Congratulations to Sebastian Eves van den Akker, one of this year's David Miller Travel Bursary winners. He has been awarded a BBSRC Anniversary Future Leader Fellowship to work with Professor Paul Birch of the James Hutton Institute and Dr Mark Banfield of the John Innes Centre on host-pathogen interactions. These BBSRC awards, worth up to £300K, are to support the transition of early stage researchers to fully independent research leaders.
Sebastian used his David Miller Award to present his work at the International Congress on Molecular Plant-Microbe Interactions in Rhodes, Greece, in July and received his award from Tony Girard at the Group's Annual General Meeting in September (pictured left).
This month saw the Annual General Meeting of the UK Plant Science Federation. A special interest group of the Society of Biology, the Federation has been working hard this last two years establishing itself and significantly raising the profile of Plant Science. A fuller report will appear in the January Newsletter.
The Institute of Food Science and Technology is currently celebrating the Jubilee of its founding in 1964. As part of their celebrations they invited Mark Price, Managing Director of Waitrose to give their annual lecture. A summary of his excellent presentation appears below.
We also joined the Professional Horticulture Group South West for their pre-Christmas lunch at Wiltshire College, Lackham. This year the traditional talk was given by Trevor Gibson on the gardens of Argyll. His talk turned out to be as much a tribute to the great victorian plant hunters like Frank Kingdom-Ward, George Forrest and Thomas Lobb who were reponsible for collecting many of the plants found in these Scottish gardens as well as gardens throughout the UK.
This year is the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Institute of Food Science and Technology. To celebrate they renamed their annual lecture ‘the Jubilee lecture’. In addition to the main lecture at the Royal Society, it was broadcast to six ‘street parties’ around the UK.
This year’s guest speaker was Mark Price, Managing Director of Waitrose. He started reminding us of the Chinese curse, ‘may you live in interesting times’ because, for food retailers, that is the fact of life at present. Tesco has reported profits down 41%, Morrisons down 51% and Iceland down 11% with other similar results expected to follow. (He omitted to mention that Waitrose profits were also down 9%.)
Turning to the German retailers Aldi and Lidl, he pointed out that they arrived in the 1990s but were not making any money before 2010. He ascribed their sudden upsurge to the decision of Morrisons and Tesco to consciously move upmarket (Waitrose of course were already upmarket). This eased the pressure on the German retailers enabling them to become profitable and start to expand. Now the supermarket giants have no option but to move back downmarket to compete as they are all doing.
The other factor influencing the market at present is commodity price deflation, not just the headliners like milk but across the board. Food retailers have relied on inflation of around 3% to grow their food business. This price deflation will reverse again in due course and bring some relief but it will not be enough.
This is because the food market is undergoing a structural change in the way people are buying their food. Hypermarkets are expected to see a decline by 4% over the next five years. Meanwhile supermarket sales will remain flat but against a background of ever rising costs. Despite this total food sales are expected to grow by 15%. However these extra sales will be mopped up by the discounters and convenience stores. Eight out of ten people now buy their food within one mile of home or workplace. Food waste has also dropped by 20% thus less food needed. Online is also growing and is now 5% of the market. There has also been a rapid rise in eating out - 15% rise in last 2 years.
Before outlining how Waitrose planned to tackle this ‘perfect storm’ Mark set the scene by describing the origins and philosophy of the company. The company was founded in Acton in 1904 by Wallace Waite, Arthur Rose and David Taylor. David Taylor left the business in 1908 and two years later the name Waitrose was adopted. By 1937 it had grown to ten stores and it was then taken over by the John Lewis Partnership, moving into supermarkets in 1955.
By 1929 John Lewis was being run by John Spedan Lewis, eldest son of the founder, his other son Oswald having left the business in 1909. Spedan transferred all the shares in the company to a trust for the benefit of the company employees (always referred to as partners) and it is this formula that dictates the business, including John Lewis, Peter Jones and Waitrose, to this day. Unlike the other supermarkets, Waitrose is not dictated to by shareholders holding the company to account every 3 months. This enables them to adopt a different, longer-term view. Their driver is to promote the happiness of the people that work in the business. The philosophy is that, if you look after your people, they are happier, stay with you longer and serve customers better. In return the customers too are happy and return again and again.
Therefore the heart of their strategy to cope with the tough conditions they are meeting is to maintain the volume of sales to keep their partners happy and in work. To achieve this they have diversified with click and collect, dry-cleaning, etc. with more to follow. The idea is to create a one stop shop although they feel clothes are not for them. They have recently ‘discovered’ horticulture (his arts background perhaps showing through here since I do not know who he thinks grows all his fruit and vegetables!) and several stores now include plant sales. One third of their stores now have have cafes but they are also serving snacks and drinks within the stores. They have also branched into pet accessories and enlarged their wine selection using the click and collect formula. They have followed the trend to provide an affinity card but then also offer holders free coffee and a free newspaper when they visit the store. They believe random acts of kindness like this help to keep their customers loyal. They have had to sharpen prices and improve efficiency but not at the expense of staff redundancies. Similarly they have tried to avoid putting pressure on their suppliers feeling that it is in their interest to ensure their suppliers stay in business.
He concluded by saying that the last six years have caused a lot of questions to be asked. However, by looking after the interests of their partners, they are still managing to thrive in perhaps one of the most aggressive markets in the world.
Musa textilis, Manila hemp, Abacá, Musaceae
Bananas, although tree-like in outward appearance and scale, are in fact herbaceous plants. The trunk is actually a pseudo-stem, composed of lightweight leaf stems (petioles) wrapped around each other (upper picture), supporting some of the largest leaves in the plant kingdom. The petioles are not circular in cross-section like many other petioles, but rather have a hollow U-shape. The internal structure of the Manila hemp has been much studied. There are longitudinal vascular bundles providing structural support as in many other monocotyledonous plants. It differs however, in having large air channels that are separated by narrow partitions, which are jointed at intervals by transverse stellate parenchyma plates. The internal structure is therefore best described as semi-hollow, whereas palms and sedges are solid and grasses hollow. Overall, there is an ordered structure of longitudinal and transverse components.
The economic importance of this particular banana species is extremely significant. With inedible fruit, this plant is not grown for food production, but rather for material production. It is grown today as a commercial crop in the Philippines, from where it originates. The average annual production is over 65 million tonnes and accounts for 85% of the world’s total production. The other main producer of this important crop is Ecuador. Abacá is grown for the fibre (lower picture) that is extracted from its leaf stems (petioles). It is a high quality fibre, renowned for its buoyancy, resistance to saltwater damage and mechanical strength. It is indeed the strongest of all natural fibres. After the opening of the port of Manila in 1834, the Americans became the biggest importer of abacá. The fibre was made into rope and this rope became renowned in the shipping industry. The fibre can also be pulped and the pulp is incorporated into many specialised paper products including tea bags, filter paper and banknotes. Japan’s yen banknotes contain up to 30% abacá. Today the abacá industry has set quality standards and there are numerous grades and types that have a wide range of uses from the traditional cordage products to fibre-crafts and hand-woven fabrics.
The fibre itself is composed of long thin cells that are part of the leaf's internal structure. The chemical composition of the fibre is complex, but lignin – a mechanical polymer – constitutes over 13%. The remainder includes free sterols, fatty acids, steroid ketones and triglycerides.
Remember though not to confuse Manila hemp with true hemp – the common name for Cannabis sativa.
Upper: Cross section of 'stem'; solid centre is the flower stalk (picture by Frank Vincentz)
Middle: Flower of Musa textilis (picture by Phyzome)
Lower: Abaca fibres drying (picture by Jürgen Steger)
The Biology, Cultivation and Harvesting of Musa textilis, Elizabeth Potter Sievert, The Story of Abaca: Manila hemp’s transformation from textile to marine cordage and speciality paper, Pages: 211-237, Published: 2009
A.R. Ennos, H-Ch. Spatz, and T. Speck
The functional morphology of the petioles of the banana, Musa textilis J. Exp. Bot. (2000) 51 (353): 2085-2093 doi:10.1093/jexbot/51.353.2085
....and online: Natural Fibres - Abaca and Abaca Phillipines
Oxford Botanic Garden
Commercial Horticultural Association
CHA continues to recruit for Growtech Eurasia to be held in Antalya, Turkey 3-6 December 2014; IPM in Essen, Germany, 27 - 30 January 2015 and Fruit Logistica held in Berlin, 4 - 6 February 2015. Working in conjuction with HDC and the Potato Council the UK presence at Fruit Logistica promises to be larger than ever. For further information on these shows and particularly the grants available to UK companies exhibiting at them, contact CHA
Horticulture Innovation Partnership
HIP have submitted a proposal for a Fresh and Prepared Innovation Centre (FPPIC) designed to address constraints on the use of inputs, loss of crops through pests and diseases and changing climate, in a centre where world-class expertise and state-of-the-art facilities are maintained and enhanced for the delivery of research programmes relevant to the fresh, prepared and ornamental sectors. The FPPIC will focus on innovation opportunities in plant genetics, crop protection systems, automation and precision management tools, optimisation of resources, waste minimisation and improving nutritional value. The goals are to facilitate access to R&D funding, maximise private sector co-investment and drive R&D programmes that are better-aligned with industry’s priorities.
As well as facilitating face to face meetings, the proposed FPPIC’s Knowledge Exchange Hub would incorporate an online ‘networking forum,’ where supply chain businesses, researchers, industry experts and consultants could engage directly with each other, share knowledge, ask questions and seek solutions. Through the Hub users would also be able to access the new Centre of Excellence in Agri-informatics and Sustainability Metrics (CAISM) and other Innovation Centres. This sharing of information online will facilitate unprecedented access to novel global research, technology and best-practice information, helping businesses to exploit new knowledge to improve competitiveness.
The Hub would also signpost the sectors to skills and training programmes to ensure the UK has a workforce with the skills necessary to exploit new systems, facilities, research and innovation.
The initial proposal is based on a core partnership of industry bodies (the HIP, Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board, British Growers Association, Campden BRI) and three research organisations (East Malling Research, James Hutton Institute, University of Warwick) and if successful, the HIP will continue to be inclusive and engage further industry and research partners and associates to strengthen the Centre’s capacity to deliver.
If funded, the FPPIC will enable a new era of collaborative engagement in research, development and knowledge exchange (KE) to energise innovation and drive growth in the produce industry both in the UK and globally and it would make consumers, policy makers, regulators, educators and the media aware of the importance of the UK fresh and prepared produce industry and its long-term value to the economy.
We expect to hear the outcome of this first round soon and we will update you again once we hear some news.
UK Plant Science Federation
The Federation held its Annual General Meeting at Charles Darwin House, London on 20 November 2014. A special interest group of the Society of Biology, the Federation has been working hard this last two years establishing itself and significantly raising the profile of Plant Science. A fuller report will appear in the January Newsletter.
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Bees shrink as they lose their favourite pollen
Bee populations have declined in recent decades mainly due to a loss of biodiversity causing the disappearance of their favourite pollinating plants, according to a new study. Researchers analysed the pollen found on the bodies of insects from 57 different wild bee species collected before 1950 and held in Dutch natural history museums. They found that the insects had certain preferred plants for pollinating. As their favoured plants diminished, so too did domestic and wild bee populations. The other main factor associated with bee decline was bee body size, which was negatively related to population trend, likely because larger bees have a greater pollen requirement. Other, less important factors included the variety of the insect's diet and sensitivity to climate change. More
Nationwide Produce PLC and QV Foods Ltd have formed a 50/50 joint-venture called Anglia Growing Partnership Ltd (AGP). AGP took over the running of Nationwide’s onion production site at Long Sutton, Lincs where it has the very latest machinery to grade and pack onions. More & More
Weather changes encourage species diversity
The new research on the Broadbalk weed communities has helped to answer the question of how a single plot of land can support up to 20 different weed species. They have found evidence for the idea that co-existence is supported by variation in the weather, especially spring temperatures. Some species grow relatively more quickly in warm springs so gain a competitive advantage over species that are found on the same plots and have similar resource requirements. This interaction between weather and the competitive balance between weed species explains the cycling of the populations of different species and the change in the character of the experiment between years.
Nitric oxide controls nitrogen uptake…
Insights on how plants regulate absorption of nitrogen could help avoid pollution caused by excess fertiliser use. The study examined how nitrogen is absorbed and converted into cellular building blocks in plants. It found that, when nitrogen is absorbed, plant cells produce nitric oxide which acts as a signalling molecule. This nitric oxide fine-tunes how much nitrogen is used for growth, by signalling to the plant’s cells when to limit its uptake. The scientists say that because nitric oxide plays important roles in shaping the development of plants, and how plants respond to environmental stress, these insights highlight key considerations of how nitrogen-based fertilisers should be used in agriculture. The findings could lead to the development of crop varieties that need less nitrogen than conventional crops. It could also inform how much nitrogen should be added to plant feed.
… a Glutamine-Sensing Mechanism helps
Glutamine is the primary metabolite of nitrogen assimilation from inorganic nitrogen sources in micro-organisms and plants. The ability to monitor cellular nitrogen status is pivotal for maintaining metabolic balance and sustaining growth. A new study identifies a glutamine-sensing mechanism common in the entire plant kingdom except Brassicaceae. A plastid-localized PII signaling protein controls the key enzyme leading to arginine and polyamine formation. More
Two research leaders depart
Professor Peter Gregory, Chief Executive at East Malling Research (EMR), is to leave his post at the end of April 2015 to pursue his academic and other interests. He joined EMR in May 2011 and, after nearly four years in post, is widely commended by industry for transforming the future outlook of the organisation. More
Meanwhile Dr Nigel Kerby MBE, managing director of Mylnefield Research Services Ltd (MRS), a commercial affiliate of the James Hutton Institute, is to step down from his position on 6 April 2015. Under Dr Kerby’s leadership, MRS went from being a start-up to having a turnover in excess of £4million. He has also pioneered the protection and commercialisation of intellectual assets and resources, and has forged many partnerships within industry for the 'scaling-up' and 'scaling-out' of technologies, particularly new plant varieties. More
Dramatic view of atmospheric CO2
An ultra-high-resolution NASA computer model has given scientists a stunning new look at how carbon dioxide in the atmosphere travels around the globe. Plumes of carbon dioxide swirl and shift as winds disperse the greenhouse gas away from its sources. The simulation also illustrates differences in carbon dioxide levels in the northern and southern hemispheres and distinct swings in global carbon dioxide concentrations as the growth cycle of plants and trees changes with the seasons. More
The world’s largest crop chemical producer, Syngenta Ag (SYT), says that it will eliminate or relocate nearly 1,800 jobs as it attempts to streamline operations with a goal to save $1 billion by 2018. The firm says 500 positions will be definitively cut, but did not specify where or when those cuts will take place. Syngenta has 28,000 employees in 90 countries around the world. More
Cannabis as cure
A research team have turned their attention to developing a cannabis-based treatment for psychosis and related illnesses such as schizophrenia. The most well-known ingredient in cannabis that gets people high is THC [or tetrahydrocannabinol]. Yet cannabis also contains a cannabinoid known as CBD (or cannabidiol), which appears to have almost the exact opposite effect. Purified CBD has been shown to have antipsychotic and anti-anxiety effects, and can lessen the psychotic symptoms normally experienced by people given high doses of THC. Research also suggests that people who smoke cannabis rich in CBD are less likely to experience 'schizophrenia-like symptoms' than those who smoke cannabis containing only THC. More
Jurassic Park for real?
A team of scientists fell upon an unlikely find when they gathered remnants of plant material buried deep into the permafrost of Antarctica in 2013. Months later a team of paleobotanists took up the challenge of reviving the 200 million-year old palm tree and, to their own disbelief, succeeded. It is not the first time an extinct plant has been brought back to life. A specimen of Silene stenophylla, a plant that has been extinct for over 30,000 years, was brought back into existence in 2012 by Russian scientists, but it is definitely the boldest attempt as the unknown species of palm tree is thought to be of the Jurassic period, possibly estimated to be 200 million-years old.
The 24 hour tomato
Scientists have discovered a geneCAB-13 that would allow commercial tomato plants to tolerate 24 hours of light a day. Many plants like peppers, rose bushes and lettuces are all perfectly happy when the lights never go off, but as botanists first discovered nearly 100 years ago, tomato plants are different. If the plants are left in continuous light long enough they turn yellow and die. However it appears that wild tomato plants contain the CAB-13 gene that enables them to tolerate 24 hour daylight. By the end of the study, the researchers were able to grow a domesticated tomato that could tolerate 24 hours of light. They report that under those conditions, it produced 20% more fruit than current varieties exposed to 18 hours of light. More
A healthier potato chip
A potato, genetically engineered to reduce the amounts of a potentially harmful ingredient in French fries and potato chips, has been approved for commercial planting in the US. The potato has been altered so that less acrylamide, which is suspected of causing cancer in people, is produced when the potato is fried. The new potato also resists bruising, a characteristic long sought by potato growers and processors for financial reasons. Potatoes bruised during harvesting, shipping or storage can lose value or become unusable. More
New antibiotic from Coprinopsis
Microbiologists and molecular biologists have discovered a new agent in fungi that kills bacteria. The substance, known as copsin, has the same effect as traditional antibiotics, but belongs to a different class of biochemical substances. Copsin is a protein, whereas traditional antibiotics are often non-protein organic compounds. The researchers discovered the substance in the common inky cap mushroom Coprinopsis cinerea that grows on horse dung. Copsin belongs to the group of defensins, a class of small proteins produced by many organisms to combat microorganisms that cause disease. More
New source of plant energy
To date, it was thought that mitochondria and chloroplasts were the only plant cell components able to produce chemical energy. However now there is another organelle, the chromoplast, which seems to be able to synthetize energy for its metabolism. To date, it was thought that the energy needed by the chromoplast came from the mitochondrion. However, the new study reveals that the chromoplast is the third component that behaves as bioenergetic organelle in plant cells. More
Postharvest Research, Education and Extension
8 - 11 Dec 2014, International Society for Horticultural Science
Hochiminh City, Vietnam
Challenges for Crop Production and Quality
9 - 10 Dec 2014, Association of Applied Biologists
Teaching and Communicating Science in the Digital Age
15 - 17 Dec 2014, Society of Experimental Biology
Advances in Nematology
16 Dec 2014, Association of Applied Biologists
IPM Innovation in Europe
14 - 16 Jan 2015, PURE
BIGGA Turf Management Exhibition
20 - 22 Jan 2015, BIGGA
Crop Protection and the Food Chain: The Future
21 Jan 2015, Crop Protection Association
UK Brassica and Leafy Salad Conference
28 Jan 2015, Brassica Growers Association & British Leafy Salads Association
4 - 6 Feb 2015, Messe Berlin
Industrial Biotechnology Leadership Forum
11 - 12 Feb 2015,
25 Feb 2015
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