

The ins and outs of leaving

When evaluating the implications of Brexit for agriculture, we expected there would be complexities and uncertainties, but these were, in fact, greater than we anticipated. One reason for this is that, although the Lisbon Treaty on which the EU is founded makes provision for Member States to leave the EU under ‘Article 50’, none have ever done so before. It is difficult to know in advance how Britain’s exit would proceed, but it would almost certainly be necessary to use the entire two-year negotiating window provided for in the Treaty. Another complication is that the UK Government has not undertaken any formal contingency planning for exit, so it is difficult to know what a future domestic agricultural policy would look like.

In the event of Brexit taking place, the Farmer–Scientist Network feels that an optimal arrangement for the UK would be to establish a free trade area with the rest of the EU, with tariff-free access for UK farm products to the internal market. However, we don’t think the EU would want to give too generous a deal for fear of encouraging other member states to think about the benefits of exit.

Subsidies

Currently, two ‘pillars’ of financial subsidy are awarded to stakeholders in EU agriculture. We believe that the existing ‘Pillar 1’ subsidies that are given to EU farmers would be vulnerable after Brexit. This is an important issue, as for many farmers these subsidies make the difference between making a profit and running at a loss. Supporters of Brexit argue that the savings made from contributions to the EU budget would more than allow for subsidies to continue to be paid at the existing level. However, this overlooks the fact that the UK Treasury has for a long time targeted these subsidies as “market distorting”, and in the current climate of austerity in the UK, they could be at risk of being phased out as a means to reduce public expenditure.

We did, however, think that the ‘Pillar 2’ subsidies directed at agri-environmental and rural development objectives would be continued in some form. This is in part because they are embedded in contracts that continue beyond 2020, and because they have a coalition of domestic support from outside the industry from environmental and conservation lobbies.

Regulation

Some farmers resent what they see as excessive regulation emanating from Brussels. However, we think it is unlikely that many of these controls would be dropped or relaxed following Brexit. There are good reasons for regulations covering such areas as water pollution, pesticide use and animal welfare that have nothing to do with membership of the EU. Domestic support for such regulations would continue from environmental, conservation, public health, animal welfare and consumer organisations.

Some farmers hope that plant protection products that have been banned under EU regulations could be used after Brexit. However, there would still be domestic pressure to regulate these products and manufacturers might be unwilling to produce them just for the UK market.

Negotiation and trade

The UK at present negotiates in the World Trade Organisation (WTO) as a part of an EU bloc which provides additional leverage against powerful countries such as the United States. The agreements that the EU has with ‘third’ countries (those outside of Europe) would have to be renegotiated on a single country basis. Supporters of Brexit are confident that this task could be completed within two years. However, given that the UK has relied on the negotiating resources of the European Commission, it does not have many international trade diplomats and the process could take considerably longer.

Migrant labour

The horticulture industry in the UK is substantially dependent on migrant labour from elsewhere in the EU. This could not easily be replaced with domestic labour. It would be necessary to try and negotiate a new version of the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme (SAWS) – a scheme (redundant since 2013) that was established to allow migrant workers from certain countries outside of the EU to work in UK agriculture – to ensure that the sector would have the labour it needs to function.

Conclusions

Being part of a larger political community gives British farmers some political cover from countries where farming makes up a large share of GDP or has strong cultural roots. The Farmer–Scientist Network concluded that it was difficult to see Brexit as beneficial to UK agriculture. However, we also emphasised that there are broader considerations about UK membership that needed to be weighed in any voting decision.