ASSETS at the Royal Society in London

On December 3rd and 4th, I attended the Royal Society discussion meeting entitled ‘Achieving food and environmental security – new approaches to close the gap’ organised by, amongst others, the leader of ASSETS, Prof Guy Poppy. It was certainly an interesting two days! The morning discussions on Monday 3rd set the scene for the discussion. It was clear from these presentations that the challenges of ensuring future food security in the face of increasing populations and climate change are stark. Prof Sosten Chiota (ASSETS lead partner in Malawi) provided an overview of the complexity of the task and illustrated how traditional methods (e.g. increasing agricultural area and/or agricultural inputs) can sometimes have negative consequences as vital ecosystem services may be affected if a holistic approach is not taken. He illustrated how the Malawian government subsidised fertilisers to increase crop yields but demonstrated preliminary evidence suggesting this had led to water pollution, reducing fish stocks and decreasing food security. The afternoon continued to hammer home a similar message. Utilising the latest technologies and methodology, it is apparent that pesticide use in West Africa is unsustainable. Local people are using pesticides that were removed from developed markets long ago, and they are doing so without proper protective equipment. It is estimated that, using current techniques, the fields remain harmful to humans for approximately 21 days following each pesticide application. However, local peoples (often accompanied by small children) spend extensive time tending the crops during these periods. It is evident that this cannot go on. Therefore, things must change, but “Given that our current efforts to increase agricultural production are associated with dramatic species extinctions and substantial greenhouse gas emissions, how can we feed the future human population (expected to reach ~10 billion in 2050) without exceeding demands for resources beyond that which the planet can sustainably provide?”

Fortunately, the discussion meeting was not all doom and gloom. Discussions on Tuesday 4th presented some possible solutions. These solutions are perhaps best illustrated by the push-pull innovation presented by Prof Zeyaur Khan. Prof Khan and his team’s work is a shining example of how science can be utilised to best ensure that it has useful, practical outcomes. By listening to local farmers, it was possible to identify the three key problems that were reducing agricultural yields: lepidopteran stemborer pests, parasitic Striga weeds and degraded soils. Whilst many scientists would baulk at the challenge of solving all these problems, Prof Khan’s team worked tirelessly for over a decade to obtain a feasible and practical solution. They took existing intercropping practices and altered these, maximising field output for numerous ecosystem services. They encouraged the intercropping of cereal crops with a nitrogen-fixing legume (Desmodium), and planting Napier grass as a border. Desmodium repels stemborer moths (push) and attracts the natural enemies, while Napier grass attracts the moths (pull). Furthermore, Desmodium is very effective in suppressing the Striga weed, whilst also improving soil fertility. The system has been shown to double the yield per unit area of smallholder farms in East Africa and has the additional benefit of providing high value animal fodder (Desmodium and Napier grass), further increasing food security. Further examples of how science can have important practical outputs were provided by ASSET partners Prof Ferdinando Villa and Dr Celia Harvey.

On the back of these inspiring discussions, the Royal Society hosted an event at Chicheley Hall entitled ‘Can science help us get back to the countryside?’. This was a more intimate discussion, focussing on answering the key question from the previous two days: “How can we develop science and agricultural practices to ensure food security for the global population by 2050?”. We held two days of vigorous academic debate, which at times got a little heated, fully demonstrating the urgency of the problem and the passion of those involved. After long discussions and various break-out groups, we reached upon an over-arching goal and road-map of how to get there, that addressed both current and future food security issues. There is plenty more I could say about this invigorating discussion, however, the outcomes (and those of the previous two days) are due to be published in Philosophical Transactions B in 2013. All I can say for now is I am certain that exciting developments will occur within the near future. Watch this space!

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