Heineken partnership: Soil microbial diversity and food security
NERC funding has enabled an industrial partnership to investigate how microbial diversity in soil affects apple production. It is an important collaboration between cider and beer business Heineken, partner trade body the National Association of Cider Makers, and researchers in the University of Sheffield’s Department of Animal and Plant Sciences, led by Dr Duncan Cameron and Dr Karl Evans.
The partnership builds on a previous project exploring wheat and its ability to form mycorrhiza; the work was supported by the BBSRC and the TSB in collaboration with RAGT Seeds. Eighty per cent of plants have mycorrhiza, where carbon from the plant is transferred to network of fungus in soil, which in turn captures nutrients and gives them to the plant. It is a reciprocal relationship; the evolution of the terrestrial environment has been underpinned by this symbiosis. The fungi also act as a vaccination for plants, making them more robust to other microbial attacks.
Most crop plants have the symbiotic relationship, including cereals and apples. But agriculture has negatively impacted mycorrhiza, sterilising soil by breaking up the substrate and removing any fungi. All the nutrients a plant needs are provided by the farmer, so plants no longer need to waste carbon maintaining the fungus. However, as the raw ingredients for fertilisers run out and the use of pesticides is restricted, this dependence has big implications for future food production.
Research with Heineken
Heineken became involved because the work on wheat is thought to be equally applicable to apples. The company is particularly interested in sustainable production, exploring how management of soil, including irrigation and pesticide use, influences mycorrhiza in apple production. As the demand for food crops soars, responsible agriculture and sourcing have never been more important, necessitating greater productivity using less fertiliser and fewer pesticides.
A medium-to-large orchard has been established at a research site in Sheffield. Here, researchers are able to manipulate the biological diversity of microbes in the soil and the genetic variability of apples, collecting data on how microbes and soil management influence productivity.
Over the next decade there will be big changes in the practice of agriculture, coupled with a growing need for more food: crop plants must be more productive with less input. There is a role for projects like this to influence the management of land, applying fundamental NERC science to industry and addressing food security through the integration of policy, environmental management and biotechnology. For mycorrhiza, biotechnological solutions could include the reintroduction of the genes that allow the symbiosis.
Dr Cameron said: “We don’t need to expand agriculture in terms of area, we need to be smart about integrating technologies and this is an integrative approach to sustainably produce food: genetic modification, classic breeding, management of ecosystems and the application of targeted agrochemicals will all be needed to ensure sufficient levels of food production.”