Planting the seeds for a better life
As the periodic famines in places like Niger and Ethiopia highlight, ensuring an adequate, healthy and constant supply of food and potable water is vital both for survival and general well-being.
The human diet is derived from a number of main sources, including crop plants, domesticated animals and fish. Food security is dependent on our ability to access sufficient and healthy food supplies reliably. However, economic and political crises jeopardise food security, especially when normal food supply chains are strained by growing human populations, shifting lifestyles, climate change (which can sometimes bring good as well as bad), the spread of deforestation and desertification, and rapid urbanisation. This means that any breakdown or failure can have potentially disastrous consequences.
Weathering difficult times
Research into droughts, pest resistance and abiotic stress tolerance can help underwrite food security among the world’s most vulnerable populations in marginal areas. Through international co-operation, scientists can develop hardier crops that can withstand more extreme local weather conditions and deal with pests in a more sustainable and environmentally friendly fashion than that provided by the chemical pesticides currently available.
In addition, INCO can help find solutions to emerging health threats to farmyard animals, such as the international effort to understand the avian flu outbreak in Asia. It is also helping make farmed fish healthier by finding alternatives to the antibiotics used in feeds.
The two faces of El Niño
El Niño is a phenomenon that disrupts sea and weather patterns in tropical regions in the Pacific Ocean. Among its consequences are poor fish catches off Peru and Chile, increased rainfall in parts of the Americas, that has caused destructive flooding, and drought in the West Pacific, which, among other things, has led to devastating brush fires in Australia. The EU-backed ELNIÑO project found that rainy El Niño years can have an extraordinarily positive effect on plant and animal productivity in semi-arid ecosystems. It studied how the increased rainfall can be used to trigger the regeneration of native trees in degraded areas of Chile and Peru. The researchers found that El Niño episodes can indeed lead to forest regeneration but that large regional differences exist.
Corn for all conditions
Maize is one of the most important staple foods in Latin America and parts of Africa. In terms of weight, more maize is produced globally every year than any other grain. With the rise in soil acidity and the farming of more marginal land, ways need to be found to enable maize – which has shallow roots and requires regular rainfall – to grow in such conditions. MAIZE FOR ACID SOILS is an EU-backed project that developed advanced breeding strategies to grow maize sustainably on soil with high acidity in tropical developing countries, improved farming practice and trained a large number of young scientists to scale up impact.