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Major Funding to Help World’s Poorest Farmers

22 November 2012
Rothamsted Research

GLOBAL - Over 40 international research organisations are joining forces in a unique £16 million initiative of 11 research projects designed to increase sustainable crop yields for farmers and their local communities within the next five to 10 years as part of a goal to improve food security in developing countries and support international development.

Leading on the first project, Rothamsted Research will work with the International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (ICIPE) in Kenya and Cornell University in the USA, to focus on two vital food crops for smallholders farmers, maize and sorghum, that are vulnerable to the devastating impact of insect pests called Stemborers. These pests burrow inside the stems of the crops causing losses of up to 40 per cent.

To project will build on Rothamsted’s highly effective ‘push-pull’ cropping system. This system uses our understanding of how plants and insects communicate with one another by releasing odours, known as semiochemicals. Using state of the art semiochemical identification and genetic analysis technology the scientists will work with local farmers to look at different crop varieties and define genetic markers associated with the semiochemical trait to enable effective breeding programmes. These breeding programmes should create crops that release these semiochemical odours to attract the natural enemies of stemborers, reducing the damage they do and therefore produce high yielding crops.

Project Leader Dr. Toby Bruce of Rothamsted Research said "small scale farmers in Africa face very serious challenges with insect pests that destroy their crops. They cannot afford pesticides for crop protection but having natural plant defences built into their crops would make a difference. This new collaborative project, involving icipe, ICRISAT, Cornell University and Rothamsted, sets out to develop pest-resistant crops using an understanding of the chemical ecology of insect-plant interactions coupled with cutting edge plant genomics resources. It will provide the underpinning science to support the breeding of crops that are less vulnerable to pest attack."

In the second project, Rothamsted Research are partnering with Cambridge University and a host of international collaborators to examine ways of “Leaving a bad taste in aphids’ mouths”. Aphid-transmitted viruses pose a serious risk to beans and other major crops, resulting in large losses. The study, led by Cambridge will survey bean growing areas in three distinct ecological zones within Uganda to look at how virus infection shapes the distribution of aphids under natural conditions.

A special mention is also given to the Chair of the Rothamsted Research Board of Directors, Prof. Nick Talbot from Exeter University who is leading on a project to produce a new blast-proof rice for African nations. Rice blast, a fungal disease, is found throughout the world but is particularly damaging in parts of Africa. Precise figures for the impact of rice blast disease on yields are not known, but losses of 50-80 per cent are not uncommon.

The grants have been awarded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) under the Sustainable Crop Production Research for International Development (SCPRID) programme, a joint multi-national initiative of BBSRC and the UK Government’s Department for International Development (DFID), together with (through a grant awarded to BBSRC) the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF), and the Department of Biotechnology (DBT) of India’s Ministry of Science and Technology.

The grants have received the backing of the UK Government at the very highest level.

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said: “One billion people currently go to bed hungry every night. By 2050 there will be another two billion mouths to feed. And experts predict the world will need to be able to grow 70 per cent more food.

“The UK’s world class bioscience sector is dedicating vital knowledge and expertise to tackling this global problem. This investment will bring together experts at 14 British Universities and Institutes who will work with famers in Africa and Asia to develop crops that are resistant to disease, pests and drought.

“Farmers need these innovations to protect their own livelihoods and the health of their communities.”

Professor Douglas Kell, BBSRC Chief Executive, added: “Providing safe, affordable and nutritious food for everyone is one of the greatest challenges we face. This ground-breaking international partnership, of funders and scientists, will ensure that cutting- edge, fundamental bioscience is combined with vital local knowledge to develop sustainable, affordable solutions to increase crop yields and improve global food security.”

The new initiative is being coordinated by BBSRC. The £16 million is made up of £3M from BBSRC, £5 million from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (through a grant to BBSRC) and £7 million from DFID. A further £1 million has been provided by the DBT of India’s Ministry of Science and Technology for projects involving India.

Each project includes at least one partner from the UK and one from a developing nation. This approach, used by BBSRC and DFID in previous programmes, aims to build scientific capacity in developing countries, with the aim of developing research teams and projects that tackle other local scientific challenges.

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