Student Blog

By Claire Agius, Epigenetics, Department of Plant Sciences, University of Cambridge

Many modern consumers would struggle to recognise the wild relatives of today’s staple crops. Striking differences are the result of thousands of years of crop domestication.
The first agriculturalists influenced crop development by selecting the tastiest, largest and most fruitful varieties then available. Modern landholders together with crop scientists continue this tradition, seeking out those same traits as well as a greater tolerance of environmental stresses such as drought and salinity, and greater resistance to plant diseases.
Our increased understanding of the molecular basis of crop traits facilitates a sophisticated approach to crop breeding. Ongoing research is uncovering the complex web of interactions that leads to desirable traits. If the presence of a particular gene – strings of DNA, which code for a protein – results in a desired trait, plants with that gene can be selected and preferentially grown.
Yet selective breeding over thousands of years has come at a cost – agricultural improvement has been characterised by a loss of diversity. Where once there might have been thousands of varieties of a single crop, now there may only be hundreds. At the molecular level, this means that there is less diversity of genes available for crop breeders as they look to develop new varieties that are able to cope with the demands of a changing climate and a growing global population. Efforts are underway to preserve the remaining diversity through such routes as establishing seed banks.
The gene pool is not the only potential source of diversity. Studies of large natural populations of plants have shown that there is considerable epigenetic variation between plants of the same species. From the Greek ‘epi’ meaning ‘above’ or ‘in addition’, epigenetics describes changes to DNA that do not affect the underlying four letter code of DNA. Some describe epigenetics as the punctuation marks of genetic material – epigenetic marks tell a plant how to read genes, influencing whether or not a plant expresses a certain trait from an ‘active’ gene or does not express the trait because the gene has been ‘turned off’, or silenced. 
As more is understood about the circumstances in which a gene is activated or silenced, and whether this can be done on a stable and heritable basis, crop scientists will come to understand the potential of epigenetics to be incorporated into crop breeding programmes, whether through conventional breeding approaches or through more directed modifications.
There is room to explore to what extent the loss of diversity is the result of smallholder choices, consumer demands, or corporate interests in seed stock and, more generally, in the food chain. What is clear, however, is that the critical importance of biodiversity is not just limited to natural environments but also extends to cultivated landscapes. Combining efforts to safeguard existing genetic diversity while exploring the potential to capitalise on natural epigenetic diversity will maximise the potential for improved crop productivity.
Photo credit: John Doebley, via Wikimedia Commons

By Jade Phillips, University of Birmingham


I am standing on a golden sandy beach on the south coast of Cyprus.  There are a few cars on the shore, locals relaxing in the spring sunshine and the now all too commonplace plastic bottle stuck in the sand.  The sea is perfectly flat and that tropical blue colour you get in shallow, clear water.  There are a few miniature sand dunes, more like oversized mole hills, as you look inland from the sea, dotted with hardy shrub species.  As much as the sky beckons me to begin cloud gazing and the sun tempts me into the water I am not here to soak up the sun’s rays.  My colleagues and I are here to search for wheat.  Wild wheat.  Well, Aegilops bicornis (Forssk.) Jaub. & Spach, which is not actually wheat at all, at least not the sort we have in our bread.  It is a wild relative- a species that has an indirect use derived from its relatively close genetic relationship to a crop (Maxted et al., 2006).  

Aegilops  bicornis is a secondary relative of the cultivated wheat (Triticum aestivum L.) (Vincent et al., 2013) we see in our fields.  This means that the wild species can be easily crossed with the cultivated wheat to create hybrids that contain the desired traits from both individuals.  This population is particularly important due to its beach side location meaning that the population is adapted to very dry, salty conditions.  The kinds of conditions that are becoming more and more common in our farmer’s fields as agriculture intensifies, water resources are strained and the climate changes.  

Looking eastward from Cyprus you reach the coasts of Lebanon and Syria, two countries with a broad diversity of crop wild relatives.  This region, along with Turkey, Israel, Jordan, Iraq and Iran is where western agriculture is said to have originated about 10,000 years ago and is known as the Fertile Crescent (see  Zohary & Hopf (2000) for further information on origin of agriculture).  Here we can find a broad diversity of wild progenitors of modern agricultural species including wild wheat, wild barley, wild oat, wild forage species (for our cattle) and wild fruit such as fig and pomegranate.  For other major cultivated species, the origins tend to be found in different hotspots or Vavilov centres of diversity (Figure 1).  These eight centres are the areas where our cultivated plants are said to have originated.  This includes the previously mentioned Fertile Crescent as well as centres from South America (potato, tomato) to India (rice, chickpea, orange).  The Fertile Crescent is also a primary centre of diversity for Aegilops (Harlan, 1992 and van Slageren, 1994).

This stretch of beach in Cyprus is one of only six localities (Tsintides et al., 2007) on the island where this species of Aegilops can be found.  One of the others is a small population located between two hotel complexes.  The populations are declining and the species has been red listed as vulnerable (B1ab(iii,v)+2ab(iii,v)) in Cyprus (Tsintides et al., 2007). It is threatened from habitat loss due to increasing development to meet the need of tourists as well as threats from invasive species (Tsintides et al., 2007) and climate change.  The populations mentioned are not actively protected.  We can collect seeds and freeze them but we also need to protect the longevity of the populations and their habitat by way of in situ, protected area, conservation.  These complementary actions are the only effective means of ensuring our future food security against an increasing array of often unpredictable natural and manmade disturbances.

Although I have only mentioned one species, this situation is seen throughout the world.  Efforts are already underway to prioritise and locate these important populations and countries and regions are beginning to create strategies to help protect such taxa (for example see: Cyprus (Phillips et al., 2013); Finland (Fitzgerald, 2013); Norway (Phillips et al., in prep); Spain (Rubio Teso et al., 2012); UK (Fielder et al., 2015, in prep); USA (Khoury et al., 2013)).  We should not leave it to chance to decide if the beach population of Aegilops will still be there in 10 years time.  We must continue to educate people on the importance of such crop wild relatives so we can easily find these species, prioritise them and protect them, if we want to meet the challenges of our future food security.  


Fitzgerald, H. 2013. The National Crop Wild Relative Strategy Report for Finland. MTT Report 121.MTT, Jokioinen  Accessed 09 April 2015


Harlan, J.R. 1971.  Agricultural Origins: Centers and Noncenters. Science. Vol 174, pg 468-474.


Harlan, J.R. 1992. Crops and Man. American Society of Agronomy, Inc and Crop Science Society of America, Inc. Madison, Wisconsin, p284.


Khoury, C. K., Greene, S., Wiersema, J., Maxted, N., Jarvis, A., & Struik, P. C. (2013). An inventory of crop wild relatives of the United States. Crop Science53(4), 1496-1508


Maxted, N., Ford-Lloyd, B.F., Jury, S.L., Kell, S.P., Scholten, M.A. 2006. Towards a definition of a crop wild relative. Biodiversity Conservation, 15, 2673-2685.


Phillips, J., Kyratzis, A., Christoudoulou, C., Kell, S., Maxted, N. 2014.  Development of a national crop wild relative conservation strategy for Cyprus. Genetic Resources and Crop Evolution. 62(4). 817-827


Rubio Teso ML, Torres ME, Parra-Quijano M, Iriondo JM (2012) Prioritization of crop wild relatives in Spain. 8th edn. Accessed 09 April 2015


Tsintides T, Christodoulou CS, Delipetrou P, Georgiou K (eds) (2007) The red data book of the flora of Cyprus. Cyprus Forestry Association, Lefkosia.


van Slageren, M.W. 1994. Wild wheats: a monograph of Aegilops L. and Amblyopyrum (Jaub. & Spach) Eig. (Poaceae). ICARDS/Wageningen Agricultural University Papers 94(7). I:xiv, 1-512


Vincent, H., Wiersema, J., Kell, S., Fielder, H., Dobbie, S., Castañeda-Álvarez, M.P., Guarino, L., Eastwood, R., León, B., Maxted, N. 2012. A prioritized crop wild relative inventory to help underpin global food security. Biological Conservation, 167: 265-275.


Zohary, D. & Hopf, M. 2000. Domestication of Plants in the Old Worlds. 3rd edn. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

By Thomas White, University of Cambridge


Alashan, in western Inner Mongolia, is on the frontline of Chinas battle against desertification. In recent years this remote, sparsely populated region has entered national consciousness as the source of the sandstorms that have menaced Beijing and northern China with increasing frequency. As in other parts of Inner Mongolia, the government has linked this environmental crisis to overgrazing, and strict stocking limits have recently been introduced. Local herders, most of who are ethnic Mongolians, can no longer rely on the cashmere goat which brought them a degree of wealth in the 1990s. The Bactrian camel, however, is exempt from the strict stocking limits, in an effort to ensure its survival. Its numbers had declined rapidly after decollectivisation in the early 1980s, superseded in its function as a beast of burden by motorbikes and cars. Its coarse hair brought in far less money than cashmere.


The camels significance has been bolstered in recent years by the local governments efforts to produce a distinct Alashan brand, to encourage tourism and outside investment. In 2012 Alashan was officially declared Chinas Hometown of Camels(luotuo zhi xiang). The local government has sponsored camel culture, including camel races, in which local herders are enthusiastic participants. It has also sought to find novel ways of commodifying the camel, and it is in this context that camels have begun to be marketed as a source of food. In the past, camel meat that found its way onto the market was sold cheaply as beef. In the last few years, however, camel meat has no longer needed this disguise, and now fetches a higher price than beef. This reflects Alashans incorporation into broader Chinese consumption habits. Tourists in China often seek out unusual local delicacies: camel meat in Alashan has thus been marketed as a local specialty(techan). In addition, numerous food safety scandals in recent years have led to an increasing concern among Chinese consumers with the provenance of their food, and a growing appetite for foods marketed as greenor organic. Alashan camel meat gained organic certification at the end of 2014. Through the fears and desires of these consumers, remote pastoral regions such as Alashan are transfigured from zones of environmental crisis into pollution-free rural idylls where the safety of food is ensured by the free-range grazing habits of livestock.


Local Mongolians, however, are deeply ambivalent about the consumption of camel meat. Among many herders, camels are regarded as a store of buyan -merit-fortune- whose dispersal herders seek to avoid. Much of Mongolian religion is orientated towards the ritual production of buyan; camels are thus tied in to a broader ethico-religious sphere of value. The affective quality of the relationship between herder and camel is also very important: herders say that they keep camels because they love them. Many camel herders are thus reluctant to slaughter their animals, and avoid eating camel meat. Among some urban Mongolians, abstaining from camel meat serves as an ethnic marker, distinguishing them from Han Chinese. At the same time, Mongolians point with some pride to the organic status of camel meat, and make reference to scientific research on its health benefits. At a time of rapid urbanisation, even those herders who abstain from camel meat see its organic status as demonstrating that the pastoralist way of life exists in harmony with nature, thereby countering the figuring of pastoralism as destructive of the environment. The question of camel meat in Alashan, then, offers us a way to explore the morally charged entanglement of culture, food and the environment in contemporary China.

By Chris Kaplonski, University of Cambridge, Anthropology
‘This can’t be healthy!’ ‘I don’t want to drink this!’  Thus the consumers.
‘I wanted to make healthy wine.’ Thus the winemaker.
We are all familiar with the story of the environmental campaigners standing up to the evil MegaCorp and their nefarious effect on the food supply. While I have no wish to detract from such movements, here I want to tell another story – the nefarious consumers and their invidious effects on the growth of sustainable wine-making. 
Austria proclaims itself Europe’s greenest wine-making industry, with 90% of vineyards under some form of sustainable cultivation – whether integrated pest management and intercropping, the more stringent organic rules, or even biodynamic farming. Some go even a step further, to what is called ‘natural’ wine which eschews most technological fixes available to winemakers, as well as farming organically or biodynamically. Yet the maker of the un/healthy wines, a producer of natural wines, exports about 90 percent of his wines, including to the world-famous restaurant NOMA in Copenhagen, since people in Austria won’t drink it. 
I would be, if not the first, then the second or third to admit that sustainable wine-making practices (including viticulture) are not on par with issues of food security of basic staples. Yet there are compelling reasons to pay attention to this niche product. On the one hand, if certain wine-making practices were to wither away, the world would (probably) not end. On the other hand, it is in certain wine-making practices, particularly the group known as ‘natural wine,’ that challenges to the standard stories of food and sustainability become evident. 
There may need to be a recalibration of tastes and expectations in terms of most sustainable foods, but it is a minor one. People may argue that an organic tomato tastes better than an industrially farmed one, but few would suggest it tastes completely different. Not so for wine. Sustainable wine does taste different, and at times radically so, from conventionally produced wine. Many biodynamic wines are held to be more ‘interesting’ to drink and have more complex aromas and tastes. That is not necessarily a large adjustment, unless you prefer plonk. Other wines, such as natural wines, are very different. Witness the opening quotes, and the image that accompanies this post. To drink the most sustainable forms of wine, more basic expectations may have to change. To date, most consumers seem unwilling to do this. 
For many winemakers in Austria and elsewhere, natural wine, and sustainable wines more generally, reflect a commitment to an ethos. This comes at a cost. Because natural wine deviates too far from what a ‘good wine’ should taste like, at least according to the bureaucrats and wine snobs, in Austria it can only be labelled ‘landwein’, a ‘lower’ category. (Similar limitations apply elsewhere.) This can affect sales if people are simply judging a book by its cover, or a wine by its label. The sacrifices for the cause don’t stop there. In Austria, some winemakers reject official sustainability (among other) certifications, even if it means losing subsidies, for any number of reasons.
Winemakers have already demonstrated a willingness to follow their beliefs, even at a tangible, if potential, economic cost. The big question is: will the consumers follow?

By Alexandra Löwe, University of Oxford
Malawi faces a set of unique challenges in its quest to ensure the food security of its smallholder farmers as a result of its dependence on a single drought-intolerant crop. Malawians consume more maize per capita than any other nation in the world, equivalent to two-thirds of daily calorie intake. This maize is produced domestically, almost exclusively by smallholder farmers, who struggle to meet their own consumption needs on dwindling land holdings of decreasing soil fertility. During the 1980s, the decline in maize production per capita was further aggravated by structural adjustment programs and the concomitant agricultural policies that saw the reduction and subsequent eradication of fertilizer subsidies, the dismantling of state marketing structures and the reduction of national food reserves. By the late 2000s, Malawi’s food system was in constant crisis and President Bingu wa Mutharika was widely praised for his decision to resist donor advice, and to reintroduce a large-scale fertilizer subsidy in order to increase domestic maize production. Initially, this Farm Input Subsidy Program (FISP) aimed to subsidize fertilizer for the 70% of smallholder farmers who were not able to produce marketable maize surpluses or even meet their household consumption needs. 
However, over the FISP’s lifetime, the policy has become one that is better suited to the ideological and technocratic approach of the international community, than the realities of smallholder maize farming. This is partly a result of Malawi’s economic difficulties, and partially due to the influence of the donor community. The resultant fertilizer subsidy is one that is limited in its overall size, forcing the Government of Malawi into a situation where it cannot respond to smallholder farmers’ demands for a universal subsidy, but instead has to target subsidized inputs at the “poorest” 40% of households. Unfortunately, this targeted subsidy does not correspond to social and economic realities or risks of maize production in Malawi, particularly mutual relationships of obligation between rural households. 
As a result of this targeting, rural communities in my field sites in Ntcheu now subvert the intentions of the FISP by sharing the inputs received through the program equally among all households, regardless of poverty levels. This has undermined the ability of the Farm Input Subsidy Program to transform maize production systems, to end Malawi’s “nitrogen drought” and to ensure food security at both the national and household levels. Instead, the FISP serves merely as a safety-net policy that does little more than increase household consumption levels for a small number of households. But it fails to increase production to move these households into the category of surplus producers, who may then subsequently be able to produce maize for commercial markets without the need for assistance in the form of subsidies. 
Since the introduction of structural adjustment programs, Malawi has based its food security policies on simplistic assessments of production systems, marketing structures, and other misplaced notions of what is needed to transform the agricultural sector. Frequently external actors, particularly the donor community, have imposed these policies. However, if food security is to be achieved, an approach that takes the realities of maize production in Malawi into account fully is needed. Such a strategy would require, first and foremost, reaching agreement on the importance of national food sovereignty, reaching explicit agreement between donors and the government on the aims of food security policies such as fertilizer subsidies, and a better understanding of how maize is produced within local contexts, including the social, economic and political structures that affect maize production systems. 

By Marika Mura, University of Warwick

Assan Mohamedi is a Tanzanian farmer. He lives in a small remote village 80km away from the city of Dar es Salaam, with his wife and 6 children, his mother, and the child of his dead brother. He has been a farmer for all his life, striving to bring enough food home and trying to give his children a ‘better future’, out of agriculture, through education. It has not been easy for Assan. The rain is getting more unreliable with the years, and the harvests that follow are scarce. His household is forced to find another source of income and to purchase food to survive. Assan, his wife, and two of his younger children cut charcoal and fetch water for other people, while his two older children left school looking for employment in the cities. Like the majority of the farmers’ households in this village, Assan’s family only consumes two meals per day and his household’s situation is common to other neighbouring households. They also share a common diffidence towards politics, convinced that nothing can improve their condition anymore. Farmers trapped in poverty. Farmers trapped in hunger.

What could agriculture offer them? How can they improve their life through farming? Why has agriculture become a synonym of poverty for this community of farmers? And how can politics foster a renewed agricultural sector and make these communities believe in agriculture?


Small-scale farmers produce the majority of the food worldwide, but they are not able to feed themselves; those at the bottom of the food chain are those most prone to food insecurity. Despite there being several movements of farmers that respond to food insecurity by claiming back the land from agricultural corporations, and calling for more control over their land, there are also communities of farmers such as the one where Assan lives. They would be willing to abandon their land and run to the cities searching for a job outside of agriculture. Both these realities need to be understood if effective solutions to food insecurity are to be provided. 

By: Chris Lander, DPhil Candidate in Geography and the Environment

Mr. Lander's research will be presented at the third annual Oxford Food Security Forum, taking place Sunday May 4, 2014 at St Antony's College.

With the effects of Global Environmental Change (GEC), the approach of ‘peak water’, and a world population that is increasing at a dramatic rate, the question of how the world is going to feed itself is dominant in the literature of those who are concerned with issues surrounding food security, and food sovereignty. Important to us as researchers, is where this food will come from, and we believe that major developments will continue to occur in the post-Soviet space, specifically Russia.

According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) statistics, Russia’s arable land total in 2011 stood at a vast 121.5 million ha, with only 37 million ha of cereals, 1.7 million ha of pulses, and 800 thousand ha of vegetables being harvested in 2012. Add to this that Russia is today listed 92nd in the Ease of Doing Business global rankings as calculated by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank (WB), and only 127th by Transparency International in the Corruption Perception Index, then it is evident that the agricultural possibilities, expansion potential, and development of agricultural business in this region are together significant, of academic interest, and critical.

Historically underdeveloped, and with enduring difficulties, Russia’s agricultural sector has gained the focus of a number of foreign investors, who have moved in to the market with varying levels of success. The types of investors themselves vary – from small individual farmers, to investment funds, to large agricultural enterprises – and our paper to be presented at the Oxford Annual Food Security Conference focuses on Cargill: the ‘C’ of the world’s leading grain trading corporations, collectively known as the ABCDs. In discourses concerning food security and food sovereignty, much focus has been given to the role of multinational agro-food corporations (MNCs) in the development of global agriculture, the negative effects that they are having both socially, and environmentally, and the effect that their power exerts on geopolitical and governance issues surrounding agriculture.

Interestingly, research concerning Cargill – especially Cargill in Russia – is limited, and the paper attempts to question Cargill on some of the concerns and accusations that are present in the literature surrounding their operations. The paper aims to reserve judgement, and is an initial exploration, aimed at encouraging other researchers to access these largely (perceived) ‘impenetrable’ organisations, and look to analyse the alternative perspective amongst their rhetoric.

A link to the working paper version can be found here.

Narratives of food insecurity tend to pass over unconventional foods as invisible to local sustenance. Perhaps it's the gross-factor to Western perspective, but we're ignoring an important component to what could be a more localized approach to sustainable food systems. See how one documentary series from the World Food Programme normalizes various food sources.




Photos of Student Fieldwork