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Future food security: quantity, quality, safety!

10 Nov 2016

Siobhan Gardiner, PhD candidate and tech entrepreneur explains the very real problems of food security from a plant science perspective and beyond

On the first day of my PhD, my supervisor told me that I would get as much out of the four year programme as what I put in. I’m three years through the programme now, and firmly believe that I have stood by that advice. As well as pushing the boundaries of understanding in my research area, I have also taken the time to explore other areas of science and engineering – using my university as a springboard to build solid networks and seek new challenges. Part of this has been learning about how to communicate the wider impact of my research to a variety of audiences (from academics to young children; from policy makers to the wider public). This sparked my passion for communicating the importance of addressing food security.

On the outset (and being a plant scientist), my discussion very much centred on biological approaches to address issues surrounding yield, disease resistance, and resilience in a changing climate. At the end of my first year, I was awarded a BBSRC Policy placement with the Royal Society of Biology, which gave me access to specialists in this area of science policy. Around the same time, the report on GM Precautionary Principle in Europe had just been published by the Commons Science & Technology Select Committee. I went on to look at case studies in agriculture, and sustainable supply systems, and began to understand that addressing food security goes way beyond the realms of molecular plant sciences.

I learnt that food security is not just about being able to produce enough food to go around, but about providing enough safe, and nutritious food for everyone to maintain a healthy and active life style.

It is about understanding and protecting soils; and using resources like water, fertilizers and pesticides responsibly. We also need to understanding ripening and post-harvest storage of fresh produce to minimise waste. Not forgetting – understanding diets, and consumer perceptions of what “good” produce is, and teaching that an ugly fruit isn’t necessarily a bad fruit! Food security is similarly about looking at the consumption of animal protein, and seeking to create a supply chain that minimises both inputs and outputs. Furthermore the mileage our food makes before it gets to our dinner plate, and the consequence that has on both our wallets, and the environment.

Whilst that is a bit of an idea of what the challenge of food security in the UK looks like, there is also a world agenda of zero-hunger by 2030. By that point in time, our population will be well on the way to 9 billion, and current food production worldwide will need to increase by 50% (or 70% by 2050). There are many socioeconomic barriers, in addition to the technical barriers, that we as a global community will need to address. An example of this is that 43% of the agricultural work force is made up of women. Nevertheless, they do not get the same access to inputs, services and productive resources as men. In addition, time and time again, scientists and engineers will develop a potentially game-changing technology, that could make a huge difference to agriculture in the developing world (for instance drones). Even so, getting the technology out there to small holder farmers, and presenting it in an accessible and manageable fashion, has proved difficult so far. Seeing the potential of such a technology led to the development of my robotics start-up, HEROTECH8. Through my start-up, I aim to address the wider barriers to deployment of drones and precision technology, in the agricultural and humanitarian sectors of developing nations. This is one example of a way in which we can increasingly harness research and innovation to meet the many challenges we’ll face in decades to come.

Siobhan Gardiner BSc(Hons) MSc MRSBPhD student in Agrifood, Cranfield University; CEO, HEROTECH8 Ltd; InnovateUK Women in Innovation 2016 Finalist

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