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Major scientific push to tackle agricultural productivity and food security in developing world

21 February 2008

£7M of new research is being launched today to tackle some of the most damaging and widespread pests, diseases and harsh environmental conditions which can devastate crop yields across the developing world. Three out of four poor people in developing countries live in rural areas and most depend on agriculture for their livelihoods. Increasing agricultural productivity will benefit millions through higher incomes, more and cheaper food, and more jobs in both rural and urban areas. 

The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and the Department for International Development (DFID) are unveiling 12 new projects as part of their flagship initiative – Sustainable Agriculture Research for International Development (SARID) - to harness the UK’s world class bioscience research base to address the challenges of agriculture and food security in developing countries.
The new projects will look at how a variety of crops – from maize to coconuts, rice to bananas – respond at a molecular level to hostile factors including attack by pests and diseases as well as inclement conditions. Their findings will offer new and exciting opportunities to develop crops better able to survive and thrive in their changing environments. Such advances in crop science could revolutionise the way farmers are able to farm across the developing world and have a significant impact on reducing poverty.

Commenting on the new research, Gareth Thomas, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for International Development and Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, said: "Investing in science and research is essential to provide poor farmers with the seeds, knowledge and tools they need to make a better life for themselves. This research, bringing together UK, African and Asian scientists, has the potential to revolutionise farming in the developing world and reduce global poverty. The UK is delighted to support this initiative."

Welcoming the new research, Ian Pearson, Minister for Science and Innovation, said: "This is a true demonstration of how scientific research can help find solutions to the major challenges facing the world and improve the quality of life for millions in developing countries."

BBSRC Interim Chief Executive, Steve Visscher, said: “Bioscience research can make a vital contribution to improving sustainable agriculture across the globe. These projects will build on the world-leading research on fundamental plant science and plant disease in the UK and apply this to crops of importance in the developing world, increasing yields and helping to alleviate the suffering of millions living in poverty.”

All of the projects unveiled today involve unique partnerships between UK scientists and researchers from institutions in Africa, Asia and elsewhere.

Download a media briefing (PDF 1.02MB)containing details of all the projects being funded by the new initiative.

Examples include:

Halting armyworm rampage with biological pesticide - the African armyworm is a major migratory insect pest, which feeds voraciously on cereal crops. Using a radical new solution, researchers from the UK, Canada and Tanzania will investigate the use of a naturally occurring virus in armyworms with a view to using it as a biological pesticide.

Defeating witchweed famine threat - subsistence crops relied on by billions are at constant risk of attack by the noxious parasitic plant witchweed. Researchers the UK, India and Senegal are identifying ways to protect the livelihoods of some of the world's poorest farmers by developing resistant crops.

Improving food security for 500M people - Pearl millet provides food security for half a billion people in Africa and Asia. The crop is well adapted to harsh environments but climate change is threatening the predictable yields that subsistence farmers rely on. Scientists from the UK, India and Ghana will work to improve pearl millet’s genetic tolerance to drought.

Fighting nematode worms with fungus - Root-knot nematodes are microscopic worms that feed on plant roots, stunting their growth and causing yield losses of US$70 billion each year. UK scientists and their Kenyan colleagues are harnessing a natural soil fungus to destroy the worms' eggs reducing damage to crops.

Reducing arsenic levels in rice - arsenic contamination of rice paddies is a major problem in many parts of Asia, caused by irrigation with arsenic contaminated groundwater, pollution resulting from base and precious metal mining and the use of municipal solid waste as fertilizer. Researchers from the UK, India, Bangladesh and China will look at types of rice which have lower take-up levels of inorganic arsenic to unravel the genetic basis for this desirable characteristic.

BBSRC and DFID announced the SARID initiative in 2006 to foster high-quality research that will contribute to achieving the Millennium Development Goals for combating the eight major problems faced by the developing world including poverty and starvation.

The research announced today is the first from this initiative. A second grant round, focussing on animal health will be announced later in 2008.



Click on the thumbnails to view and download full-size images.

Note that these images are protected by copyright law and may be used with acknowledgement.

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Parasitic witchweed which can result in total crop loss for farmers in developing countries (Credit: Rothamsted Research) (251KB)
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Maize field infested with witchweed (725KB)
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Swarm of African Armyworms (Credit: Wilfred Mushobozi) (785KB)
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Dr Kenneth Wilson, lead researcher from the University of Lancaster studying an African Armyworm (202KB)
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Dr Kenneth Wilson, lead researcher from the University of Lancaster studying an African Armyworm (196KB)
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Dr Rattan Yadav, lead researcher from the Institute of Grassland and Environmental Research and Kirsten Skot testing Pearl Millet in India (448KB)
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Coconut palms that look like telegraph poles due to lethal-yellowing diseases (238KB)
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Inoculated cabbage leaf alongside leaves affected by black rot (Credit: Warwick HRI) (239KB)
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Orange-fleshed sweet potato contains vital source of Vitamin A to combat blindness in African children (423KB)
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Nematode worms cause yield losses of US $70 billion each year (Credit: Rothamsted Research) (230KB)
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Banana plant (48KB)
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Banana crop damaged by nematode worms (528KB)
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Wheat heavily infested with stripe rust, a major fungal disease (81KB)
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Professor Howard Atkinson, lead researcher from University of Leeds, with the university's collection of banana plants (843KB)

Notes to editors

Full background information about SARID

UK Universities and Institutes involved in the new projects are:

  • Central Science Laboratory
  • Institute of Grassland and Environmental Research
  • John Innes Centre
  • National Institute of Agricultural Botany
  • Rothamsted Research
  • University of Aberdeen
  • University of Cambridge
  • University of Greenwich
  • University of Lancaster
  • University of Leeds
  • University of Nottingham
  • University of Sheffield
  • University of Warwick


The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council is the UK funding agency for research in the life sciences. Sponsored by Government, BBSRC annually invests around £380M in a wide range of research that makes a significant contribution to the quality of life for UK citizens and supports a number of important industrial stakeholders including the agriculture, food, chemical, healthcare and pharmaceutical sectors.

About DFID

The Department for International Development is leading the British Government's fight against world poverty.

DFID has allocated £200m over five years to fund its Strategy for Research on Sustainable Agriculture which was launched in March 2006. Support to SARID falls under this strategy.

Details of the Strategy for Research on Sustainable Agriculture and other aras of DFID funded research can be found on DFID’s research portal:

The 2006 White Paper “Eliminating World Poverty: Making Governance work for the poor” includes a commitment to double funding on research including agriculture.

Extreme poverty affects 1.3 billion people around the world who live on less than $1 a day.  Three billion people live on less than $2 a day (source: UN).

External contact

Sarah Saxton, DFID Media Office

Tel: + 44 (0)20 7023 0944; Press enquiries, Tel: + 44 (0)20 7023 0600


Matt Goode, Head of External Relations

tel: 01793 413299

Tracey Jewitt, Media Officer

tel: 01793 414694
fax: 01793 413382