Food security task force embarks on five-year mission

July 25, 2011

REC participates in PLANTFOODSEC as one of 13 partners from eight countries

By Nathan Johnson & Natalya Yakusheva

NOT JUST A RESEARCH PROJECT: PLANTFOODSEC aims to establish a new, global initiatives and to create a network of scientific connections. Photos: Flickr

No one denies that all living organisms need food in order to survive, but not everyone draws an immediate connection between food and social, economic and environmental security. Food security is, in fact, something that the European Union takes very seriously. A new project, Plant and Food Security (or PLANTFOODSEC), is an initiative of the AGROINNOVA Centre of Competence at the University of Turin, which is financed by the EU under the FP7 programme and involves a total of 13 partners from eight countries: France, Germany, Hungary, Israel, Italy, Turkey, the United Kingdom and the United States. The project focuses on scientific analyses of biological threats with the capacity to infect plants, damage agricultural production or impact food or feed at any point along supply chains.

The PLANTFOODSEC project is broken down into eight main areas, or 'work packages': 1) Plant-disease epidemiology applied to crop biosecurity; 2) Food biosecurity; 3) Analysis of risks to European food systems and society from the intentional introduction of new pest and disease agents; 4) Diagnostic and detection systems; 5) Responder systems on eradication and containment; 6) Training on plant and food biosecurity; 7) Dissemination awareness and communication on plant and food biosecurity; and 8) Management and monitoring.

The project budget is approximately EUR 5.6 million, which will allow for extensive research on the topic of plant and food biosecurity over a five-year period.

According to Frederic Suffert, a plant pathologist at the French National Institute of Agriculture Research (INRA), the leading partner for Work Package (WP) 1, the main objective of epidemiological research is "to obtain a framework of scientific knowledge and tools for appraising the possibility of deliberate contamination, epidemic outbreak and patterns of disease spread or prorogation."

Detailed, earlier INRA studies of the two most common cereal diseases, 'brown rust' and 'septoria leaf blotch of wheat', are being used as models for investigating primary sources of epidemic in order to help distinguish between natural from deliberate field contaminations. Moreover, partners from Germany, Israel, Italy and the US will produce 'epidemic chain' case studies - research of vital importance, as there is little current knowledge on mechanisms of disease initiation.

'Food biosecurity' (WP2) has emerged fairly recently as an important topic, particularly since the 2001 anthrax mailing scare in the US. Jacqueline Fletcher, a professor and researcher at Oklahoma State University, has been involved since then with microbial forensics and food and agriculture biosecurity, and is excited to be involved in the PLANTFOODSEC project. A widely cooperative approach makes sense, she says, because of "the international nature of plant pathogens and emerging diseases."

SEEING PATTERNS: Models are used to help distinguish between natural and deliberate field contaminations.

The Centre for Environmental Policy at Imperial College London is acting as lead institute for WP3, 'Analysis of risks to European food systems and society from the intentional introduction of new pest and disease agents'. The Centre's primary task within the PLANTFOODSEC project is to investigate "how risk-analysis frameworks designed for agricultural pests, invasive species and food contaminants can be integrated with risk-analysis methods for intentional threats in order to provide an overall framework that can be used across the range of threats we face."

Specifically, this involves predictive modelling of impacts from harmful organisms and crafting management responses. It also includes analysing ecological, economic and social vulnerability within managed and natural environments. The United Nations Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute will also be participating in research activities.

WP4, headed by the National Institute for Agriculture and Botany (NIAB) in Cambridge, UK, aims to improve disease surveillance, detection and diagnostic systems by facilitating international laboratory cooperation and by developing diagnostic tools. Assisting with work in this particular topic area is Kansas State University in the US.

"Detection and diagnosis of diseases form a vital part of managing threats to crop production," says Jane Thomas, NIAB's head of disease resistance and diagnostics, "whether it's describing a new yellow-rust pathotype on wheat, assessing the level of a seed-borne pathogen, or identifying the causal agent of a disease in a crop sample sent in by a grower."

The lead partner for WP5 is the Agricultural Research Organization (ARO), based at the Volcani Center campus in Bet-Dagan, Israel, near Tel Aviv. Research activities in this field will concentrate on the prevention of establishment and spread within EU countries of deliberately introduced pathogens. This will be carried out by delineating a course of measures to be implemented at European level in each category of pest detection or outbreak, and by enhancing available means of response. Ultimately, this work package aims to enhance the convergence of a response network by developing mechanisms for transboundary and international communication. Abraham Gamlier, a professor at the ARO-Volcani Center's Laboratory for Pest Management Research, is leading this work programme.

Essential activities with regard to PLANTFOODSEC project training (WP6) will be led by the UK-based Food and Environment Research Agency (Fera). Fera aims to "build a strong culture of awareness and compliance in all sectors of agriculture with a wide range of participants such as regulators, crop consultants and farm advisors at various levels [and to] include training on a wide variety of topics to meet the aims of the network with regular trans-national, multi-sector training courses, summer schools, academic courses and PhD exchanges." Training activities will be provided by the Middle East Technical University, Turkey; NIAB, UK; ARO, Israel, Oklahoma State University (OSU), INRA, France; UNITO, Italy; Imperial College, UK; Fera; and Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universitaet, located in Bonn, Germany.

The Regional Environmental Center for Central and Eastern Europe (REC) is the responsible partner for 'Dissemination awareness and communication', with Anita Kocic in charge of WP7. The REC will also host a project-closing workshop at its headquarters in Szentendre, Hungary. Drawing from 20 years of broad-scale regional experience, the REC is well equipped to compile and coordinate provided input, materials and information (research results, lessons learned, perspectives, etc.) from consortium members, to manage communication between consortium members, and to ensure high-quality editing of texts provided by other participants.

The REC also has direct experience with the topic at hand. The organisation was involved in a project titled 'Crop and Food Security' from 2005-2007, which helped to establish a network of laboratories capable of providing tools for rapid diagnoses of new pathogens, strains and biotypes and to study their biology and epidemiology. The project also contributed greatly to European preparedness through raising awareness about crop biosecurity and crop bioterrorism. Another partner in dissemination and communication of the project is SPIN-TO from Turin, Italy.

The Italian partner in charge of PLANTFOODSEC project management and monitoring (WP8) is University of Turin-based AGROINNOVA, known officially as the Centre of Competence for Innovation in Agro-Environmental Sector. AGROINNOVA is a research and teaching institute with ample experience in coordinating European projects having to do with plant and food biosecurity.

Not just a research project, PLANTFOODSEC has been created to utilise multidisciplinary expertise to enhance networking, coordination and cooperation between research organisations. It is hoped that the establishment of a 'virtual research centre' focusing on plant and food biosecurity will enable rapid, effective responses threats to Europe's food production and distribution networks, whether they be of natural or criminal origin.

PLANTFOODSEC kicked off officially on February 1, 2011. A press conference launch and first consortium meeting took place on February 24-26. The next project dissemination event will be an ad hoc workshop on plant and food biosecurity organised through a joint meeting of the International Association for Plant Protection Sciences and the America Phytopathological Society. This event, taking place in Honolulu, Hawaii on August 6-10, 2011, will involve members of the scientific community from Europe and North America with the aim of establishing new global initiatives and connections with other scientists from around the world.