The University of Southampton
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Securing food for the future

Safeguarding food sources for future generations

Published: 14 October 2016

In just a few years, the world could face unprecedented pressure on its resources. To keep pace with the growing global population, the United Nations (UN) estimates that by 2030 we will need 50 per cent more food, 50 per cent more energy and 30 per cent more water.

“This issue is what we refer to as a ‘perfect storm’ – the concept that energy, water and food, all acting together, will be very insecure in a very short period of time,” explains Guy Poppy, Professor of Ecology and Chief Scientific Adviser to the Food Standards Agency. “The University of Southampton is an ideal place to tackle this because we have a real strength in interdisciplinarity – bringing researchers from a wide range of fields together to address this global challenge.

So what exactly is food security? To be food secure, four underpinning principles need to be in place, Guy explains. There must be enough food produced to support the population, people need to be able to access it, the food needs to be safe and nutritious, and it must be produced in a sustainable way, without depleting the natural environment. In short, these principles are: availability, access, utilisation and stability. Through multidisciplinary research projects across the University, we are tackling all of these pillars.

PhD student Nikol Voutsina assessing new watercress material in Dorset
PhD student Nikol Voutsina assessing new watercress material in Dorset

Enhancing production

Professor Gail Taylor’s research focuses on developing crop plants that have enhanced productivity, without damaging the natural environment. “We have huge demands on natural resources to fulfill our requirement for food; for example, 70 per cent of available water across the planet is used in agricultural irrigation systems,” explains Gail, Professor of Plant and Environmental Biology.

One of the crops Gail’s team is working on is watercress, a plant that is traditionally grown in the UK, but could be adapted and grown in rural areas of developing countries. Very limited science and research has been undertaken on this crop so far, so Gail’s research is revealing new insights into its potential.

“Watercress is an incredibly nutrient-dense leafy crop, rich in iron, vitamin A and vitamin C. However, in contrast to our staple crops, such as wheat, rice and barley, it hasn’t been improved by breeding of any kind.”

Gail’s team is making a collection of wild watercress types, and aims to harness the plant’s natural genetic diversity, so that they can breed, select and develop improved natural resources. The researchers are linking this work with some very advanced molecular genetic techniques. “We have sequenced the DNA of about 200 lines of watercress, which we’ve crossed and made a new family of watercress, so we can identify molecular markers that are linked to characteristics we’d like to improve in the future,” says Gail.

This issue is what we refer to as a ‘perfect storm’ – the concept that energy, water and food, all acting together, will be very insecure in a very short period of time. The University of Southampton is an ideal place to tackle this because we have a real strength in interdisciplinarity – bringing researchers from a wide range of fields together to address this global challenge.

Guy Poppy - Professor of Ecology and Chief Scientific Adviser to the Food Standards Agency

Health benefits

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that 40 per cent of children in developing countries aged under five are anemic – so with its high iron content, watercress could have a big impact. There are potentially even more health benefits – watercress contains a chemical, gluconasturtiin, that when broken down when we chew the plant, releases another chemical called phenethyl isothiocyanate (PEITC), which is known to be very effective in preventing blood supply to cancer cells. This chemical has been implicated in preventing tumour growth, in macular degeneration, and for improving cardiovascular health.

“We’re trying to improve some of the health benefits of this particular crop even further, and deliver those as new commercial variety and actually make them available not only in a developing world context but also onto supermarket shelves across the developed world, in the UK in particular.

Gail is working with a number of commercial partners; these include Sainsbury’s and Vitacress Salads, a seed company and commercial growers in the UK and USA. She is also developing a global network of collaborators interested in watercress, in Brazil, China and Egypt, where it is grown extensively, and looking for partners in other countries.

Commercial potential

Gail and her team have developed a new variety of watercress, with some health-giving properties.

“The new variety, called Boldrewood, is an interesting new watercress,” says Gail. “It’s a dwarf watercress, so it develops tiny stems and small leaves, making it bite-sized; it also has good properties for anti-cancer chemicals. We’re currently discussing taking it to market.”

The team will also be taking the new variety to the Chelsea Flower Show in 2017, in collaboration with Sparsholt College in Hampshire. “We hope to be working with a local celebrity chef to develop recipes and use of watercress in different ways in cooking, which we’ll have in the exhibit at the Chelsea Flower Show.”

“Southampton is a very innovative university – one of the best universities for commercialisation and innovation. Our SETsquared partnership is particularly effective – ranked by the University Business Incubator Index 2015 as the top university business incubator in the world – so it’s a good environment to be doing this type of applied research, which moves into innovation pretty quickly,” says Gail.

We have huge demands on natural resources to fulfill our requirement for food; for example, 70 per cent of available water across the planet is used in agricultural irrigation systems.

Gail Taylor - Professor of Plant and Environmental Biology

Providing future security

Meanwhile , Guy leads a multimillion pound programme in Malawi, Columbia and Peru, looking at how to ensure people living at the interface between forests and agriculture are healthy and well in terms of food and nutrition. In these countries, forests are rapidly being cleared to provide short-term food supplies, without much consideration for the future. Around 550 million people around the world live in this type of environment and are vulnerable to becoming food-insecure in the future.

The project, entitled ASSETS (Attaining Sustainable Services from Ecosystems through Trade-off Scenarios) is interdisciplinary, and includes a demographer, a sociologist, geographers, environmental scientists and biologists, as well as partners from across the world. It is funded by ESPA (Ecosystem Services for Poverty Alleviation), a global interdisciplinary research programme funded by the UK's Department for International Development (DFID), the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), as part of the UK’s Living with Environmental Change partnership.

"There is an increasing interest across the world in the green economy, or natural capital; that is, putting an economic value on what humans get from nature. For example, you can quantify the value of bees by working out how much pollination and how many crops rely on bees,” says Guy. "This project is looking at the different types of benefits people get from the environment that enable them to feed themselves, and how, by feeding themselves they in turn affect the environment.

The team is using various techniques including talking to the local people to understand historically how they act, and how they would act in a future scenario, coupled with various modelling techniques, to try to understand how people in these very vulnerable places can potentially keep themselves food secure in spite of rapidly changing climate and growing populations.

“Food security is a very pressing issue; globally, around a billion people are already food insecure, around a billion more are obese, and another billion are malnourished, not in terms of lack of calories, but not having a diet that provides a healthy lifestyle. This is a challenge that we are working hard to address at Southampton,” says Guy.

More information on Guy's research

More information on Gail's research

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