Boost for addressing challenges in global agriculture and food systems sustainability

17 July 2017

To address key global development challenges in securing future food supplies, the Biotechnology & Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) is leading a collaboration with the Medical Research Council (MRC), Economic & Social Research Council (ESRC), Arts & Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and NERC to invest over £16 million through the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) Foundation Awards for global agriculture and food systems research.

Crops growing in a field

Dr Amanda Collis, BBSRC Executive Director of Science, said:

This investment will address a number of different threats to the sustainable production of safe and nutritious food, ranging from tackling pests and disease, examining human behaviours, and improving food safety and nutrition, through to the sustainability of agricultural soils and the wider cultural and social context of food and farming. The complexity of the research requires collaborative effort from a range of disciplines, and this is an exemplar of research councils coming together to address broad international development research challenges.

35 individual projects were awarded to 27 lead organisations. The awards connect the UK's world-class research base with partners in low and/or middle income countries to address key sustainable development challenges including:

  • systems that deliver safe and nutritious food for all
  • food system resilience to climatic variability
  • reduce losses through the agri-food chain and reusing unavoidable food waste
  • agriculture within the context of the wider landscape.

Examples of investments include:

  • Wheat is a staple food in Ethiopia, the major wheat producer in Sub-Saharan Africa. Researchers are working to develop the wheat rust forecasting capability by combining modelling that can predict the spread of rust disease at field and landscape scales.
  • Expansion of poor quality and low productivity pasture livestock production in Central and South America is a major cause of deforestation. Researchers are working to understand the socio-economic and environmental consequences of alternative sustainable intensification pathways that will deliver both economic prosperity for the dairy industry and environmental benefits.
  • Maize is the most important cereal crop in southern Africa, but, without new management practices, already low yields are predicted to further decline. Researchers are working to demonstrate the potential for variation between maize genotypes to influence the rhizosphere microbiome for function.
  • Insects are already traditionally consumed in two-thirds of countries worldwide, with over 2,000 species being eaten around the globe. Yields of alate termites will be assessed for individual mounds then estimates of landscape yields will be made with acquired satellite and drone images to provide the first estimate of termites as natural capital at community and landscape levels.
  • Indonesia is the world's third largest cocoa producer, primarily in small family farms. The project will identify an efficient and scalable process for the fractionation of cocoa pod husks into soluble fibre, insoluble fibre and lignin for use in food systems (bakery, dairy, chocolate-based confectionary products) and biodegradable foam packaging materials.

More details of the GCRF call - external link can be found on the BBSRC website. Details of the awards are also available.

The investment is part of the wider suite of GCRF foundations activities, with five UK research councils pledging over £40 million to tackle global challenges focused on non-communicable disease, global infection, and agriculture and food systems.

Further information

Sylvie Kruiniger
External Communications Officer
01793 442593


1. GCRF supports cutting-edge research and innovation that addresses the global issues faced by developing countries. It harnesses the expertise of the UK's world-leading researchers, focusing on: funding challenge-led disciplinary and interdisciplinary research; strengthening capability for research, innovation and knowledge exchange; and providing an agile response to emergencies where there is an urgent research or on-the-ground need. It is a £1·5 billion fund which forms part of the UK government's Official Development Assistance (ODA) commitment and is overseen by the Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy , and delivered through 17 delivery partners including the research councils, the UK academies, the UK Space Agency and funding bodies.

2. NERC is the UK's main agency for funding and managing research, training and knowledge exchange in the environmental sciences. Our work covers the full range of atmospheric, Earth, biological, terrestrial and aquatic science, from the deep oceans to the upper atmosphere and from the poles to the equator. We coordinate some of the world's most exciting research projects, tackling major issues such as climate change, environmental influences on human health, the genetic make-up of life on Earth, and much more. NERC is a non-departmental public body. We receive around £330 million of annual funding from BEIS.

3. BBSRC invests in world-class bioscience research and training on behalf of the UK public. Their aim is to further scientific knowledge, to promote economic growth, wealth and job creation and to improve quality of life in the UK and beyond. Funded by government, BBSRC invested £473 million in world-class bioscience, people and research infrastructure in 2015-16. They support research and training in universities and strategically funded institutes. BBSRC research and the people they fund are helping society to meet major challenges, including food security, green energy and healthier, longer lives. Their investments underpin important UK economic sectors, such as farming, food, industrial biotechnology and pharmaceuticals.

4. The MRC is at the forefront of scientific discovery to improve human health. Founded in 1913 to tackle tuberculosis, the MRC now invests taxpayers' money in some of the best medical research in the world across every area of health. Thirty-one MRC-funded researchers have won Nobel prizes in a wide range of disciplines, and MRC scientists have been behind such diverse discoveries as vitamins, the structure of DNA and the link between smoking and cancer, as well as achievements such as pioneering the use of randomised controlled trials, the invention of MRI scanning, and the development of a group of antibodies used in the making of some of the most successful drugs ever developed. Today, MRC-funded scientists tackle some of the greatest health problems facing humanity in the 21st century, from the rising tide of chronic diseases associated with ageing to the threats posed by rapidly mutating micro-organisms.

5. ESRC is the UK's largest funder of research on the social and economic questions facing us today. It supports the development and training of the UK's future social scientists and also funds major studies that provide the infrastructure for research. ESRC-funded research informs policymakers and practitioners and helps make businesses, voluntary bodies and other organisations more effective. ESRC also works collaboratively with six other UK research councils and Innovate UK to fund cross-disciplinary research and innovation addressing major societal challenges. ESRC is an independent organisation, established by Royal Charter in 1965, and funded mainly by the government. In 2015 it celebrated its 50th anniversary.

6. AHRC funds world-class, independent researchers in a wide range of subjects: history, archaeology, digital content, philosophy, languages, design, heritage, area studies, the creative and performing arts, and much more. This financial year the AHRC will spend approximately £98 million to fund research and postgraduate training in collaboration with a number of partners. The quality and range of research supported by this investment of public funds not only provides social and cultural benefits and contributes to the economic success of the UK but also to the culture and welfare of societies around the globe.