A new Food Tank for 2013

VegetablesAt the start of this new year (as at the start of many previous years), I am making the resolutions of improving my diet and getting fitter with the aim of ending 2013 healthier than my current state! From this personal level, I was interested to read about the launch of Food Tank: The Food Think Tank on January 10th and their views on the state of the World population's food supply and health. Driven by the global situation in 2013 that sees nearly one billion people still hungry and more than one billion suffering from the effects of being overweight and obese, this Think Tank's goal is to be a clearing house and community to inform, share, and scale up innovations that are helping alleviate hunger and poverty while also protecting the environment. The forum aims to offer original research, share stories of success and impact, and highlight what's working on the ground. Of particular interest are the Food Tank’s 13 resolutions to change the food system in 2013:

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Is there an agronomist in the house?

One of my colleagues has just passed me an interesting article entitled UK agronomy skills – a lost generation which she spotted in the 6th June issue of Chemistry & Industry. In this article, the chief executive of the Processors & Growers Research Organization, Salvador Potter highlights the shortage of basic agronomy skills facing the industry. He recalled leaving university 35 years ago with no shortage of job offers from an industry taking food production issues seriously. The large commodity surpluses of the 1980s and politicians taking the view that we can import foodstuffs to meet any shortfall have led to a marginalization of agronomy and a dearth of university courses. I took a quick look at the UCAS website and only one institution (Newcastle University) offers a course on agronomy and only around a dozen offering courses on agriculture. We are facing a situation where the 1960-70s college generation are reaching retirement and are not being replaced with graduates with the necessary skills to man much reduced government funded extension services, linking research and farm practice. These extension services have an important role in interpreting advances in research to formulate practical and effective grower advice and dissemination among growers via training seminars, meetings, bulletins and advice lines.

The food price spikes of recent years have given governments a wakeup call, underlining the fragile nature of the supply network and the tendency for countries to protect their own interests by banning exports or buying up stocks when supplies run short. New technologies such as crop genetics, improved chemicals for crop nutrition and protection, and precision farming offer the greatest opportunities to improve productivity. But in the last decade or so Potter points out that crop yields have decreased across the board for the UK’s commercially grown crops indicating that we are failing to translate research advances into on-farm practice.

If we are to reduce the 30% postharvest losses in developing countries (the aim of CABI’s Plantwise initiative) and counter the 30% thrown away be developed economies, Potter suggests that college courses must readapt to focus on practical and sustainable crop production and equip graduates with communication skills to more effectively pass on this knowledge to the farming community.

Global research efforts tackle food security.

ICARDAresearchers On January 28, Dave Simpson wrote on Hand picked (‘Redesigning the global food system’) about the recent release of the Foresight report, The Future of Food and Farming, which argues for fundamental change to the global food system if a rapidly expanding global population is to be fed over the next 40 years. On 10 February, the UK’s major public funders of food-related research published their coordinated research plan to help the world avoid a food security crisis.

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Epigenetics: epi what?

Pity the poor editor on BBC’s news programme  “Breakfast” (11 jan 2011) subtitling, as Professor Robert Winston and others discussed the possibility of gender selection to "complete your family in the way you desire" i.e. to finally achieve that longed for girl or boy.

Throughout the discussion the text editor had kept up admirably, coping with explanations of these gender selection techniques:

  • at fertilisation (by enriching for male sperm)
  • pre-implantation (by removing a cell from a fertilised embryo to check the sex.

 (Both techniques are tried and tested. Sperm enrichment is used for cattle breeding and pre-implantation tests are used to select healthy embryos without a gender-linked genetic defect)

 In vivo fertilisation was rendered accurately too, which just shows how much the public has come to know and understand about IVF since it was first introduced all those years ago.

Then Professor Winston mentioned in passing “epigenetic influences” which was transcribed rapidly onto my TV screen as “EDGE THE GENETIC”!

Clearly the editor hadn’t a clue. So I’ve decided to define (& explain) for you the term “epigenetic” so that you will.  Along the way, I hope, you emerge fascinated…


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