UK university exports crop science expertise to China

By Lynda Searby

- Last updated on GMT

© GettyImages
© GettyImages
Scientists at the University of Nottingham are working with one of China’s biggest feed and pig producers to “transform” Southwest China’s feed industry by increasing the nutritional value of crops via genetic engineering.

Min Rose, director, Knowledge Exchange Asia, at the University of Nottingham, told FeedNavigator: “The project plans to use genome-enabled selection approaches to develop nutritionally improved corn and soybean, and evaluate their nutritional value on pigs and poultry in terms of digestibility and utilization rates of nutrients, as well as reduction in accumulation of arsenic, cadmium and lead.”​ 

Corn and soybean are the most commonly used feed crops in China, but according to the project leaders, they are lacking in terms of mineral nutrient content. 

“In soy and corn, the total phosphorus content is only about 30% available to animals, which is not enough to meet their daily nutritional needs. Essential micronutrients such as iron, zinc, copper and selenium are often below optimum levels in animal feed. In addition, the accumulation of potentially toxic trace elements in plant raw materials can have a serious negative impact on the environment and livestock health,” ​said Rose. 

Cream of the crop

By screening and selecting new maize and soybeans using genetic engineering techniques, she said the content of available phosphorus and other minerals and nutrients could be increased, whilst the content of trace elements such as cadmium, arsenic and lead can be decreased.

“The project will test the nutritional value of new corn and soybean varieties as raw materials for poultry diets by evaluating the utilization and excretion of crude protein, amino acids, phosphorus and other essential mineral nutrients, as well as potentially toxic trace elements.”

The project, which has been branded the ‘Nottingham-New Hope Liuhe precision nutrition innovation platform’, will see the University of Nottingham partner Chengdu-based New Hope Liuhe group – one of China’s biggest pig and animal feed producers.  The group currently produces 2.4 million pigs annually and feed accounts for 45.6bn CNY (US$6.6bn) – 60% of its income.

China’s biggest pig producing region

Chengdu is the capital of the Sichuan province in Southwest China – one of the country’s largest agricultural regions. One of the five major regions for animal husbandry, the province is the biggest region for pork, waterfowl and rabbit production. About 66 million pigs are reared here each year, in addition to 2.65 million cattle and 15.84 million sheep. Meat production, including pork, beef and mutton, totals more than 6.6 million metric tons.

It is also one of the regions that Future Food Beacon​ - Nottingham University’s initiative for addressing global food challenges via innovation partnerships with industry – has identified as a particular focus. This is because, despite the large volumes it produces, the province faces huge challenges. 

“Each year, the Sichuan province loses 11 million workers in search of better paid jobs to other regions in China,” ​said Rose. 

By drawing on the Future Food Beacon’s research capabilities, the idea is that the project will “uplift rural development”​ and “help transform the agri-food industry”​ in the region, said Rose.

The Nottingham-New Hope Liuhe project launched on September 10 2018, led by David Salt, Professor of Genome Enabled Biology and Director of the Future Food Beacon​. 

Future initiatives

This initiative to optimize the nutritional value of corn and soybean is likely to be the first of many research projects to take place within a broader framework agreement, said Rose.

Future projects will draw on other areas of expertise within the University, which could include maximizing efficiency of feed utilization for milk production and the evaluation of alternative protein sources.

The initiative has the support of the British Embassy and Consulate General in Southwest China, not least because it will facilitate new business opportunities for the UK. 

Karen Morgan, the UK’s first Agriculture and Food and Drink Counselor to China, said: “The UK exports about £22bn of agricultural and food products, and China is now the largest market for our agri-food exports after the EU and the USA, with a continuing rise of about 25% each year – so a critical trading partner.”

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