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£2.8million study to combat global food poverty

A major new £2.8 million study at the University of Leeds will bring together researchers from medicine, plant science, ecology, social policy and the environment to focus on preventing future food crises in Sub-Saharan Africa.

The Human Health and Food Security Research Programme, funded with the University’s own money and resources, will examine how food production can be improved to ensure growers obtain the maximum nutritional value from their crops, as well as minimising damage to existing ecosystems. Partnerships with African universities and institutes are being developed to enable researchers to enhance research capacity in Sub-Saharan Africa.

The UN estimates that the current global food crisis has plunged an extra 100 million people into poverty across the globe. Drought and unpredictable weather patterns are having a major impact on the global harvest. In turn, lack of natural resources often leads African farmers to use their land in unsustainable ways, overusing it until crop yields decline severely.

The Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) estimates that 33 per cent of all Sub-Saharan Africans are undernourished.

Project leader Professor Howard Atkinson says, “Researchers from the School of Medicine will ensure that the programme has a strong emphasis on ensuring a nutritious diet free of fungal toxins and parasites to add to efforts of plant scientists on improving the yield of African staple crops.”

Many of the crops that survive well under stressful climatic conditions are not the ones that provide the healthiest diet: for example cassava survives well in dry conditions but is not particularly nutritious.

The Human Health and Food Security Research Programme is one of four projects being paid for via the University’s pioneering Transformation Fund which is supporting research into major global issues of our time. The fund is unique in that it comes from the University rather than corporate or government sponsors.

Professor Tim Benton, Pro-Dean for Research in the Faculty of Biological Sciences says, “If we consider all the problems facing the future of food production, from a growing world population, through to climate change and increased use of land for the production of bio-fuels, then by the middle of this century we will need far more agricultural land than we currently use. Even if we cut down all the rainforests, there is only enough available land to about double the global agricultural footprint - and that may not be enough. This is set against a background of an intrinsic danger of trying to increase food production too fast and therefore destroying the future fertility of land used in food production. The research project is about trying to find a way of increasing output sufficient for a healthy diet without destroying ecosystems.”

“Most current agricultural research looks at Western needs rather than the needs of the developing world, which is another reason why this programme is exceptional,” he adds.

This is especially important in areas where the land is becoming more arid, as in Africa. Over-grazing can lead to loss of vegetation, which in turn means the soil fails to hold together and can be blown away. Recovery time where soil is lost in this way can be up to hundreds of thousands of years.

Jo Kelly | alfa
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