How can life sciences
contribute to the production of food under marginal conditions?
Fungi feed phosphates to food plants
Most Chinese soils contain small amounts of phosphate
and yields of staple food crops suffer as a result. Chemical
fertilisers cost too much for small farmers and can damage
the structure of the soil, but micro-organisms in the soil
could be adopted to help unlock new phosphate sources for
crops to use. These mycorrhizal fungi are now being studied
in a large-scale collaborative research project involving
European and Chinese researchers. They are collecting strains
of fungi and testing them in the lab and on crop sites.
Mycorrhizal technology makes use of the beneficial fungi
that grow among the roots of plants, extracting nutrients
from decaying organic material and even insect shells, passing
it back to the plant hosts. Plants are able to grow faster
and the structure of the soil is improved.
Research has shown that these fungi work best in unfertilised
soil that is deficient in phosphorus. For this reason the
European Commission’s INCO programme started an innovative
three-year project to assist small-scale farming for staple
foods in China, where most soils are phosphorus-poor.
Reducing the loss of valuable crops from witchweeds
The witchweeds (Striga spp) are obligate
root parasites that infect major tropical crops, causing
major crop losses in Africa. Rapid human population growth,
increased demand for food supplies and intensified land
use have lead to reduced crop rotation and shorter fallow
periods. Accordingly, soil fertility has declined and the
extent and intensity of Striga infestations has increased
rapidly causing the parasite to become a major threat to
food production in Africa. The FAO estimates that crop losses
due to one Striga species alone cost between $7-13bn
per year, and Striga is said to have an impact
on the lives of over 100 million African people.
A European Commission-funded (INCO Programme) project –
‘Improved Striga control for maize and sorghum’
– is using innovative research approaches to build
an integrated and broad-based plan of control of witchweeds.
The research project analysed the problem of Striga control
on many levels from the genetic and biochemical to crop
husbandry and resistance management.
biology: Growing maize in acid soils
Maize is one of the three most important crops
in the developing world, a staple food in Africa and Latin
America. It is critical both in terms of food security and
as source of income and employment for resource-poor farmers.
Due to population growth, demand for maize is expected to
double by 2020, therefore additional land must be brought
under cultivation to feed the world's growing population.
Aluminium (Al) toxicity and low availability of phosphorus
(P) are the main abiotic factors limiting maize production
in acid soils. Maize is susceptible to soil acidity, and
acid soils cover approximately 43% of the world's tropical
A European Commission-funded project (INCO programme) has
brought together internationally recognised research groups
to integrate physiological and molecular knowledge into
practical breeding and crop management, thus leading to
a breakthrough not only in the understanding of the adaptation
of maize in acid soils and in its enhancement, but also
to the development of sustainable maize-cropping systems.
technology: Growing potatoes and beans in the desert
Arid and semi-arid lands constitute approximately
36% of the available arable land around the world. In these
areas, osmotic stress, whether by drought, salinity or low
temperatures, represents the most severe environmental pressure
limiting plant growth and productivity.
A European Commission-funded project – ‘Agriculture
under extreme environmental conditions in Latin America
by using osmoprotection genes to generate stress-resistant
potato and bean plants’ – focuses on the most
important problems facing Mexican or Peruvian agricultural
The primary goal of the project is the recovery of arid
and semi-arid soils in Mexico and Peru by their cultivation
with plants metabolically engineered to resist abiotic stresses.
For this purpose, two important plants, potato (Solanum
tuberosum L.) and beans (Phaseolus vulgaris L.), which are
not naturally resistant to such stresses, will be genetically
manipulated by transferring genes responsible for the synthesis
of compatible solutes.