The University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus is to co- host the first ever Crops for the Future Research Centre (CFFRC) in partnership with the Government of Malaysia.
The centre, specifically designed to evaluate underutilised crops from all corners of the world, will be at the heart of an international effort to seek out which crops have the potential to be grown for human sustenance or on a commercial basis for food, pharmaceuticals or biomaterials in the climates of the future.
With 18,000 indigenous species in its region and funding of nearly $40m from the Malaysian Government, CFFRC has been given the mandate to carry out research on a whole range of underutilised crops.
Professor Sayed Azam-Ali, who will become the first Chief Executive Officer of CFFRC, said: "In poor and impoverished regions of the world there are plants that have survived despite research and despite science. This is our chance to find out what those plants would be like as crops for the future — in climates of the future. With focussed scientific efforts applied to unconventional crops we can do things that will make them more valuable, more useful and more popular. This is the first time that any national government has actually said 'we will give you the infrastructure and support to do it' and that is a massive vote of confidence by the Government of Malaysia."
The human race relies on fewer and fewer plants to feed more and more people — for example, wheat, rice and maize alone provide over 60 per cent of the global diet. Meanwhile, potential sources of food are going un-noticed and some plants are disappearing altogether. Scientists believe that many of these species could be of major agricultural significance or be developed as niche products.
Although natural biodiversity is now of huge international concern and its importance has been recognised by Governments across the globe, agricultural biodiversity — the plants we grow — has attracted less interest.
Professor Azam-Ali said: "The risks are significant. We now rely on just three or four plants to feed much of the planet. As bio-scientists we urgently need to find and improve more plants to increase the bread basket, to complement the crops we already have and to be resilient to our changing climates."
Professor Azam-Ali will lead the research centre as part of the global 'Crops for the Future' organisation, an international alliance hosted in Malaysia by Bioversity International and The University of Nottingham.
Professor Azam-Ali will head a team of staff and researchers including experts in biotechnology, breeding and seed systems, ecophysiology, agronomy and post production, processing, markets and trade.
The main architectural feature of CFFRC will be three iconic domes in which new 'living laboratories' will be surrounded by a botanical garden of alternative plants which can be studied in the field and under more controlled conditions in laboratories and polytunnels. The buildings will be constructed using environmentally efficient technologies and materials. It is planned that the carbon neutral, energy efficient, buildings will use new green technologies to conserve energy, capture rainwater and utilise biomaterials from alternative crops.
CFFRC will also act as a visitor centre for schools, students and the public so they can learn about the plants that are indigenous to their own region and elsewhere.
In addition to new state-of-the-art research facilities CFFRC will have access to 50 hectares of oil palm plantation alongside the existing campus to develop field research on underutilised crops. With the support of the Malaysia Government and the oil palm sector, CFFRC now has an opportunity to look at ways of diversifying the oil palm industry — the biggest agricultural product in South East Asia.
Professor Azam-Ali said: "As well as its research activities, Crops for the Future wants to work with the true stakeholders, the people who have grown, farmed and protected these plants for centuries without any support from governments or from public or private sponsors.
"We need to work with these communities as genuine partners so their knowledge can be linked with scientific evidence collected in laboratories and experiments through universities such as Nottingham and with centres such as Bioversity International. Much of the information on these plants is vernacular — it isn't written down it is just passed down from generation to generation and we need to include this evidence with more conventional sources.
"This research could have enormous significance but at this stage we can't say that tomorrow we will know how to solve the world's food problems by suddenly bringing a few more crops into the equation. What we really have to start thinking about how we can integrate knowledge on underutilised plants for food, fuel, medicines and materials."
At 12.45pm on Monday June 27, 2011, the Prime Minister of Malaysia, Dato' Sri Mohd Najib Tun Abdul Razak, officially launched the Crops for the Future Research Centre at the opening ceremony of the Second International Symposium on Underutilised Plant Species entitled 'Crops for the Future-Beyond Food Security' at the Royale Chulan Hotel, Kuala Lumpur.
The many distinguished speakers at this flagship meeting include a World Food Prize laureate who will share the platform with Prime Minister Najib on June 27.
Professor M S Swaminathan, Chairman of the M S Swaminathan Research Foundation and described by the United Nations Environment Programme as 'the father of economic ecology' will speak on: Green Revolution in Underutilised Crops: Pathway to Sustainable Food Security in an Era of Climate Change.
Discussions on the design and construction of the CFFRC facilities are already underway with leading architects and consultants. Whilst construction of the purpose-built research centre may be completed over the next 18 months, CFFRC activities will start almost immediately using facilities already available at The University of Nottingham campuses in Malaysia and the UK.
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