Hutton Highlights December 2022 Fields of research that are now more vital than ever Why it’s important – and urgent – that we halt biodiversity loss Fungi new to the UK discovered in the Cairngorms Soil Sampling Volunteer, Andrea Britton (c) Enjoying the Magazine? Feedback Survey
2 Hutton Highlights The James Hutton Institute magazine team Adam Walker, Sarah Horne and Sharon Simpson email@example.com The James Hutton Institute is a well-respected and globally recognised research organisation delivering fundamental and applied science to drive the sustainable use of land and natural resources. @JamesHuttonInst /JamesHuttonInstitute /JamesHuttonInstitute A time of urgency and opportunity Welcome to the latest edition of Hutton Highlights at a time when extreme weather events are again reminding us about climate breakdown and its impacts on nature and the security of our food, energy and water. The war in Ukraine is further amplifying what an unstable state we seem to be in and adding to the crises. There is much to do and our science unambiguously addresses these issues around nature, climate and food and provides opportunity to understand our world better and create new, often nature based solutions, that can help move towards a more sustainable world. This edition features more stories about our work that emphasise there is much to be positive about and there is great opportunity in the crises we face to do things differently for the betterment of people and the planet. The institute is leading the way in both social and technical innovations with solutions that are based soundly in scientific evidence but are driven by the urgency and needs of the current situation. Our newsletter is reaching more and more people and as always, we are keen to hear back from you and especially if there is more you want to see it and about ways we can work together with you. Comments? Introduction Professor Colin Campbell, Chief Executive of The James Hutton Institute /company/james-hutton-institute Contents 04 Rural affairs secretary visits Climate-Positive Farming Initiative at Glensaugh 06 Awards, Accolades & Appointments 08 Fields of research that are now more vital than ever 10 How Scottish farmers and crofters are changing food systems with agroecology 12 Seeds for survival: How humble tatties from the Institute will contribute to global food security 14 Food security rests on the growth of farming indoors 16 £13 million awarded to sustainability projects in the North East of Scotland 18 Why it’s important – and urgent – that we halt loss of biodiversity 20 Research provides first comprehensive view of pharmaceutical pollution of Scotland’s waters 22 Promising results from mountain hare survey 24 Policymakers urged to adopt new approaches to addressing global crises 26 James Hutton’s legacy launches Scottish Geology Festival 20 08 10 18 December 2022 3 The James Hutton Institute has received an accolade for its commitment to the inclusion of lesbian, gay, bi, trans and queer people in the workplace. This year, the Institute received a Bronze award from Stonewall, the world’s secondlargest LGBTQ+ charity. For twenty years the charity has been supporting employers to create welcoming workplaces for lesbian, gay, bi, trans and queer people. According to the charity’s research, more than a third of LGBTQ+ staff (35 per cent) hide who they are at work, while one in five (18 per cent) have been the target of negative comments because they’re LGBTQ+. Stonewall’s Gold, Silver and Bronze awards celebrate organisations’ inclusion work, particularly the importance of inclusion for lesbian, gay, bi, trans and queer people, and the lifechanging impact of being able to bring your whole self to work. Professor Deb Roberts, Deputy Chief Executive of the James Hutton Institute and chair of its Equality, Diversity and Inclusion Committee, commented: “We are delighted to have received this award and I would like to thank everyone whose hard work made this possible. “The Institute values the diversity of its workforce. Having Stonewall Bronze status is a signal of our commitment to the principles of equality, diversity and inclusion in our workplace and to developing the potential of all of our colleagues, across the Hutton Group.” Hutton commitment to LGBTQ+ inclusion awarded Stonewall bronze 14
News Highlights 4 Hutton Highlights Hutton science contributes to parliamentary session on the impact of Ukraine crisis on food supply Dr Mike Rivington, a senior scientist within the James Hutton Institute’s Information and Computational Sciences department, contributed evidence to a session of the Rural Affairs, Islands and Natural Environment Committee of the Scottish Parliament on the war in Ukraine and its impact on food supply and security in Scotland and beyond. During the session, which also featured experts from the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation, Trinity College Dublin, Scotland’s Rural College and National Farmers Union Scotland, Dr Rivington said that a strategic outlook is needed to improve the resilience of Scotland’s food systems in the face of major shocks like the conflict in Ukraine, COVID-19 or climate change. Dr Rivington said: “There is a need to move away from the current ‘just in time’ approach to how the food system operates, which leaves us vulnerable to shocks, to a ‘just in case’ strategy that will help build resilience. “COVID-19 was a demand-side shock affecting the most vulnerable people in particular as they could not afford food, whereas the current war in Ukraine and the consequences on food security is a production shock. The additional impact from rising energy costs has driven up prices which will result in increasing food insecurity for many people. “We must not lose sight of long-term objectives - there is a risk that current responses reinforce the current system, which results in continued vulnerability to future shocks. Instead, we need a transformation in the food system to meet multiple objectives for food security, climate change mitigation and biodiversity protection.” Dr Rivington’s evidence drew from the findings of a research project on the impact of COVID-19 on UK food and nutrition security, and his intervention can be watched below (video courtesy of Scottish Parliament TV). The Hutton presentation can be viewed below: December 2022 5 In April, the Scottish Government’s Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and Islands, Mairi Gougeon MSP, visited the James Hutton Institute’s Glensaugh Research Farm, near Laurencekirk, site of our Climate-Positive Farming Initiative. In addition to hearing about changes in land use and land management at the farm, Ms Gougeon was able to see the proposed location of the HydroGlen project, which seeks to use renewable energy from Glensaugh to produce sufficient green hydrogen to heat local houses, farm buildings, and to power the vehicles used on the farm. In doing so, HydroGlen will future-proof the farm against power and communication cuts due to the types of storms experienced recently and that are likely to occur more frequently in the future. Ms Gougeon was briefed on the work of Hutton scientists to develop a new system being trialled at Glensaugh to understand and monitor changes in soil carbon from agricultural systems. Through a combination of ground-based sensors, remote sensing and high-performance computing, researchers are creating a system that can monitor, report and verify changes in soil carbon and GHG emissions in near real time. The aim is to make the system available to users through a web interface and a mobile app. The Cabinet Secretary also heard about the National Soil Archive which is maintained and hosted at the Institute’s Aberdeen site. The Archive, a collection of nearly 60,000 soil samples from 1,500 locations throughout Scotland, is a window into the past of Scotland’s soils and allows comparisons with current soil conditions to see how soil carbon and nutrient levels have evolved in response to changes in agricultural techniques. Professor Deb Roberts, the Institute’s Deputy Chief Executive, said: Rural affairs secretary visits Climate-Positive Farming Initiative at Glensaugh The Scottish Government’s Cabinet Secretary for Finance, Kate Forbes MSP, visited the James Hutton Institute’s Dundee campus to discuss the National Strategy for Economic Transformation, which sets out a clear commitment to support a more progressive wellbeing economy agenda and provides Scotland with an opportunity for global leadership. During a roundtable session held at Intelligent Growth Solutions’ Crop Research Centre, Ms Forbes met with Professor Colin Campbell, IGS and Entrepreneurial Scotland representatives, as well as business leaders from across Scotland. Ms Forbes said: “Fundamentally, this strategy is about people seeing opportunities and going after them. We want Scotland to be the best; it’s not just about being on the playing field, it’s about winning at what we do.” The James Hutton Institute has received significant inward investment through the Tay Cities Region Deal and is using it to attract world class talent to the heart of Tayside and foster an environment of innovation and collaboration. Professor Campbell commented: “International competition for talent is fierce, and we need to promote what Scotland has to offer in terms of opportunities and quality of life. We also need the state-of-the-art facilities to attract the leading minds - this will be key to our success. “Right now Scotland, and indeed the world, is facing some of our biggest challenges along with the unprecedented threat of climate change. Our National Economic Strategy needs to support and develop the skills of individuals within society in order to be successfully delivered. “We are ready to help do our bit and are confident that our aims and plans for the future support the ambitions of this strategy.” Finance secretary visits Dundee campus to discuss national strategy for economic transformation “It was great to be able to meet the Cabinet Secretary and colleagues and update them on the exciting developments at Glensaugh as well as the work we do to maintain Scotland’s long-term science capability. Farming and land use in general is facing several major challenges as a result of the climate and biodiversity crises and the work that we are doing at Glensaugh aims to support the land use sectors as they transition towards a sustainable future.” Comments?
Awards, Accolades & Appointments 6 Hutton Highlights December 2022 7 DiversiTree: £500k awarded to increase UK woodland resilience Professor Robin Pakeman, a plant ecologist at the James Hutton Institute, has received the honour of being elected a Fellow of The Chartered Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management (CIEEM). Formed in 1991 as the Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management, CIEEM is the leading professional membership body representing and supporting ecologists and environmental managers in the UK, Ireland and abroad. CIEEM’s leadership was recognised in 2013 when the organisation was awarded its Royal Charter status. CIEEM has grown into an increasingly influential professional body – setting standards, sharing knowledge and providing sound advice to governments on all aspects of ecological and natural environmental management practice. On the announcement, Professor Pakeman, said: “I am very proud and honoured to be elected a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management. CIEEM has professionalised ecology and has raised standards and improved training across the sector. “As a scientist who does both basic and applied research, having the link to CIEEM helps me with seeing what issues professional ecologists are dealing with and helps me focus my applied research. Maintaining the link between research and practice is increasingly important as we deal with the dual biodiversity and climate crises.” In taking the decision to elect Professor Pakeman as a Fellow, the CIEEM Governing Board particularly noted the fact that his extensive research has been and continues to be multi-faceted, spanning coastal, upland/moorland habitats, impacts on nutrification, trophic ecology and herbivore impacts. The board also stated that, importantly, all of this research had practical application. Professor Robin Pakeman elected Fellow of The Chartered Institute of Ecology and Environmental Management The UK Research and Innovation has awarded £516,524 to DiversiTree, a collaborative project led by the James Hutton Institute, to investigate resilience across the country’s woodlands. Woods and forests account for more than 13% of the UK’s land surface, but the UK government’s ambition is to increase this to 17% as part of UK’s plans to reach net zero emissions by 2050. In the right place, these new woodlands can also provide benefits such as reducing flooding and supporting biodiversity, however threats from climate change, pests and diseases may inhibit their ability to do so. DiversiTree is a collaborative project between James Hutton Institute, Bangor University, Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, RSPB, University of Birmingham and the Woodland Trust, and it will provide woodland managers with the knowledge and tools required to make our woods and forests more resilient. Dr Ruth Mitchell, an Ecologist at the James Hutton Institute and lead of the DiversiTree project said: “Climate change, pests and diseases are a threat to our UK woodlands. This funding is very welcome, as it will allow us to understand how woodland managers and other stakeholders understand woodland diversity, and their ambitions for future woods.” Dr Rebekka Artz, a senior scientist within the James Hutton Institute’s Ecological Sciences department, has been included in the inaugural ENDS Power List, which names the 100 UK environmental professionals who have made the greatest impact in the past two years as nominated by their colleagues, customers, and competitors. Rebekka has nearly two decades of research experience in the ecology and functioning of peatland ecosystems and delivered land management decision support tools, policy briefings and expert opinions on soils and climate change mitigation policy matters to Scottish and UK governments for more than a decade. She has been an expert reviewer on the carbon benefits of peatland management to the UK and Scottish governments and is currently on a 50% secondment to NatureScot Peatland ACTION as the manager for the Technical Advice team. She also contributed presentations to the COP25 and COP26 climate change summits. Rebekka’s current research includes assessing remote sensing to estimate the effectiveness of peatland restoration and monitoring greenhouse gas emissions from peatlands in relation to climate change impacts and emissions mitigation potential. She also coordinates the recently announced NERC MOTHERSHIP project, a multinational research effort to assess the risk that climate change poses to peatlands and create the capability to better manage these important ecosystems. On being included in the ENDS Power List, Dr Artz commented: “I am pleased to appear in the ENDS first Power List. However, I see this recognition as encompassing numerous colleagues and research partners; science is teamwork and it’s the unsung heroes that should be celebrated more.” The ENDS Power List is compiled by the ENDS Report, a publication aimed at environmental professionals which delivers news, analysis and reference across the carbon, environmental and sustainability agenda. The full ENDS Power List 2022 can be accessed here: Power List 2022: the UK’s 100 most influential environmental professionals. Hutton scientist Rebekka Artz included in first ENDS Power List The world’s first “climate-positive” gin, created using the humble garden pea, was recognised at the Herald’s Higher Education Awards, when the team behind the gin secured the “Outstanding Business Engagement” award for their efforts to create and build awareness of sustainable spirits. Dr Pete Iannetta, an agroecologist at the James Hutton Institute accepted the award alongside former Hutton PhD student Dr Kirsty Black and collaborators from Abertay University and Arbikie Distillery. Looking at the entire production and supply chain and thinking across the entire range of inputs and outputs on the Arbikie Estate they created their climate positive gin, and then a vodka produced on the same basis, to considerable press and public interest around the world. The team’s use of high-quality video and great storytelling has been a huge contributor to the awareness and understanding of what has been done and how it could provide an example for others to follow. A 700ml bottle of Nàdar gin has a carbon footprint of -1.54 kg CO2e (carbon dioxide equivalent), meaning it avoids more carbon dioxide emissions than it creates. This environmental performance — significantly better than traditional wheat gins — is mainly achieved by utilising all useful components of the peas from the dehulling (de-skinning) and distilling process, to create home-grown animal feed. The full backstory of the creation and research involved in the climate positive gin can be found here. More accolades for ‘Climate Positive’ Gin project team Nature of Scotland Awards, Celebrating Innovation We were delighted to be a sponsor at the Nature of Scotland Awards where we sponsored the Innovation Award. Congratulations to the winners, Generation Restoration: Supporting the Scaling-up of Seagrass Restoration. Highly Commended projects: RSPB Abernethy Cattle Grazing for Capercaillie & Working for Waders Initiative. Comments?
By Prof Colin Campbell, Chief Executive Fields of research that are now more vital than ever Earlier this year, it was announced that the UK Government would be bringing forward a new Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding Bill). Unless you work in the agricultural sector, the significance of this may have prompted a ‘so what? moment for most readers. However, here at the James Hutton Institute, we welcomed news of this Bill. Why? Because it has the potential to make a steady food supply chain a reality in the future, critical in this crisis time of climate change, pandemics, and the rising cost of food production. We are recognised as being world-leaders in this area of science and research; where we study land, soils, water, environment and how this impacts upon, and is affected by, people and communities. We explore different techniques to understand crop growth and apply this knowledge to produce new varieties of crops. We know that this research is needed now more than ever: Scotland is predicted to be getting warmer and wetter, which will mean an increase in pests and diseases, such as potato blight. In other countries, the climate is expected to get hotter and drier and there will be less water available for growing. To reduce our carbon footprint, we need more stringent environmental targets and to reduce our reliance on the use of fertilisers and biocides. We need to grow food closer to home more reliably and using cultivation practises that supports greater biodiversity. Farmers have been crossing and selecting crops since the Stone Age. Most of our research is carried out using such conventional breeding. The problem with this is we rely on trial and error and many growing cycles take over 10 to 15 years. Given the urgency of the climate crises we simply don’t have the time for this. One of the new techniques we use is ‘precision breeding’, also known as gene editing. This technique has been likened to genetic scissors because it can precisely target a specific region on the plant’s DNA without affecting other parts. It can be used to knock out genes which can prevent disease or alter the plant’s metabolism and thus boost the levels of natural healthprotecting chemicals in the plant. The changes in the genetic sequences are done in a precise way so the hard-won gains achieved by conventional breeding are unaffected. Until this announcement of the new Bill, this type of breeding modification was subject to the same regulations as techniques associated with genetic modification (GM) which use less precise techniques and insert DNA sometimes from other species. Crops derived through precision breeding don’t have any DNA from other species inserted into them and are indistinguishable from crops bred conventionally. The benefits will ultimately need to be proven scientifically and consequences assessed, and this can only be done by field trials across a variety of soils and climates to ensure a full evaluation is made. The new Bill will help do this. Researchers in England will now be able to do field trials on such precision bred crops but, the legal position in Scotland remains the same as the EU, and precision breeding remains subject to GM regulations. Time is not on our side, and we need our agricultural sector to be able to grow food locally, consistently, against worsening weather and that benefits everyone. For a country such as Scotland, which has a reputation for high quality food and drink brands built on its natural, high-quality environment; we need to consider how conventional systems, using potentially more chemical inputs, will fare against similar systems from countries that are using precision breeding, and whether this impacts upon the balance of consumer perceptions when it comes to relative environmental benefits. To do that, we need the science to provide evidence which can help people make those decisions and at the James Hutton Institute we will continue to do this. 8 Hutton Highlights The Our Phosphorus Future report is the most comprehensive global analysis of the challenges, and possible solutions, to the phosphorus crisis to date. It has been written by a team of 40 international experts from 17 countries, led by the UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (UKCEH) and the University of Edinburgh, and features contributions from researchers at the James Hutton Institute. The report calls on governments across the world to adopt a ‘50, 50, 50’ goal: a 50 per cent reduction in global pollution of phosphorus and a 50 per cent increase in recycling of the nutrient by the year 2050. Such a model would create a food system that would provide enough phosphorus to sustain over four times the current global population, save farmers nearly US $20 billion in annual phosphorus fertiliser costs, and avoid a projected yearly clean-up bill of over US $300 billion to remove phosphorus from polluted water courses. Professor Marc Stutter, a senior researcher at the Environmental and Biochemical Sciences department of the James Hutton Institute and co-author of the report, said: “It is great to see this united voice from such a truly global group of researchers. The recommendations and the opportunity to raise awareness of the broader environmental, resource and societal issues around the nutrient phosphorus come at a critical time for farming internationally. Phosphorus resources are already affecting farmer’s options for fertilisers and will soon ripple through food and fodder prices. “Such a report and current issues should make us more proactive at restructuring the global system of phosphorus usage and reuse and wider the impacts for soils and waters.” For the full Our Phosphorus Future report and videos summarising each chapter, see www.opfglobal.com. Scientists offer solutions to global phosphorus crisis threatening food and water security Phosphorus is an essential but often overlooked resource, which is vital for life on earth, and is extracted from phosphate rock for use in crop fertilisers, livestock feeds and food additives. A major report by scientists warns that global mismanagement of this finite nutrient is causing twin crises, brought into sharp focus with fertiliser prices skyrocketing in recent months. Recommendations in Our Phosphorus Future include: • Integrating livestock and crop production so phosphorus in animal manure is applied to crops, reducing the demand for chemical fertilisers; • Moving towards more sustainable diets, which would reduce the amount of phosphorus needed to grow animal feed; • Reducing global food waste, meaning less demand for crops and animal products, and therefore phosphorus (a recent UNEP report estimated global food waste from households, retail establishments and the food service industry totals 931 million tonnes each year); • Improving wastewater treatment to remove phosphorus from sewage, so it can be reused and does not enter lakes and rivers. December 2022 9 Comments?
How Scottish farmers and crofters are changing food systems with agroecology The work, funded by SEFARI Gateway, and the Food, Farming and Countryside Commission (FFCC), and in collaboration with the Scottish Agricultural Organisation Society (SAOS) and Soil Association Scotland (SAS), was conducted by Dr Luz-Maria Lozada, a social scientist, and Dr Alison Karley, an agroecologist, both based at the James Hutton Institute. They carried out an online survey of 192 respondents and ten one-to-one interviews to understand whether farming practices, classed as agroecological, are commonly adopted in Scotland and whether they provide benefits for the environment, farm productivity, and ability to cope with external stresses such as climate change. Agroecology embraces multiple alternative farming approaches and practices, including regenerative, organic, permaculture, and Linking Environment and Farming (LEAF). The research showed that many respondents farmed using an approach that could be classed as agroecological. “Our analysis shows many Scottish farmers and crofters are innovating in the way they farm and produce food, motivated by the desire to improve soil health and biodiversity, and reduce inputs”, explains Dr Lozada. “They also see wider social benefits from creating closer links between their farms, local communities, and the consumers of their farm products.” Dr Karley added: “Agroecological farming approaches are knowledge intensive, and we need to think creatively about mechanisms to support the transition, whether through advice, training, incentives, or other means.” The research highlights how Scottish agriculture can lead the way in food system transformation to create socially and ecologically sustainable systems that are also economically viable. Sue Pritchard, Chief Executive of the Food, Farming and Countryside Commission, welcomed the report: “This research shows that farmers, crofters, land managers and growers across Scotland can be a force for change, adapting to new practices to develop resilient and diverse businesses fit for the future. “Our Farming for Change evidence shows agroecology works - now it’s time for government to show support for finance, knowledge and skills that meet the needs of these innovators and address the triple challenge of the nature, health and climate crises.” Prof Lorna Dawson, SEFARI Gateway and James Hutton Institute, added: “The outcomes of this interdisciplinary collaborative work are already informing a wide range of stakeholders, such as the Scottish Parliament’s Cross Party Group on Food, where the role of agroecology is being recognised for many benefits such as in creating alternative food production systems, supporting rural livelihoods and promoting healthy diets while adapting to and mitigating climate change.” The full research report can be found on the SEFARI website, along with recommendations for supporting broader uptake of farming approaches using agroecology principles. New research by James Hutton Institute scientists and partner organisations explores the use of sustainable farming practices in Scotland and how these support long-term land productivity and resilience amongst agricultural businesses. 10 Hutton Highlights An international research team featuring the James Hutton Institute has shed further light on the evolution and biology of potato as a genetically complex global food crop. Most commercially grown potato varieties are tetraploids, which means they possess four sets of chromosomes. Potato varieties that are diploid – with just two sets of chromosomes – are less complex to breed and have the potential to revolutionise future potato breeding and production. The team, led by the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences, explored the genome evolution and diversity of 24 wild and 20 cultivated diploid potato varieties, and created a map of significant genetic traits that may help breeders accelerate the development of new varieties. Dr Glenn Bryan, a potato geneticist with the Institute’s Cell and Molecular Sciences group and a co-author of the study, said: “This work really gives a ‘pan genome’ view across a diverse set of diploid potatoes that span the domestication timeline of this important global food crop. “This work will be a fantastic source of information for potato geneticists and breeders and will provide a very rich source of data that will facilitate diploid hybrid breeding.” The study, entitled Genome evolution and diversity of wild and cultivated potatoes, is in the latest issue of Nature. Paper: Tang, D., Jia, Y., Zhang, J. et al. Genome evolution and diversity of wild and cultivated potatoes. Nature (2022). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-022-04822-x. Researchers explore genome of wild and cultivated potatoes The thin layer of soil surrounding plant roots, an interface that scientists define as the rhizosphere, is a habitat for a multitude of microorganisms collectively referred to as the rhizosphere microbiota. In analogy with the microbiota populating the digestive tract of vertebrates, the rhizosphere microbiota can promote the health, development and growth of their host plants. Thus, the rhizosphere microbiota emerges as a renewable alternative to synthetic agrochemicals. Akin to an orchestra conductor, the host plant can shape the composition of the rhizosphere microbiota. This capacity is mediated by specific genes in the plant genome which could be then used to re-wire plant-microbiota interactions for the benefit of humankind. Researchers at the University of Dundee’s School of Life Sciences and the James Hutton Institute, with the contribution of colleagues in the UK, Italy and Germany, recently identified genes shaping the rhizosphere microbiota in the staple crop barley. “The complexity of our work is in the numbers: the barley genome has tens of thousands of genes and each one of them could potentially shape the rhizosphere microbiota. Because of this, a breakthrough in our investigation came when, by deploying an innovative genetic approach, we ‘narrowed down’ a specific region of the barley genome, which we designated as locus QRMC-3HS”, commented co-first author Dr Carmen Escudero-Martinez. However, the locus encompassed over 50 genes: still too many to work with. “To overcome this obstacle, we made an educated guess. Since microbes we are interested in proliferates belowground, genes expressed in roots may represent the first port of call for the establishment of these interactions”, continued co-first author Dr Max Coulter. By looking at differences in genes expressed in barley roots, scientists ultimately ‘sieved’ the complexity of the barley genome and discovered three promising genes to be prioritised for further investigations. Paper: Escudero-Martinez, C., Coulter, M., Alegria Terrazas, R. et al. Identifying plant genes shaping microbiota composition in the barley rhizosphere. Nat Commun 13, 3443 (2022). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-022-31022-y. Finding a needle in a haystack: exploring the rhizosphere microbiota in barley December 2022 11 Comments?
Seeds for survival: How humble tatties from the Institute will contribute to global food security This article first appeared in The Courier on the 31st October 2022 Nestled into the hillside in the stunningly desolate Svalbard region of Norway, the entrance to the global seed bank looks like part of the set of an epic disaster movie. Picture a dishevelled Liam Neeson rolling in under a rapidlyclosing door as the surrounding area is destroyed by a volcano/ meteor/huge storm and you’ve got the idea. In fact, this futuristic structure could indeed hold the secret to the survival of humanity: Not by giving refuge to people but rather by storing seed samples from the world’s most important crop collections. The Svalbard Global Seed Vault is a safe storage facility of more than one million seed samples and is the world’s largest collection of crop diversity. The seeds are stored here as a kind of insurance policy against an event or events that could destroy our food crops. The James Hutton Institute in Dundee has been contributing seeds to the collection for several years, with the most recent deposit of Scottish seeds taking place earlier this month. Gaynor McKenzie, 43, is the curator of the UK’s only potato gene bank, The Commonwealth Potato Collection, based at Dundee’s James Hutton Institute. “Managing a gene bank, such as the Commonwealth Potato Collection (CPC), requires maintaining both the genetic integrity and physical viability of the seed under your care,” she explains. “To achieve this, we follow the voluntary standards detailed in The Gene Bank Standards for Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture. These standards set the benchmark for current gene bank best practices and encourage the creation of a safety duplicate for each original sample to be held in a geographically distant location.” The distant location is where Svalbard comes in, and Gaynor has been lucky enough to visit the Svalbard facility in person: “In February 2017 I had the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to visit the seed vault at Svalbard and make the first seed deposit for the James Hutton Institute and the UK,” she enthuses. “Visitors are no longer permitted to enter the vault, so I feel very privileged to have been one of the few people to have been afforded this opportunity. From the impressive bespoke artistic design of the entrance-way to the large temperaturecontrolled chambers housed deep within the mountainside, the vault itself is a breath-taking spectacle of practical design.” Gaynor says the vault, which has been built into a mountain on the remote island of Spitsbergen, 1,300km inside the Arctic Circle, “safeguards duplicate seed samples from the world’s crop collections and currently contains over 1 million different seed samples with the capacity for many more. The storage facility is designed to stand the test of time and provide the ultimate insurance policy to protect invaluable genetic resources from possible future catastrophic global environmental events.” She recalls the experience of visiting the facility in 2017: “After walking down a long corridor that takes you 100m within the mountain, and under layers of rock that range between 40 and 60 metres thick, you discover hidden chambers containing multitudes of boxes from almost every country in the world. The ultimate library of genetic resources! “On these shelves now safely sits a duplicate of the Commonwealth Potato Collection, ensuring its long-term viability.” The only seeds from Scotland to be housed in the vault have come from the James Hutton Institute, which is one of three UK depositors. Other contributions come from all over the globe with Iraq and Uruguay the most recent nations to make their first seed deposits. Gaynor explains the relationship with the James Hutton Institute began when she attended a talk given by Åsmund Asdal, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault coordinator. “This talk highlighted the importance of the Seed Vault and encouraged gene bank curators to think about depositing material into the vault,” she says. “The talk, along with my desire to create a new collection back-up, resulted in our initial seed deposit at Svalbard in February 2017.” According to the curator of the Commonwealth Potato Collection, Solanum tuberosum (or the humble spud) is a vital food crop. “The accessions we are depositing consist of both primitive cultivated and crop wild relatives, which are wild plant species genetically related to cultivated crops. “Untended by humans, they continue to evolve in the wild, developing traits such as drought tolerance or pest resistance. We crossbreed these with domesticated crops to produce new varieties within our collection including the original ancestors of today’s cultivated potatoes.” Gaynor points out that because these wild potatoes cover a wide geographical range, they are very adaptable, allowing them to “occupy an impressive range of habitats varying in temperature, humidity and altitude. “The Commonwealth collection contains species supremely able to thrive in diverse and challenging environmental conditions. For example, some can survive in high altitudes paired with bouts of sub-zero temperatures or dry semi-desert conditions; some thrive in humid conditions of Bolivian cloud forests; or are covered in soft sticky hairs that produce a pungent insect-repelling odour. “The collection even contains a species that is somewhere between a potato and tomato!” The most recent deposit of seeds, made on October 12, contained 383 accessions. Gaynor believes that: “In a world dealing with the effects of climate change, it has never been so important to preserve this valuable material.” John Jones, nematologist and science group leader at The James Hutton Institute, agrees: “The seed bank offers an insurance policy against any catastrophic events that would threaten a collection held only in one place,” he explains, “but also against climate change, by housing genetic diversity from crops that occupy a wide range of habitats. According to John, experts are already seeing examples of the impact of climate change on crops. “Some natural resistance genes stop working at temperatures over 28C, meaning the plants are no longer protected from pathogen attack,” he says. Even more alarming is the news that: “Growers in Southern Europe are already seeing the impact of this breakdown of resistance. “Some of the recent modelling work undertaken by colleagues at Hutton has shown that farms in the south of England will experience up to two months of conditions every year where plants are exposed to temperatures that will induce heat stress. This will impact the way that the plants grow and the amount of food we produce.” Sending potato seeds to Svalbard is just one aspect of the work John, Gaynor and their colleagues are undertaking in order to ensure the global food supply in the future. “We are breeding new crop varieties that are able to cope with a changing climate and that can thrive with lower levels of fertiliser,” says John. “We are also using our expertise to help growers in other parts of the world who are dealing with pathogens that have not previously been a problem in their countries.” Åsmund Asdal reiterates the importance of plant genetic resources for future food security. “It is crucial that genebanks provide genetic material to agricultural research and plant breeding,” he points out. “One of the 93 contributors is the James Hutton Institute, which conserves a unique collection of potato diversity. We are happy to see that genetic diversity of this globally important food crop is secured in the Seed Vault, and look forward to future cooperation with the James Hutton Institute.” When it comes to ensuring we will be able to continue to successfully grow food crops whatever climate change or other global events throw at us, the Global Seed Vault could well be a lynchpin. It’s incredible to think a safe storage unit in the far reaches of the Arctic Circle may well hold the seeds of crops that could ensure our very survival. To find out more about the James Hutton Institute’s contribution visit the Commonwealth Seed Collection website or see more on the Global Seed Vault here. December 2022 13 12 Hutton Highlights Comments?
Comments? July 2022 19 Food security rests on the growth of farming indoors This article first appeared in The Times Thunderer column on 10th October By Professor Derek Stewart, Director, Advanced Plant Growth Centre, the James Hutton Institute As a crop scientist with over 30 years’ experience in the research and also industry sectors, I’ve never been more worried about the security of our food supply than I am currently. The past 12 months has been a period of accelerated and disruptive change with Brexit leading to reduction in both imports and exports, 25% and 18% respectively on pre-Covid 2019 levels. Allied to this, fertiliser prices have soared due to surging input costs and we’ve experienced supply disruptions due to sanctions on Belarus and Russia. The war in Ukraine has also impacted fears around supplies of food staples and, as a final denouement, this summer, Europe and the UK have been hit with a prolonged heatwave that has had a severe impact on our food production and security. This has all contributed to a rise in the cost of food (as well as how we actually cook it) and I fear we are reaching an impasse on how we feed people. Food security in the UK is at an alltime low: indeed. In 2021 the UK Government identified the UK produces less than 60% of its domestic food consumption by economic value. We cannot keep on producing food in the same way as we always have and expecting different results. It is increasingly evident that we need significantly more productive systems for food production and that these systems need to be more sustainable and at the very least, environmentally safe. Climate change is not going away and we are simply not doing enough to decelerate its progression. In terms of food production though, for crops at least, there are some bright spots on the horizon. At the Advanced Plant Growth Centre (APGC), we have explored the science and are now realising the potential and impact of growing crops such as vegetables and fruit, indoors. This type of farming, known as total controlled environment agriculture (TCEA), offers up the chance to grow tasty food which could also be nutritionally enhanced all year round, thanks to specially controlled lighting and greatly reduced water and fertiliser requirements. If we adopt TCEA powered by renewable energy, best exemplified in vertical farming, we can increase the reliability of food supply with a significantly reduced greenhouse gas emission footprint compared other like-for-like food production systems. We now have the tools and technology within our grasp to transform the production of crop-based food. Also, the uplift in renewable energy, particularly in Scotland which has around 96% renewable electricity, means we can make a significant and sustainable impact on our reliance on imported vegetables and fresh produce, which was valued at £2.5Bn in 2020 in the UK, and could positively impact food security. The adoption of new technology represents change and is not always universally welcomed: we hear and acknowledge this, but with the hard evidence being generated on the potential of vertical farming, we need to pull together the food and energy sectors, invest in this new type of farming and lead the way globally in terms of sustainable food production. Two species of fungi new to the UK have been discovered in Scotland’s Cairngormmountains by a team of volunteers working with the James Hutton Institute and Plantlife, the international wild plant conservation charity. Amanita groenlandica is an arctic species originally described from Greenland and circumpolar in its distribution, with Scandinavia its previously recorded most southerly location. Acrodontium antarcticum is a fungus originally described from Antarctica. These rare fungi, previously found poles apart, both favour the unique cold habitat and climate of Scotland’s Cairngorms. This internationally important landscape which, due to its elevation and distance from the sea, experiences an exceptionally cold and snowy climate, supports the best examples of arctic-alpine vegetation found anywhere in the UK. 219 soil samples were collected by the hillwalking community at various altitudes from 55 of the 58 Munros of Scotland’s Cairngorms National Park last summer, and DNA was extracted from the soil and sequenced by scientists at the Institute, resulting in over 17000 records of 2748 fungal species in just three months. This unique collaboration of mountain enthusiasts, cuttingedge science and expert insight from Plantlife demonstrates the pressures from climate change and atmospheric pollution on this fast-changing habitat. The research team’s knowledge of the close connection between plants and fungi means that the data collected can be used to prioritise habitats for conservation and restoration and provide a baseline against which the effects of climate and environmental change can be monitored. Andrea Britton, a Plant Ecologist at the James Hutton Institute, said, “Fungi are crucially important to the functioning of our alpine ecosystems, but because they are mostly hidden below ground, and because alpine ecosystems are remote and difficult to access, we know very little about the distribution and diversity of fungi in this iconic habitat. “Thanks to the hard work of volunteers and scientists coming together, the data from this survey will add significantly to our knowledge of this vital group and can be used to start identifying which habitats and locations are particularly important for conservation of fungal diversity.” Plantlife’s Keilidh Ewan, project manager, said “There are more living organisms in just one teaspoon of soil than there are people on the planet, and soil biodiversity has a hugely important role to play in the functioning of ecosystems. The coming together of researchers, conservationists and the local community has uncovered some wild and wonderful species and has created evidence-based foundations against which the effects of climate and environmental change can be monitored going forward. This is helping us to understand the threats that this fragile habitat is facing and, ultimately, the more we understand, the better we can protect these much-loved places for the future.” Many of Scotland’s alpine species are already living on the edge of their natural range with nowhere else left to go in a landscape that is warming up fast, and these are the species most at risk of extinction. In harsh environments such as these, fungi have a crucial role to play in helping arctic-alpine plants obtain the essential nutrients needed to survive, yet very little is known about them, so these exciting scientific discoveries come at a crucial time. Fungi new to the UK discovered in the Cairngorms 14 Hutton Highlights December 022 5 Enjoying the Magazine? Feedback Survey
£13 million awarded to sustainability projects in the North East of Scotland Scientists at the James Hutton Institute have been awarded over £13 million from the Scottish Government’s Just Transition fund to establish two pioneering action-based research science projects in the North East of Scotland. HydroGlen and the Just Transition Hub will focus on providing sustainable solutions to Scotland’s future food, environmental and water security concerns. HydroGlen is a green hydrogen-powered farming community pilot based at the Institute’s research farm at Glensaugh in Aberdeenshire. Through the development of renewablegenerated electricity, HydroGlen will support the energy needs of both the farm and its community of seven associated households. It will provide a scalable and replicable concept for farming and other rural communities to demonstrate how to become self-reliant, net-zero carbon energy producers and exporters. HydroGlen will demonstrate how 100% of the community’s electricity, heating and transport fuel energy requirements can be self-generated renewably. The Just Transition Hub is a state-of-the-art facility which will be based at the Institute’s campus in Aberdeen. This will see collaboration with a range of stakeholders to develop nature-based, net-zero solutions for issues such as community renewable energy development, flood management, sustainable groundwater access, biodiversity enhancement and peatland restoration. A new building will combine virtual and physical space, which will act as an incubator for ‘spin out’ companies drawing on the Institute’s science to develop new products and services. It will also offer in-person and on-line scientific, institutional and business events and a public café. The Just Transition Hub is expected to create over 200 jobs and bring in £1.6m annually to the regional economy. Speaking of the funding, Professor Colin Campbell, CEO of the Institute said: “Given that around 45% of people in the NorthEast live in rural areas, the potential of HydroGlen to accelerate the decarbonisation of rural energy and transport is large. The Just Transition Hub will be an open and inclusive facility which will work with a range of partners on creating new products, new jobs and encourage investment. These are tremendous examples of our action-based science and will create real impact for our society. My thanks to the Scottish Government for this award and for their continued trust in our science.” Professor Alison Hester, Leader of the Institute’s Climate-Positive Farming Initiative at Glensaugh and who led the HydroGlen bid said: “HydroGlen being selected for funding is a big step forward for green hydrogen innovation in Scotland and beyond. In our changing climate, where the frequency of storms such as Storm Arwen left some rural North East communities without power for many days; the successful development of HydroGlen as a key research and demonstration facility will offer much needed innovative and practical energy solutions for the region and beyond.” Professor Lee-Ann Sutherland, Director of the International Land Use Study Centre, who led the Just Transition Innovation Hub bid, said: “This is wonderful news. We expect the Just Transition Hub to become the ‘go to’ place for net zero research and innovation, not only in the North East but in the whole of Scotland. It will be a place where stakeholders and collaborators from across the world can work with us on providing evidencedbased scientific solutions to the critical challenges that lie ahead for our food and environmental security.” HydroGlen will submit planning permission imminently, with construction expected to commence in 2024. The Just Transitions Hub will see a feasibility study in 2022 and planning permission for the new build will be submitted in 2023 with construction predicted to begin in 2025. 16 Hutton Highlights Comments? December 2022 15 The UK’s Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council has awarded £609K to a collaborative partnership led by the James Hutton Institute to understand how a tree’s microbiomes (the bacteria, fungi and viruses that exist in/on the tree) affects its vulnerability to disease. Trees can play a critical role in combatting our current biodiversity and climate crises. The UK aims to increase its woodland cover from 13% to 19% to contribute to its target of being carbon neutral by 2050. In this context, an understanding of the factors governing the arrival and spread of tree diseases, and how they impact tree health, are fundamentally important. A key challenge in tree disease research is to understand how the interactions between the tree and its associated microbiome affect disease incidence and severity. These interactions are affected by the genetic make-up of the tree, environmental conditions, and the combination of microbial species in the tree’s microbiome. The project team includes experts from The UK Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, Forest Research, and the University of St Andrews. The team are focusing on the pine tree disease Dothistroma needle blight, a serious pathogen that detrimentally affects the growth and life span of over 100 pine species worldwide including our native Scots pine. Dr Sue Jones, a computational biologist at the James Hutton Institute and lead for the project said: “This is a very exciting opportunity that combines a team with expertise in computational biology, ecological genetics and tree pathology to address how a tree’s genetic makeup and microbiome combine to influence tree health.” The project will use a Scots pine experiment that was planted in 2012 in the Scottish Borders, in which all 672 trees have been genotyped and carefully tracked since planting to measure growth, reproduction, and disease symptoms. Then, before and after disease develops, the project will sequence a ‘soup’ of DNA from needles from each of the trees to identify all the microbes living in/on them and use computer modelling to predict which microbes may influence vulnerability to Dothistroma needle blight. £609K awarded to explore Native Scots Pine trees vulnerability to disease Hutton potato work featured on BBC Scotland Landward We were delighted to have the opportunity to film with the BBC Scotland programme Landward in September. It was a great morning filming with Landwards Cammy Wilson and our Director of Science Professor Lesley Torrance. Lesley spoke about climate change and its future impact on the potato. Also discussed was the Institute’s work in developing new varieties that can cope with rising temperatures and new threats. You can stream the episode here, our feature is from 1:22 onwards. 7