Careers in Food Security Span Several Disciplines

On the list of pressing global issues, food security is surely at the top. “By 2030, the world’s population will be 8.3 billion people and we must produce 50% more food than we do now to feed them,” warns John Beddington, the U.K. government’s chief scientific adviser, in an interview with Science Careers. “In addition to that, we must increase the availability of water by 30%. We also lose 30% of crops through pests and diseases yet cannot resort to pesticides because of the impact they have upon the environment. It’s the perfect storm.”

“A food security career is a combination of cutting-edge science and social opportunities to work in other countries — and all for the good of humanity, too.” –Denis Murphy, University of Glamorgan, Pontypridd

All these problems need scientific solutions — and that means opportunities for scientists. “It’s a great time for any scientist to come into food security. It’s a long-term science, but now is the time to get on the ground,” says Denis Murphy, head of the biotechnology unit and biological research at the University of Glamorgan, Pontypridd, in south Wales.

Science Careers spoke to several scientists who are working on research questions such as weed suppression, pollinator declines, and drought tolerance in an effort to feed the planet’s population.

Helping communities survive

This week’sfeatures a series of articles on food security, including an Editorial, Review articles, a series of Perspectives, a Policy Forum, and a special news package. See the complete . We’re offering the career perspective with the current article, as well as “,” a profile of David Kalule Okello, one of Uganda’s most promising weapons in the battle against hunger.

Mary Hamilton is based in the United Kingdom, yet she is working out how to protect crops in Africa from a weed called Striga. “It’s also known as witchweed because of the way it infects the host plant,” explains Hamilton, 30, a postdoctoral research associate with Rothamsted Research, the United Kingdom’s largest agricultural research institution. “It threatens the crops of over 100 million people in Africa, causing annual losses of $7-13 billion a year. It’s even caused whole communities to move because once Striga is present in the soil, they cannot grow enough food.”

Hamilton is working with a species of plant that produces natural products in its roots that kill Striga seedlings. She is identifying the enzymes in these natural products to find the genes responsible so that they can be introduced into other plants.

The work brings together several of her scientific interests. After getting a biochemistry degree at Cardiff University, she studied photosynthesis for her Ph.D. at Imperial College London. She then worked as a science ambassador on the Innovative Scheme for Postgraduates in Research and Education (INSPIRE) project, also at Imperial College, from 2005 to 2007. The scheme allows researchers to teach science in secondary schools in an effort to increase the number of young people entering science. “I conducted my own research for 6 months and taught students for the remaining time. I enjoyed the communication side very much,” she says.

However, after the teaching stint, Hamilton was “keen to get back to the bench.” She started postdoctoral research at Imperial studying a protein complex in the light-dependent reactions of plants by creating stable mutations in the DNA of bacteria that get energy from photosynthesis. The goal was to improve artificial photosynthesis, which can aid food production.

Upon moving to Rothamsted Research, Hamilton embarked on a project with ICIPE, a Kenyan research center partnered with Rothamsted that aims to improve food security for people in the tropics. “This year, I’m planning to go to Kenya to visit the field trials where the plant that kills Striga is grown with maize and meet the farmers who implement this technique,” she says. “It’s an excellent chance to provide a solution. The science is exciting, but there is also potential for this project to make a difference to people’s lives.”

Making a contribution

Plant physiologist Ian Dodd studies how drought-tolerant plants work, information that’s useful for developing sustainable crops in hot countries. But he didn’t intend to end up working in food security. “I started in plant science and learned about food security through that,” he explains.

After completing a degree in botany at the University of Queensland in Australia, his homeland, Dodd moved to England to do a D.Phil. in plant physiology at Lancaster University. “Initially, I looked at the effect of air pollutants on crops, but when I came to the U.K., work was being done on drought at Lancaster,” says Dodd, 39. Drought is a familiar problem in his native Australia. “Water scarcity has been an issue in Australia for 20 years, but it is now an issue for the globe.”

These days, the research and projects Dodd works on all relate to water efficiency. As a research fellow at Lancaster University, he studies the chemical signals plant roots send to leaf pores. These signals determine how the plant regulates water use and growth, which affect crop yields. Dodd’s work has applications in saving water for irrigation managers and could lead to a reduction in the water requirements of crops such as wheat and potatoes.

He has also embarked upon projects funded by the European Union and the U.K. Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs that include studying drought-tolerant food crops, water efficiency, and drought tolerance in the United Kingdom’s wheat production and the sustainable use of irrigation water in the Mediterranean basin.

For one of his projects, he does controlled studies for colleagues who work with farmers who grow vegetables. “They report the effects of drought upon crops, and I tackle these in the lab,” Dodd says. “We then adapt their irrigation as a result, it means my research can be applied.”

For an upcoming study, Dodd will work with scientists in Lebanon to plant 2000 seed potatoes, observing how the plants grow and develop when subjected to different irrigation regimes.

“Water efficiency is a common thread of my work,” Dodd says. “How can we improve it through the use of plants? It will have a real impact upon food security, which has put plant scientists right back in the spotlight.”

A learning experience

Jacobus C. Biesmeijer did a master’s degree in tropical botany at Utrecht University in the Netherlands — but then a new living system caught his attention: “The tropical bee department of my university needed someone with plant knowledge to help their research,” Biesmeijer says. “I became fascinated with bees because they don’t have the knowledge that humans do, yet they are better at organizing themselves.”

So Biesmeijer did his Ph.D. project on the ecology of tropical bees. That was followed by a postdoc on bee behavior and ecology at Utrecht in 1999, then another postdoc at Cornell University in 2002. He was also a visiting research fellow at the University of São Paulo in Brazil, visiting in 1998 to study pollinator ecology, which included different species of bees and hoverflies, and again in 2003 to study wild bee ecology. (See photo at top)

Bees play an essential role in food security: Many crops, trees, and plants rely on bees for pollination. But in some areas, pollinator populations have been displaced by other insects or the use of pesticides. This can have a dramatic impact on crops by reducing their yields and can endanger some species of plant altogether. “Many food security problems revolve around maintaining pollinator diversity to provide services to crops or wild plants and designing landscapes to provide living conditions for pollinators,” Biesmeijer says.

Biesmeijer had a chance to apply this expertise when he took up a position at the University of Leeds working in the E.U.-funded ALARM project (Assessing LArge scale Risks for biodiversity with tested Methods). There, he studied pollinator interactions and declines throughout Europe and how these declines affect factors such as biodiversity and crop yields. “It had applications towards beekeeping, honey production, and bee management for crop pollination,” he says.

Now an academic research fellow at the Research Institute of Integrative and Comparative Biology at the University of Leeds, Biesmeijer says he likes “the interdisciplinary approach to food security issues because I enjoy how different disciplines tackle the same problem. I work on complex issues such as how lab work can be translated so that it is of direct use to the farmer.”

Biesmeijer is also on the management committee of Africa College, an international partnership between academia and nonprofit organizations for a project formally called Human Health and Food Security in Sub-Saharan Africa. “I have worked in Kenya, Brazil, and India, and while they learn from you, you also learn from them. The impact of your work is there for all to see. I don’t have the ability to make drinking water safe or improve corn production, but I can teach people about science, and science is the way out of their problems.

“It’s about combining my knowledge with social, medical, ecological, and environmental sciences, because if we can’t solve the food security problem alone, we can solve it together. That’s the way forward. It’s an exciting place to be and an exciting way to work.”

Working in food security

The demand for scientists with expertise in the agriculture/food sector is likely to increase in the next decade, says Celia Caulcott, director of innovation and skills at the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council. “There are also skills shortages in areas of expertise such as plant and crop breeding, plant physiology and pest management, large animal physiology and health, soil science, and horticulture,” she says.

So opportunities to work in food security are available and likely to increase. Yet the route into such a career starts at a much earlier stage. “You have to ask yourself how you can get into food security,” U.K. science adviser Beddington notes. “There are lots of disciplines relating to food security, and that makes it an attractive career. Yet you have to understand the science as well as how your work is applicable to food producers in tackling a lack of water or their fight against pests.”

Finally, food science means being part of a collaborative effort. The answer to the problem is not the preserve of one discipline or scientist but will be found where several disciplines work together to tackle the biological, ecological, environmental, geographical, agricultural, and even sociological, economic, and financial barriers to feeding the world.

“A multidisciplinary approach is needed to tackle the problem,” says Murphy of the University of Glamorgan. “A food security career is a combination of cutting-edge science and social opportunities to work in other countries — and all for the good of humanity, too. That’s a rare combination in any discipline, and to see the results of your work in front of your eyes makes food security a rewarding career choice.”

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