Friday, September 30, 2016

Food security scientists talk collections, interdisciplinary research

Fig.1. Faith Bartz moderates the environmental stressors and benefits panel on Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2016. Participants included Muni Muniappan, Virginia Tech; Stephanie Yarwood, University of Maryland; Edna Makule, Nelson Mandela Africa Institute for Science and Technology; Maxine Levin, USDA-NCRS; and John Dickie, Kew Gardens. (Credit: Tricia Fulks Kelley)

BELTSVILLE, Md. -- Some of the world’s top researchers in food security met at the USDA National Agricultural Library from Sept. 19 to 21 to discuss scientific collections’ role in the research area.

Scientific Collections International, or SciColl, a global consortium devoted to promoting the use and impact of object-based scientific collections across disciplines, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture hosted the three-day event. The symposium allowed researchers from across disciplines to talk about the ever-increasing demand on food and how collections-based research can help in the challenges of feeding billions.
“Earth's population is expected to reach 10 billion this century, far outstripping our food supply. At the same time, climate change, lack of fresh water, changing land use, and refugee crises will continue to limit food production,” said David Schindel, chair of the SciColl Executive Board. “We need to find ways to increase the productivity of our current food sources and find new sources of nutritious food that will counter these challenges...There's an extraordinary diversity of collections from different disciplines but their value is being overlooked.”

The workshop engaged more than 40 participants spanning research focuses and governmental agencies, including the FDA and USDA; botanical gardens and research institutions around the globe; and universities worldwide, including University of Maryland, Ohio State University and the University of Glasgow.

Symposium speakers highlighted many ways in which scientific collections are underused sources of unique and valuable resources for research:
  • Modern agriculture relies on a small number of plant species that are increasingly vulnerable to pests, diseases and climate change. Herbaria and botanical gardens have closely related varieties and species that could be the source of new crops resistant to these stressors;
  • Archaeological collections often contain preserved seeds, plant remains and other evidence of ancient crops. These abandoned food sources are lurking in wild populations and could represent significant and reliable nutrition resources.
  • Agricultural pests can destroy up to one-third of crop productivity before they are harvested and another one-third during storage and transportation to market. “Biological control” uses the natural enemies of these pests to eradicate them without endangering other crop species and the wild environment. Natural history museums and other collections have the best representation of potential control agents that could be used to control crop pests.
Marcia Maues, entomologist and pollination ecologist from Embrapa in Brazil, was one of the international participants. Her work allows her to work closely with pollinators and think of various aspects of food security.

Fig.2. Marcia Maues talks biological stressors in food security
research. (Credit: Tricia Fulks Kelley)
“When we talk about food security, we have to think about three important topics: food availability, food access and food utilization to support a well-nourished world population, with a long, healthy and active life,” Maues said. “Today, global agriculture is responsible to provide food for a hungry world… but a big challenge is to rely on sustainable agriculture, avoiding habitat loss by the clearance of new areas for crop production, reinforcing responsible use of agrochemicals, maintaining global supply chain, decreasing food losses and waste and mitigating hunger and malnutrition.”

“...An interdisciplinary approach is essential,” said Patricia Mergen, who traveled from the Botanic Garden Meise in Belgium to participate. “Different actors need to collaborate from the agricultural, economic, ecology, environmental sciences and institutions keeping scientific collections, such as natural history museums and botanical gardens...Bringing these different actors together for a short but intense face to face meeting is very efficient. Experts from different fields could present their activities and participate to stimulating panel discussions. This was very important to come up with novel approaches, ideas for further synergies and joint activities.”

During the event, attendees focused on food varieties and environmental and biological stressors and benefactors. During the last day of the meeting, breakout sessions focused on what role collections will play in this research arena.

“Participants in the symposium identified specific action items for food security researchers and research initiatives, scientific collections of plants, animals and microbes, and organizations in the public and private sectors that support food security initiatives,” Schindel said. “These action items would make collections more useful and accessible to researchers and would enable rapid progress on some of the greatest challenges to food security.”

Fig.3. Ann Marie Thro, of USDA, records recommendations for the use
of collections for food security research. (Credit: Tricia Fulks Kelley)
Schindel said findings from the symposium will immediately be presented and discussed at other upcoming professional conferences, and a white paper detailing action items will release in early 2017.

“I hope we will have the chance to continue the discussions and produce the document with the recommendations soon,” Maues said.

For more information about SciColl, visit

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