Dr Emma Davies (MSc Food Science 1996, PhD 2001) is a freelance science writer and editor.
Today’s farmers face complex challenges from all quarters. Not only are they tasked with feeding a rapidly expanding global population but they also have to contend with the effects of climate change.
“Climate change will have very real effects on the day-to-day lives of farmers producing food in the fields and will have huge consequences for their productivity worldwide,” says Professor of Animal Science Lisa Collins.
“In amongst political insecurity and disagreements around adherence to climate change policies, we are seeing massive changes in prices and trading patterns. And all of these issues together form a complex network of problems for food producers.”
Leeds’ Global Food and Environment Institute brings together around 120 researchers from different faculties, from engineers and atmospheric chemists to lawyers and computer scientists, to find solutions.
“From the very beginning there was a clear strategic aim to pull together the University’s expertise in agriculture, food and the environment to tackle the big challenge of global food security – feeding the planet,” says institute director, Professor Steve Banwart.
Lisa sees a “huge amount of energy” from academics working in areas not traditionally linked to agriculture. “Academics from across a broad range of areas of expertise are really excited to have the opportunity to work on something that has the potential to affect all of our lives. We all eat.”
This mix of disciplines also brings other benefits, she says. “It presents us with a diversity of perspectives and a toolbox of new approaches to apply to solve these very complex challenges. And it allows us to look at the ripplelike impacts across the whole system.”
The institute is carrying out research in key areas: agriculture and environment; urban food consumption; food in the Global South; and international food supply chains.
The University’s 317-hectare farm near Tadcaster provides a test bed for trialling and demonstrating new approaches. At first glance a farm like any other, with snuffling pigs and fields packed with crops, closer inspection reveals a host of smart technologies, including sensors, both fixed and on drones. These produce huge amounts of data, which can be used to make more effective forecasts of what is to come, supporting evidence-based decision-making.
“By using a multi-streaming, integrated platform of sensors, we can monitor and capture enormous amounts of data,” says Lisa. “This data can be used in different ways to solve very different types of challenges – we can develop systems to present it back in a user-friendly way to the farmer so that they have a detailed analysis of their current and projected production performance. Or we can use it as an evidence base to transform and develop future solutions to the net zero emissions challenge.”
Plans for a glass-walled underground laboratory called a rhizotron will allow close scrutiny of plant roots and soil structure as environmental conditions change.
Soil, crop growth and weather is monitored by sensors (either fixed, or on drones and robotic crawlers) to assess and project crop performance.
Genomics data from livestock is combined with data on feed, health and environment to assess and monitor the growth of an individual animal or the whole farm.
AV imaging of crops and land, both on the ground and from the air, provides visual data.
Farm machinery is driven by
precision GPS data and delivery of agrichemicals is precisely monitored.
Sensors and satellite imaging provide atmospheric data on climate, greenhouse gases and land-atmosphere fluxes.
Renewable sources generate
energy to power farm technology.
Some research underway at Leeds tackling global food needs:
The University farm, complete with 660 sows, operates at a commercial scale and is the UK’s leading pig research centre. A £11.4 million partnership between the University and the Centre for Innovation and Excellence in Livestock will fund research into production sustainability as well as pig nutrition, behaviour and health – themes identified by the livestock industry as central to improving quality, productivity and competitiveness.
For example, researchers can add new types of organic fertilisers, derived from farm and urban waste streams and processed to allow addition of organic carbon, nitrogen and phosphorous to soil. This enriches soil fertility and improves plant growth, but also helps reverse losses in organic matter that is essential to long-term fertility, sequesters carbon and prevents carbon’s release to the atmosphere as CO2 gas. It also reduces the reliance of farming on mineral fertilisers, which have an enormous carbon footprint for their production. Carrying out experimental work in the rhizotron enables direct observation of the impact on plant and root growth and how this interacts with soil fauna, microbes and ultimately yields and profit.
Steve is an expert on Earth’s “critical zone” – the planet’s surface layer, often just a few metres in thickness, which stretches from solid bedrock to the tree tops. “This thin layer supports pretty much everything that humans have to live on,” he says.
Soil has a central and essential role in maintaining human life in the critical zone but is under huge pressure from land-use intensification, he adds.
The Leeds farm has bore holes drilled into the bedrock, allowing researchers to measure water pressure and composition at different points. “We can calculate what the water is carrying as dissolved substances, including whether nutrients from agriculture are entering the groundwater and whether there’s pollution from the atmosphere,” he says. A range of soil sensors are also being installed at different depths.
Meanwhile, a 12-metre atmospheric tower is being equipped with a range of instruments to study the atmosphere near the Earth’s surface, including its chemistry, its physics and how it interacts with the land surface and with vegetation. Data from the tower is analysed by researchers at Leeds’ Institute for Climate and Atmospheric Sciences. These research partnerships across the University are enabling a full picture to emerge – from bedrock to atmosphere – of how positive human intervention in key parts of the critical zone, such as the soil layer, can ensure a strong, enduring foundation for food production and farm incomes.
“We are working with engineers on how we will use the data streams and the instrumentation to help steer farming practices at the site and to understand how farming relates to the critical zone and how to preserve the capability of this surface layer to continue to feed the world,” says Steve.
“We can see there are a tough two or three decades ahead of us as we move into working and living in a way that allows a transition beyond the current forecasts of climate change and hunger. And we are working hard to make those things happen.”
This will need enthusiasm for change from the general public, industry and policy-makers. Central to driving this change is the role of future generations: “One of the key things for us is to ensure that we develop outstanding future leaders who are well-equipped to tackle these broad-spectrum, complex challenges,” says Lisa. “We recognise the huge benefits bestowed by academics with diverse expertise working alongside students to solve problems, and demonstrating a multi-perspective approach to real-world challenges. Our future leaders have their work cut out for them. It’s our responsibility to ensure they have the best education possible to tackle it.”