Food For Thought

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As part of an ongoing research initiative called Project Sunshine, scientists at Sheffield University are looking for ways to rejuvenate the UK’s soil and safeguard food supplies for future generations
‘Food security has sadly been an issue for a lot of the world but never a real issue for Europeans, that is until now’
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Under the Project Sunshine ‘umbrella’, Sheffield University are developing new methods to produce more food using less land, water and fertiliser. They are also looking at ways to use solar energy more extensively and efficiently while determining the extent and implications of global environmental change. Living North spoke to Polymer Chemist and leader of Project Sunshine, Professor Tony Ryan and Microbiologist Dr Duncan Cameron to find out more about the project and discover ways in which we, as a nation, can become more sustainable. 

Safeguarding food supplies for future generations is just one part of Project Sunshine, but the recent creation of the ‘frankenburger’, the world’s first laboratory-grown beef burger, reignited concerns about the use of Genetically Modified (GM) technology. While we may be a long way away from cooking an artificial burger on the barbecue, scientists at Sheffield University believe that society will have to rethink its attitudes regarding GM technology and accept an inevitable role for it in the food chain if something isn’t done about the poor state of our soil and the use of ‘dumbed down’ crops. Phosphorous and nitrogen are essential nutrients in the growing cycle and if we run out of these, we may be forced to grow our food by other means. As Dr Duncan Cameron explains, ‘It is estimated that there is only 100-200 seasons of phosphorous fertiliser left in the world, and we suspect this is a result of intensive agricultural farming and excessive use of artificial fertiliser. Taking samples from our fields, I discovered that commercially-grown cereals no longer responded to the soil as they should, and this terrified me.’ 

Careful cross-breeding of plants has resulted in a loss of essential genes which give the plant its ability to interact with beneficial fungi called mycorrhizas in the soil. Plants use the sun’s energy to make sugars and use them to feed mycorrhizal fungi which in return can give nutrients to the plant. The good news is that this damage is not irreversible and scientists at Sheffield University think they might have come up with a sustainable solution. They have been able to identify these ‘lost genes’ and believe the next step is to restore them to the affected crops. As Dr Cameron explains however, ‘The best method of doing this is not without its controversies. Replacing the lost genes can be done naturally by carefully cross-breeding the plants over the next ten years, or it can be done efficiently and accurately in as little as six months using GM technology.’ Growing GM crops commercially in the UK is currently prohibited, but GM products such as soya are used in animal feed and some food products imported into the UK. Critics are keen to flag up legitimate concerns in response to the University’s desire to replace these lost genes using GM technology, citing that using GM seeds could potentially create ‘superweeds’ or ‘superbugs’ that, over time, could become resistant to herbicides and pesticides. In response to these concerns, Dr Cameron admits that scientists have perhaps not been as communicative as they could have been regarding GM technology, and suggests that scientists and GM technology have been ‘vilified’. 

Professor Tony Ryan makes a compelling analogy in an effort to better explain the process behind GM technology, likening it to taking a blonde gene from a human and planting it into the DNA of a brunette. The gene that is being taken from the blonde and implanted into the brunette is from the same organism, as opposed to something completely different, but ultimately, it enables the brunette to become blonde as they wish. Despite people’s reservations about GM technology, the problem of safeguarding food security still remains. Food security has sadly been an issue for a lot of the world but never a real issue for Europeans, that is until now. ‘Worrying about how we will feed future generations was laughable when I was at university’ Dr Cameron highlights, ‘but it has now become a very real problem for us too’. The world’s population reached an incredible seven billion in 2011 and experts predict it could reach nine billion within the next fifty years. The need to house our growing population puts inevitable pressure on the availability of land and resources, leading scientists at Sheffield University to suggest that we may have to accept an inevitable role for GM technology in our food chain.  

‘A world containing nine billion people will have to be a very different world than the one we live in today. Different, but not necessarily worse.’ As Professor Ryan suggests, ‘Now is the time for science and engineering to provide the tools to feed the world and create a sustainable future for us.’ Both scientists are keen to advocate finding a balance between the use of GM technology and organic farming; one suggestion is to use human excrement to fertilise our fields. ‘We have already used human waste to fertilise our fields.’ Human waste fertilisation is already deployed in other parts of the world such as Calcutta and Mexico City as a solution to scarce water sources and escalating fertiliser costs, making good use of the average of 1.5 tonnes of waste humans produce per year. Scientists at the University believe this could provide 20kg of essential, natural fertiliser, enough to grow 200kg of cereal. All health risks can be eliminated by proper composting and we would be making the most of this never-ending source rather than wasting it by flushing it out to sea. 

Project Sunshine: How science can use the sun to fuel and feed the world by Steve McKevitt and Tony Ryan, Icon Books is available to purchase online via Amazon.

Published in: November 2013

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