Nottingham pioneers lead search for new foods in Malaysia
A TEN-ACRE site in the palm forests of Malaysia is being turned into a world-leading centre for research into crops for the future. The $40m (£25m) project is being led by scientists from the University of Nottingham and will identify food that can help sustain a world population of seven billion people – and rising rapidly.
The Crops for the Future Research Centre (CFFRC) project adjoins the University of Nottingham's campus outside Kuala Lumpur, in Malaysia.
Construction began over Christmas with clearing of the jungle site that will eventually be dominated by three spherical and iconic landmark buildings, a research station and a series of greenhouses.
The aim is to identify under-used plants for food and non-food uses. The world's population is dependent on three main staples – maize, wheat and rice. They provide 60 per cent of the calories consumed by the world's population.
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This leaves populations vulnerable to famine if a staple diet such as wheat were to fall victim to a disease that cannot easily be controlled or eradicated.
CFFRC is a partnership between the university and Bioversity International, a Malaysian organisation set up specifically for the project, backed by the country's government.
The intention is that CFFRC will become a high-profile world research centre for scientists and institutions.
Among other things, it will look for improved food and non-food crops with nutritional and/or market potential.
At the same time, it will promote academic research, curricula and learning materials on underused crops.
The first global research centre of its kind, it will have access to a vast reservoir of indigenous and underused plant species and knowledge, much of which can contribute to global food and nutritional security.
Scientists led by Professor Sayed Azam-Ali, who has moved from the university's Sutton Bonington campus to become chief executive of CFFRC, will help communities generate income and bridge the gap between towns and rural communities in terms of knowledge and development.
The project expects to attract the top brains and resources from around the world.
Prof Sayed expects quickly to see results which are marketable, providing improved opportunities and products for growers, consumers and developing countries.
Since CFFRC was set up in September 2011, it has begun four major research projects,
They include using under-used plant species as food for aquaculture, for example fish and crustaceans. Another is a biomass project for energy. One project, called FoodPlus, looks at how to get local food and vegetables on to supermarket shelves.
Prof Sayed says: "The challenge is not to see if we can get people to eat these alternative foods and vegetables; that is obviously part of it. We are looking at nutritional content and how much nutrition is lost between harvesting and putting it on the supermarket shelves.
"If we can trace the nutritional loss on its journey, we can look at research to maintain that nutrition through better storage, better transport and better cooking methods.
"We simply don't know how much nutrition is being lost in a vegetable harvested from a field in the tropics to, say, a supermarket in Nottingham. That is the kind of research we are trying to do."
Prof Sayed said it was no longer the aim just to identify new foods but to approach shortages in a different way.
"Instead, we are identifying the end use, for instance biomass. Malaysia grows all these oil palm trees, which then produce huge amounts of biomass which it can use for bio-energy or green chemicals.
"We are producing other plants which can do the same job. We are not saying plant X or plant Y but what is the end use – biomass, starch, nutrition, fish feed? All these projects say we need the right plants, taking the pressure off other foods. We pay a lot of money for big crops such as soya, maize and wheat for fish feed. But these are foods we use for our own nutrition, so why use them for fish."
He added: "Diversification into other foods has to be evidence-based. So we have to do really good science on these plants. In Malaysia, we have some wild plants growing, like mangrove swamps on the coast. They are cleared out because they are not crops but they are full of sugar, full of starch. If we can process that, we are replacing importation of cassava, a starch crop, and secondly we might find an ingredient no one has found before.
"Discovery comes before promotion of the plants. Promotion must not be ahead of the evidence."