How Norwich research is helping to feed the world

Picture of people working in an agricultural field in Nepal

The newly-launched Norwich Institute for Sustainable Development (NISD) aims to develop solutions to enable farmers around the world to crops that are resilient to extreme weather, pests and diseases - Credit: Unsplash

Band Aid’s 1984 Christmas no.1 ‘Do They Know it’s Christmas?’ featured a chorus line of ‘Feed the world’, which was a very worthy sentiment back then but, nearly 40 years later, feeding the world is still one of the greatest challenges facing the human race. So, what is being done about it?
Some of the answers can be found in Norfolk. That’s because feeding the world is one of the core issues that researchers and scientists at Norwich Research Park are tackling. There is a tremendous amount of work being carried out at the Park to find out how to make crops more resistant to disease, improve yields and enhance plant nutrients, to name just three.
Last month, the Norwich Institute for Sustainable Development (NISD) was launched with the aim of developing solutions to enable farmers around the world to build resilience to more variable rainfall, drought and more extreme and unpredictable weather events expected as a result of climate change.
Funded by the John Innes Foundation, the NISD is a partnership that’ll work across the Park including the John Innes Centre, the University of East Anglia (UEA), Earlham Institute, Quadram Institute and The Sainsbury Laboratory.

Prof Nitya Rao, director of the Norwich Institute for Sustainable Development (NISD)

Prof Nitya Rao, director of the Norwich Institute for Sustainable Development (NISD) - Credit: Pete Huggins

Research has shown that the yields of staple foods like grains, fruits and vegetables are likely to decrease between 3-10% for every degree of warming. With global temperatures expected to rise over the next few decades, the NISD will focus its energies on helping to mitigate against this situation.
Prof Nitya Rao, director of the NISD, said: “If we don’t act now, crop yields will continue to reduce and become more unreliable. Not only will this have an impact in the countries where these crops are grown but, here in the UK, we could see food basics like bread, cereals and tomatoes becoming scarce and more expensive.
“That said, researchers have made good progress in recent years and we now have the technologies to deal better with pests, diseases and water scarcity. We need to continue to work towards making sure that innovations meet farmers’ needs across the globe and provide support to farming communities to make agriculture more resilient so that the world’s food supply is protected.”

Picture of a man pushing a bike which is laden with bananas

Scientists at Norwich Research Park have already made fantastic advances in developing disease-resistant bananas, which are a staple food around the world - Credit: Unsplash

The Institute’s work will complement the Healthy Plants, Healthy People, Healthy Planet (HP3) joint initiative the John Innes Centre has with The Sainsbury Laboratory. 
HP3 addresses three critical challenges facing the planet:

  • Feeding the world by sustainably increasing crop yields.
  • Combatting global health threats such as antimicrobial resistance and viral pandemics.
  • Meeting the challenge of climate change by developing crops resilient to environmental fluctuations and requiring inputs that are low carbon.

When you consider that 23 hectares of arable land – the equivalent to 32 football pitches - is lost each minute of every day, and that 160,000 more mouths to feed are born every day, the massive scale of the challenge is clear to see.
Using nutrition to reduce the risk of ill health is a core area of research currently. A report commissioned by EAT-Lancet stressed the urgent need to focus on high plant food diets, calculating that the adoption of such a diet would prevent 11 million deaths per year.
The next global threat could emerge in the form of a crop pathogen, or a human pathogen resistant to current antimicrobial treatment, putting our food security and health at enormous risk. 
Prof Dale Sanders, director of the John Innes Centre, said: “HP3 is an ambitious, collaborative call to action to provide the solutions so desperately needed in a world with a rapidly changing climate, facing massive losses in biodiversity, a growing global population to feed and the urgent need to decarbonise agricultural practices. All of these challenges require science to play a critical role in delivering solutions.”
Executive director of The Sainsbury Laboratory, Prof Nick Talbot, said: “We will need to revolutionise our global agricultural methods if we are to feed the world’s growing population in a sustainable way. The HP3 strategy will supercharge our capability to grow food productively and sustainably and should provide practical solutions to the current stresses on crop production around the world.”
The sheer scale of the challenge to find better ways to feed the world’s growing population is one that underlines its urgency and its this that will make Norwich Research Park’s role all the more important in how we respond to it.

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