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A few years ago, the decision by the WHO to classify processed meat as carcinogenic to humans has resulted in a lot of headlines. Unsurprisingly, comparing a full English breakfast with cigarettes didn’t go down too well. This was of course an exaggeration – but the fact remains that processed meat consumption can increase the risk of bowel cancer.

While this might not be relevant for the individual – the change in risk for the individual is small – it is important on a national scale as reducing bacon intake could reduce the burden on the health service, and on last night’s episode of ‘How to Stay Healthy’ on Channel 4, that’s exactly what we showed (me, pictured with Dr Phil Kieran).

When you eat processed meat like bacon, this increases the risk for cancer through the formation of nitrosamines – chemicals that are known to cause cancer for a long time. The easiest way to address this problem would be to eat less processed meat – but that is unlikely to work.

A much more clever way is to prevent these nitrosamines from forming – ideally in a way that doesn’t affect the taste or texture.

This is exactly what we have done: with funding from the European Union, we have investigated how different plant extracts can be used in meat products to prevent nitrosamines from forming.

Our results were extremely encouraging: by using natural plant extracts, we could make different types of processed meats (bacon, sausages …) that didn’t look or taste different. We compared those meat products with traditional ones in a large intervention study and found that our new recipe reduces the amount of nitrosamines formed considerably.

So perhaps you can have your bacon and eat it too.

Dr Gunter Kuhnle
Nutritional epidemiologist, University of Reading

 

Image credit:

Top: bacon, 2008, Jack Lyons. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Bottom: Phil and Gunter, 2017, Tern TV.

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Earthworms are soil ecosystem engineers.  They are the key soil organisms that influence soil biology, nutrient availability and soil physical structure; and their abundance has been linked to significantly improving plant productivity.  The importance of earthworms has long been recognised, Charles Darwin stated “Without the work of this humble creature, who knows nothing of the benefits he confers upon mankind; agriculture as we know it would be very difficult, if not wholly impossible”.

However, natures ploughs, specifically large, deep burrowing earthworms, are decimated by conventional tillage.  This soil management practice accounts for >95 % of all conventional and organic cereal production in the UK. So, is this a threat we should be concerned about, could there be a future where no earthworms = no bread?  Soil management practices that sustain abundant deep burrowing earthworm populations often require a drastic change in conventional thinking.

The conversion from conventional tillage to conservation agriculture is the adoption of a new farming system using zero tillage (using specialised machinery), diverse crop rotations and permanent soil cover (such as mulches); and my research is investigating the impact of this system on soil health and crop productivity.  However, this system is not without controversy when #glyphosateisvital to zero tillage agronomy; igniting the public debate on ‘sustainable agriculture’.  Earthworms are a vital part of the soil system that generate key ecosystem services, the question is, do they play any role in producing the food that you choose to eat?

The impact of deep burrowing earthworms on soils is being showcased at our half-term event #wormscience at the Science Museum in London from the 29 – 31st May between 11 – 1pm; 2 – 4pm.

Dr Jackie Stroud, Soil Security Programme

This post is one of several posts about our work as part of the Soil Security Programme for Global Soil Week. Find out more about our work here.

Phosphorus (P) is essential to all living things. Every single cell in plants, animals and microbes, down to our very own DNA requires P to survive and grow. Modern agriculture is dependent on P fertilizer, especially in high yielding systems where the biomass (and therefore the P) is continually exported to local, or sometimes international markets. Since the UK does not have an internal supply for P fertilizers, it is dependent on outside sources and makes it vulnerable to political instability and potential price fluctuations. The recent seizure of a New Zealand bound phosphate shipment highlights this issue. On the other hand, over application of P-containing compounds to soil may lead to serious environmental issues, such as algal blooms in down-stream waters. Nutrient transport is becoming an increasing concern as extreme weather events and flooding occur more frequently. Our food supply and the state of our environment is at risk and we must identify solutions now.

One possibility for reducing fertilizer requirements and decreasing the concentration of P in runoff is to improve the efficiency of P uptake by plants. Soils contain an abundance of P in various forms, although only a very small percentage of P may be present as orthophosphate (PO4) that can be taken up by plants. To deal with low PO4 concentrations, plants and microbes have evolved with remarkable (but poorly understood) techniques to break down larger molecules into usable forms. For example, many bacteria contain a set of genes that “turn on” when they don’t have enough orthophosphate (PO4) in their environment. This triggers the production of enzymes to break a bond in larger organic P molecules, thus freeing the PO4 for uptake.

Phosphorus cycling in the soil-microbe-plant continuum of agri-ecosystems aims to identify how plants and microbes can work together to improve P utilisation from the soil. We are growing oilseed rape plants in field soils (pictured) under controlled conditions to evaluate the effects of P fertilizer application and bacterial inoculants on soil enzymes, changes in P forms and plant growth. The focus is on the rhizosphere, the soil closest to the root, since this can be a hotspot for microbial activity and biochemical reactions. Advanced techniques in genomics, transcriptomics and proteomics are being applied, in combination with 31P nuclear magnetic resonance and enzymology to characterise the microbes, plants and soils. Ultimately, we need to understand the basic mechanisms to be able to create more sustainable production systems.

Dr Tandra Fraser, post-doctoral researcher , Soil Security Programme

This post is one of several posts about our work as part of the Soil Security Programme for Global Soil Week. Find out more about our work here.