Spring – a time for new beginnings

In an article originally published in the Oxford Times, Diamond's Press Officer, Steve Pritchard, writes how food research is a priority for us all.

Spring in full bloom at Diamond
Spring in full bloom at Diamond
Photo | plant blossom in front of the Diamond Synchrotron

 “It’s the most wonderful time of the year,” sings Andy Williams, a tune we hear most Christmases. I would disagree with that, as my ‘most wonderful time of year’ is most certainly spring. It’s a time for new beginnings – from the daffodils beginning to flower to that sense of anticipation that grows as we notice the evenings steadily becoming lighter.

It’s a time we also associate with planting and growth, and here in the UK we’re fortunate to have a climate well suited to growing a wide variety of crops – although we may not think that on one of those days where it feels the weather changes so quickly we’ve experienced all four of the seasons!

Globally, we’re not so lucky. With the population on our planet estimated to pass 9 billion by 2050, increasingly it is a challenge to produce enough food to feed everyone. It has been estimated that we’ll have to improve our current agricultural output by 70% to provide sufficient food security, but as well as improving crop yields, could we also improve the nutritional value of what we eat, reducing the amount we need?

Farmers and gardeners have long understood how to selectively breed the strongest crops, and now scientists in Oxfordshire are also looking to help by understanding more about how vital nutrients flow through various crops. By using unique R&D tools like Diamond Light Source, they can perform microscopic analysis of plants and grains, and determine which strains contain more of the minerals we need in our daily diet.

The reverse is also true, and much research has taken place into crops which do not absorb dangerous metals such as arsenic, or radioactive compounds, meaning production can take place is less advantageous conditions than before. Bringing powerful tools like Diamond – essentially a giant microscope – to this area is an exciting example of how tools more often associated with cutting edge physics or chemistry can help with the global challenges we face.

As well as maximising the nutritious value of our food, researchers are also investigating methods to improve the fertility of the soil crops are grown in. Some of you may have heard of biochar – a special form of charcoal that is purported to offer great benefits soil health. Another research project here in Oxfordshire has looked at how the use of biochar may affect the soil bacteria which also aid plant growth.

Whilst it’s exciting to hear that the top scientists in our county are devoting their time to solving these global challenges, it’s also appropriate to challenge ourselves in a similar way. Studies have shown that the UK tops the EU table for food waste – wasting about 15 million tonnes of food every year – with 42% of this wasted in our households. Some of this has been linked to over strict best before dates, but I know on a personal level the occasions where I’ve forgotten about something in the fridge only to have to throw it away mouldy at the end of the week.

Another exciting part of life in Oxfordshire is our proximity to the farming community, and many of my friends with young families have been visiting local lambing days with their children. The production of meat is another area where we could challenge ourselves, as the production of proteins from cows and sheep uses roughly three times the feed per kilogram than chicken, or farming insects like crickets – a diet more familiar in South East Asia or to viewers of I’m a Celebrity… Scientists are also working on growing protein strings into burgers in the laboratory – but this is still a few years away – the ‘test tube’ burgers reported in 2013 ‘only’ cost $325,000!

But would we be happy to drive past a greenhouse farm full of insects? I’m not so sure that I could see the landscape of our county changing quite so dramatically, but it’s interesting to think what we choose to eat for dinner could have a global impact.