The fourth 2018 Newton Prize winner has been announced at an event in Mexico City, Mexico. The winning research team are developing new ‘climate ready’ varieties of beans to combat drought related crop losses for Mexican and Latin American agriculture.
Beans are very important to Mexico’s food security, but they are also highly sensitive to drought, which can cause up to eighty percent bean yield losses; and climate change is making this problem even worse. Seventy percent of Mexican farmers are smallholders with no irrigation, which makes them particularly vulnerable to droughts and climate change.
Researchers based at Sheffield University and the Institute of Biotechnology, (IBT UNAM) in Mexico, have been trying to understand how bean plants respond to drought and carbon dioxide by adjusting their stomata (microscopic valves on the leaf surface that open and close). The researchers have found that reducing bean stomatal numbers could reduce plant water use by up to 40 percent without affecting the yield; potentially saving up to three percent of Mexico’s entire agricultural water use.
Using this knowledge, the team wants to develop new high yielding bean varieties with better water use under drought conditions. With over six million people employed in agriculture and five percent of the population undernourished, developing high yielding, drought resistant beans will benefit the Mexican economy and future food security, as well as people’s health and wellbeing.
Reducing gender inequality is also at the heart of this project. More than 70 percent of Mexican farmers are women. In drought-prone rural Mexican communities, women often manage water for domestic use and for farming and are therefore on the front line in times of water and food insecurity. It is hoped that improving bean crop water and nutrient efficiency will improve the livelihoods and welfare of women.
The project leaders also want to tackle under-representation of women in STEM by advancing the role of women in plant breeding, agricultural research, and leadership in drought-resistance agriculture, particularly in Mexico and Latin America.
Longer term, the project is aiming for a reduction in rural poverty and to improve socio-economic advancement for farmers. Improving bean yields and minimising fertiliser use will also benefit soils, reduce desertification and improve water quality.
Winning the Newton Prize will enable the team to increase the direct impact of their work in Mexico, by enabling a much larger and more interdisciplinery team of experts to tackle the issues of drought in bean agriculture and Mexican Food Security. The prize money will help bring together experts in plant drought stress, legume nitrogen fixation, and cutting-edge DNA sequencing and bioinformatics to fast-track bean crop development. This will mean better bean yields for farmers in Mexico, Latin America, and Africa by getting the results out of the lab and into the field.
Professor Julie Gray, University of Sheffield, said: "This is a fantastic opportunity to increase the impact of our work in Mexico, by enabling a much larger, interdisciplinery team of experts to tackle the issues of drought in bean agriculture and Mexican food security."
Delivery partners: Royal Society and the National Council of Science and Technology (CONACyT) and the Mexican Academy of Sciences.
The Newton Prize is an annual £1 million fund developed to showcase how UK science and innovation partnerships are helping to solve global development challenges. The Newton Prize also incentivises researchers and innovators to participate in the Newton Fund as partners with the UK to work on the most important challenges facing developing countries such as poverty, climate change and public health.
This year 140 Newton funded projects, fellowships or other awards applied for the Newton Prize. Five prizes of up to £200,000 each will be awarded to winning projects with the eligible Latin American countries: Brazil, Chile, Colombia and Mexico.
The funding allows researchers to take their Newton projects to the next level, for example by translating their project from the lab into the field, through expansion and/or improvements to their original project, by bringing in more capacity or gaining higher profile; all increasing the likelihood of success.
Sam Gyimah, the minister of state for science, research and innovation: “The annual £1m Newton Prize builds upon, celebrates and further encourages research partnerships. It’s great to see this year’s applications representing the breadth of the Newton Fund’s work from public and private sector organisations based around the world.
“The uniqueness of the Newton Fund is the partnership working between the UK and partner country at all levels from government to government, delivery partner to delivery partner through to project lead to project lead. From energy and healthcare, to agriculture and digital, the Newton Fund demonstrates how bringing researchers together has enormous potential to change lives for the better across the world.”
The Newton Prize was judged by a distinguished and independent Newton Prize committee with expertise in the development sector, the Latin American region as well as science and innovation. It was chaired by Sir Venki Ramakrishnan, President of the Royal Society and Nobel Laureate. The committee reviewed the short-listed applications, along with feedback from over 400 expert peer reviewers, and chose the winners.
The Newton Fund