Sustainable horticulture – Working with industry to improve food sustainability

Research Project: Balancing food security and biodiversity – are fungi the answer?

2012–2015 (Cameron & Evans)

This industrial partnership between the University of Sheffield and Heineken investigates how microbial diversity in soil affects apple production. Promoting interactions between apple tree roots and beneficial soil microbes, it demonstrates the potential to increase nutrition and plant defence.

Balancing food security and biodiversity – are fungi the answer?

Over the next decade there will a growing need for more food because of an increasing global population: crop plants must be more productive with less input. Additionally the impending changes in climate will undoubtedly have an effect on our agricultural systems. There is a need for agricultural research to influence the management of our land, applying fundamental science to industry and addressing food security and sustainability through the integration of policy, environmental management and biotechnology.

Understanding our soil and what it needs to grow increased crop yields is of vital importance. Research shows that we have lost nutrients and diversity in the soil because of the agricultural methods of the last 60 years. Research from the University of Sheffield’s Professor Duncan Cameron and the P3 centre shows that Soil Microbial Diversity research could show a way to increase the efficiency of the soils and thus food production. Professor Duncan Cameron has focused his research on how fungi and bacteria in soil becomes an extension of plant root network. This network works to bring more nutrients to to plant, which can be utilised to create more healthy or abundant yields.

By increasing the use of this method, there is a potential to minimise the use of chemical interventions in crops. Use of fertilisers and pesticides can have negative impacts on the environment, can be expensive to purchase, and to administer. The future of the soils treated in such a way can also be compromised, many growers are looking for sustainable alternatives, that can address these multiple issues. Creating sustainable and practical ways to look after our crops requires input from experts across the industry.

In 2012 a project was initiated to explore these ideas, and apply them to the apple growing industry. This is a collaboration between international cider and beer producers Heineken, the trade body the National Association of Cider Makers, and researchers in the University of Sheffield’s P3 centre, led by Professor Duncan Cameron and Dr Karl Evans. This project was based on apple growing, and the effect of microbial diversity and fungal introduction in orchard soil on the deriving apple yield.

A test orchard was planted here in Sheffield in the grounds of the Arthur Willis Environment Centre(AWEC) for a controlled field experiment. Data from a Heineken/Bulmers orchard in bedfordshire was also used.

NACM represents 85% of cider makers in the UK, Richard Heathcote first met Duncan Cameron at a  Environment and Sustainability KTN meeting, it was clear that the needs of the apple cider growers in terms of understanding soil health matched up with P3’s expertise in soil research. This collaboration formed the basis of a grant bid from NERC. The project funded recruited Despina Berdeni as a PhD researcher to collect data and form her project around the subject of soil microbial diversity for apple growing as well and the wider concept of food security.

Despina collected data over a 3 year period and this work is currently being written up as part of her own thesis.  She worked with members of the White Rose Consortium and with Supervisor Duncan Cameron in the test orchard facility at the University of Sheffield. Soil microdiversity was tested and the effect of mycorrhizal fungi on the health of the apple tree and the yield of apples.

As well as industry partners, academics from Leeds and York with the White Rose consortium supported a publication output by Professor Duncan Cameron and Dr Karl Evans. The James Hutton Institute also collaborated on this paper as their molecular methods were applied, expertise from James Hutton was contributed by Professor Tim Daniell (now of P3). This translational collaborative  approach has lead to ongoing impacts,and is still informing ongoing work in 2018.

The agri industry in the UK spend millions on nitrogen a phosphorus fertilisers the use of new microbes being proposed by this research can reduce this amount. Application of inorganic fertiliser in the experiments showed that this actually hindered root mass development. This is particularly important given that trees with small root systems are likely to be more susceptible to stress during drought events, which are predicted to increase with future climate change.

The result of adopting a program with less fertilisers would also mean  that producers could then pass reduced costs to consumer, lowering prices. Using less synthetic fertilisers or pesticides would also mean less runoff pollutants into our farms and countryside.  The findings of this study have improved knowledge of how to create more resistance to some common diseases in cider apple production, this can advise growers on sustainable soil management in arable agriculture. The findings suggest that for the growing of cider apples a natural woodland soil that has had less cultivation and chemical input  than more intensively treated and disturbed crop fields is more effective. The microbial diversity of this soil is naturally higher due to less breakage of the fungi networks over time as apple trees don’t need to be replaced and replanted year on year like more labour intensive crops. The fungi and other microbes could be introduced to less diverse soil when planting a new orchard.

P3 aims to communicate with industry partners throughout the research process and looks for the best ways for the end user to benefit from research findings. This plant defence is of vital importance to getting the most out of a crop. In this case the research is on cider apples, however the results of the study could also be applied to other crop plants, including wheat.

“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.”

Professor Duncan Cameron, P3 Director

For more information about our partnership with Heineken, watch the video below.

Research co-funded by: