A new research initiative led by Scotland’s James Hutton Institute is set to explore innovative mixed-species crop systems, or ‘plant teams’, in a drive to tackle a global challenge: how to feed a growing population from finite resources without wrecking our planet. The €5m DIVERSify project, short for ‘Designing InnoVative plant teams for Ecosystem Resilience and agricultural Sustainability’, aims to optimise the performance of cereals grown with legumes.
Previous research has shown crop species mixtures – or ‘plant teams’ – could be adopted more widely to improve yield stability between seasons and locations, reduce pest and disease damage and enhance climate stress resilience in agriculture. However, this requires crop scientists to devise novel cropping systems for farmers to increase resource-use efficiency and reduce nutrient loss to groundwater, provide new knowledge and tools for crop breeders to develop suitable varieties, and provide information for agronomists to optimise the management on-farm.
The DIVERSify consortium, which includes ORC, comprises 23 partner organisations, representing scientists, farmers, advisors, breeders and technology providers, from 14 countries in Europe and worldwide, ensuring the project has global relevance.
Professor Colin Campbell, Chief Executive of the James Hutton Institute, said: “We are very excited to be leading this prestigious project that could have a big impact on achieving high on-farm yields in sustainable, low input systems. This is a great opportunity to use our leading scientific expertise to make a positive and practical contribution to the sustainability of our food production systems.”
Dr Alison Karley, research leader at the James Hutton Institute’s Ecological Sciences group and project coordinator, said the project will work with stakeholders in farming systems in Europe, Africa and the Middle East to identify existing knowledge, innovations and best practices for plant teams. “DIVERSify will devise and test a novel ecological approach to identify plant traits as targets for breeding for improved performance in plant teams, and provide scientific evidence for the mechanisms that optimise plant team performance across a range of environments and climatic conditions. Optimised plant teams will be trialled through participatory on-farm trials with our innovative farmers to validate and demonstrate plant teams across Europe.”
ORC will work with stakeholders, through a series of meetings (to be announced soon) to identify tacit knowledge, bottom-up innovations and strategies for best practice, and develop knowledge exchange to promote the adoption of successful plant teams.
The project will also develop a suite of tools to aid adoption of plant teams. These include a novel modelling tool for design of innovative plant teams, and agronomic specifications for plant teams, including farm machinery adaptations. A web-based and mobile-phone friendly decision aid will be produced for practitioners to select suitable plant teams in different regions and farm types. A comprehensive programme of activities for project communication and knowledge exchange with the farming and breeding sectors, science and the public will promote the adoption of successful plant teams into the future.
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