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Water and food security

This page is no longer updated. The information presented here formed part of our previous areas of research. This has included research carried out on behalf of our research partners, commerical contracts and also the Scottish Goverment's Strategic research programme during the period 2011 - 2016.

Scottish Goverment LogoWe have left these pages here to provide background information on our previous areas of research. Further details on the RESAS strategic programme of research (2016-21) will be made available.

Further details on why we archive pages can be found on the following page.

Photograph showing excavation of potato roots in the field
Water shortages and drought are the greatest threats facing global food security.

Water shortages and drought are the greatest threats facing global food security. At the James Hutton Institute we use a combination of plant and soil sciences to identify crop traits and crop production systems that can maintain crop yield and quality under decreased water availability.

Figure 1: Perennial soft fruit production

Figure 1: Perennial soft fruit production has shifted to intensive inputs under polytunnels, with water delivered through irrigation. Variability in water transport and capture in the soil causes water wastage (Image: Paul Hallett).

In soils we are characterising stresses that limit root growth and hence access to water. These include mechanical stresses that enhance in dry soils, in addition to available water for crop uptake. Much of our work has identified a widespread problem of root restriction in agricultural soils. We are investigating soil management practices to relieve this stress, in addition to identifying root traits that allow for deeper penetration into soils. Our research also isolates processes the impact the capture and storage of water in soil.

Figure 2: Lettuce rootFigure 2: (right) A lettuce root with abundant root hairs growing through ‘invisible soil’. (Photo: Lionel Dupuy).

Water use efficiency and drought tolerance of crops receives considerable research interest. Using controlled, albeit realistic abiotic stress conditions in laboratory and glasshouse experiments, we have identified candidate genes that are helping to develop new varieties better suited to decreased water through irrigation or rainfall. Root traits that enhance water capture are also investigated, such as the presence of root hairs or an ability to seek out macropores for rapid access to subsoil water.

Figure 3: Barley mapping

Figure 3: Our barley mapping population has produced lines with very different root traits. Root hairs (shown above) are one trait we study in relation to changing soil properties to enhance water capture (Image: Tim George).


Areas of Interest

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The James Hutton Research Institute is the result of the merger in April 2011 of MLURI and SCRI. This merger formed a new powerhouse for research into food, land use, and climate change.