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Plant Science Panel

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AMA about making the way we grow our food more sustainable

Our Plant Science Panel member Professor Derek Stewart answered your questions on Reddit, a popular news and entertainment site, in an AMA “Ask Me Anything” session on Thursday 25th August. Find the Q&A here.

 

Derek was asked questions about the sustainability of meat consumption, the role of GMOs, the use of insects as a source of food and phosphate shortages.

 

1.  Professor Stewart, it has been said that stopping the consumption of meat will make growing food more efficient. Do you think we need to stop consumption of meat or at least reduce it? Xenovore

DS: Well the evidence is stacking up against meat production in comparative terms for GHG production and if we are to get a handle on that we need to make the process more efficient or at the very least reduce the intake. On a personal basis switching to plant protein works for people and this means less animal fat getting taken in: this should all lead to reduced CVD and other degenerative dietary related pathologies.

2. Are you vegan or vegetarian? If so, could you explain how that relates to your studies? - Versepelles

DS: Increasingly eating less meat through education on the need to simply eat less. I’m now buying from better suppliers so that what I do eat is of higher quality. Now doing some work on plant protein crops (faba beans) and how this can be incorporated into processed food systems to give a more sustainable route for protein in the human food chain.

 

3. The front page of Reddit recently had a link that talked about lab-grown meat and milk and the regulatory challenges it faces. What part, if any, do you think these artificially grown meat and dairy cultures will have in this circular agricultural economy you're trying to promote? - TheArcanist

DS: As it stands it will have to go through several regulatory hoops regarding safety etc. At the moment it is difficult to see how this can be produced sustainably as the input efforts look large for the level of output. However we need to keep an open mind on this and as industrial biotech becomes more accepted and financially viable for food systems it may start to become more mainstream. I cannot see at the moment how it will become economically viable but am open to being impressed.

 

4. What has been the most interesting or incredible advancement in this field that more people should know about? What should we do as consumers to promote a circular economy? - commiecomrade

DS: The explosion in genome biology is to my mind the biggest advance that will benefit all agrisystems. This is akin to having both the jigsaw pieces and the picture on the top of the box and will see crop breeding for new environments, better resource use efficiency, resistance of abiotic and biotic stresses etc. accelerate at a level never seen before.

Regarding circular economy I have become very excited about the significant increase in the utility and upscaling of value in crop wastes/co-products to. For example collecting the grain husks from cereal processing can when linked to biorefining create a circular economy that can generate enriched protein, oil, wax, prebiotic fractions that significantly lift the value of this previously low value material. As a consumer you need to start asking about the products life cycle and sustainability, demanding that renewable resources are used but accept that to do this you may need to pay a bit more.

 

5. Hi professor Stewart. What kinds of food do you think we will eat more of in the coming decades, and how will they be produced? - Matzei

DS: I think our protein sources need to be thought through again. The problem with livestock production is that it is comparatively expensive in terms of GHGs. Shifting, e.g faba beans etc, at least into processed food systems would help immeasurably here. If we think broader we need to consider marines sources, but take care on mining that too far. We can however take our experience in intensive farming and apply it to insect protein production. This would be a culture change that would need to be bested.

 

6. Is Monsanto viewed in a negative light in your industry or are they viewed as innovators? - andrewtdc

DS: Monsanto are one of many companies and have some interesting approaches. Companies have to make money so their culture may be different to yours but if their approach went against the sector they would not survive. I guess you are referring to their GM work. We need to learn from what happened there as I think it’s one tool amongst many that need to be evaluated and not rejected out of hand.

 

7. Hi Professor Stewart, thanks for joining us today. My question is: how will the development of sustainable foods impact the cost of living and foods in general? Will food become cheaper or is there a cost for sustainability? - E3lue

DS: I think we have to realise that we do not pay enough for food and have let the value slip away. I think the shift to more sustainable food production systems will have to have investment and adopting no or lo tillage systems, using alternative inputs (green manures etc.) adoption of clover and other legumes, biostimuants and controls etc. all will all come with costs but maybe savings also.

 

8. Do you think mistrust of GMOs is a transient issue? And if so, what is the most important factor in changing perceptions? - honved711

DS: have seen this go up and down over the years. GM and its associated technologies DO have a place to play and getting truly societally benefits need to be better identified and exploited. The climate changes we are seeing now with large areas going from dustbowls to flooded areas mean getting crops to manage to grow in these very different environments is difficult. I think standard breeding will struggle to match the pace of environmental change. Using market technology, genomic selection etc. is already looking much better as a route forward. However GM, including CRISPR/Cas9, holds the potential to make paradigm changes and advancements.

 

9. Do you think lab-grown meat will surpass real meat in sales and quality in the next 20 years? - camdoodlebop

DS: This is not an easy question and the lab meat is the equivalent to the model T ford car and look how far we can come with cars now: hydrogen fuelled, electric, stop-start technology for fuel efficiency etc. This means that the advances in cell biology, industrial biotech, genome biology will, if targeted at lab meat, see it change significantly in terms of production efficiency, quality, taste, cookability. Deliverable in 20 years? I’m not so sure.

 

10. What do you think of the insect-as-food trend currently growing? (Recently I read an article where cockroach milk is predicted to be the food of future) And will algae play much a role in the future of the food industry? - ASilverStorm

DS: Interesting question. As someone who was a pharma research scientists what became increasingly obvious is that natural products are continuing to be big targets and will continue to be, also from marines sources. Allied to this is the development of industrial biotechnology so it increasingly feasible to take the whole pathways and drop them into facile IB organisms (yeast) or grow these crops and marine sources under controlled systems. For the pharma crops using vertical farming looks particularly attractive especially as we can slightly tress the organisms as this often increases the production of the target drug. All in all we will need new pharma going forward and these will be therapeutics and potentially cannabis could be one of these

 

11. As someone who has worked with drugs and the pharmaceutical industry, and also with your knowledge in plants and human health, what's your take on marijuana and (other) psychedelic drugs? Where do you think we will be, say, in the next five years, regarding that subject? What can we do to end stereotyping and to fix the damage the War on Drugs has done to real drug knowledge? Also, do you think it was just government actions or did the pharmaceutical industry play some role into demonizing certain drugs for their profit? Thank you!- siderorb

DS: Interesting question. As someone who was a pharma research scientists what became increasingly obvious is that natural products are continuing to be big targets and will continue to be, also from marines sources. Allied to this is the development of industrial biotechnology so it increasingly feasible to take the whole pathways and drop them into facile IB organisms (yeast) or grow these crops and marine sources under controlled systems. For the pharma crops using vertical farming looks particularly attractive especially as we can slightly tress the organisms as this often increases the production of the target drug. All in all we will need new pharma going forward and these will be therapeutics and potentially cannabis could be one of these.

 

12. I'm a food production luddite, how can I easily wrap my head around the pros and cons of sustainable food production? - wasabi-mayo

DS: It’s all about realising that there are many viewpoints to food production and we will never please everyone. Many people rely on the traditional food production industry products but we need to ensure the education is out there so all can see what they are eating and how they can improve their diet at an affordable price. And importantly that the production will continue. The conventional approach to agriculture that has focused on yield and disease resistance, and employ agrichemicals and synthetic fertilisers. Now I am no full pro and con person and this approach to agric has been very successful and has produced well but we need to think longer terms and look at sustainability, reducing inputs, restoring the soils etc. In addition these sustainable routes may need more man hours, tractor use etc. so everything in the production system needs to be measured and then looked at as a full farm business.

 

13. What about the phosphate shortage in third world countries? Wouldn’t it be possible to create crops that don't need much phosphate? - FlamingAurora

DS: Regarding the P shortage. Many scientists are working on crops that are more efficient on P utilization and better routes to P mobilisation to stop if getting locked up. Better designing crops with roots that can do this is within the crop and plant scientists grasp.

 

14. What do you think about biomass energy? - Ricky7831

DS: The systems for much more fully utilising biomass for energy with the efficiencies improving all the time. What’s also needed with this is to ensure that any co-products (wastes) are also fully utilised to get the economy of the system maximised.

 

15. What is your opinion on the system of rice intensification? Does it make sense as an alternative to chemical farming, or has its examples of success been flukes? - simonthefoxsays

DS: Do you mean the rice intensification system that is labour-intensive. I suspect its fine but will it produce enough for the areas it’s in? I think I would like to see a decent all round assessment of its sustainability that include nutrient cycles, labour costs yields vs other systems etc. Not the answer you might have wanted but its more research is needed.

 

If you don't see your question from the AMA on this list, don't worry! We're in the process of asking other members of the Plant Science panel for the answers to questions Derek did not have time for - check back soon to see if your question has been answered in a follow up.

Our Q&As answer the questions people put, which may mean that some parts of a subject are covered well and others not. If there is an issue that you think is not tackled, you are welcome to send a follow up question to our plant science panel