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Monday, February 05, 2024 at 11:56 p.m.

The future of sustainable agriculture begins at the URJC

More than fifty experts from all over Europe will meet to launch a project that will seek solutions to the current crisis in the agricultural and food sector. The research will focus on the study of wild relatives of crops, key to the development of new crop varieties that are more resistant to diseases, pests and droughts.

Irene Vega

The European project COUSIN, led by the Rey Juan Carlos University (URJC), faces a great research challenge: promoting the development of sustainable agriculture that ensures the conservation of species and offers a response to the current crisis in food production. Furthermore, the solutions presented should have less negative impact on natural resources and obtain foods that contain high nutritional quality. It is about keeping society healthy and guaranteeing adequate prices so that production is not only ecologically and socially sustainable, but also economically profitable.

The European consortium is made up of 25 entities from 12 countries and its coordinator is Christian Schöb, distinguished researcher in the area of ​​biodiversity and conservation at the URJC and affiliated with the new Global Change Research Institute of this institution. “As demonstrated by the current demonstrations by farmers across Europe and the restrictions on water use due to drought in the middle of winter in several autonomous communities, agriculture faces gigantic challenges. One of them is the more sustainable production of our food. The transition from agriculture can be facilitated with new crop varieties that promote their sustainability and offer greater resistance to pests, diseases or drought. This transition can also be carried out through better quality of crops or by allowing variations when cultivating, such as mixed cultivation, which encourage the efficient use of resources and beneficial interactions between organisms,” says Christian Schöb.

To produce varieties of species with these peculiarities, the COUSIN project will focus on the study of their wild relatives with the aim of genetically improving current crops and making them more sustainable. “The vast majority of our crops lack varieties with these characteristics, since they have not been in demand since the green revolution and, therefore, have not been targeted in the genetic improvement of crops. Therefore, to introduce resistance to diseases, pests or droughts, in existing crops we often have to return to the genetic resources available in our natural and semi-natural plant communities, whether meadows, pastures, forests or bushes," says the researcher from the URJC.

The international scientific team is made up of 14 universities and research centers, along with six companies, three non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and a public body. From Spain, in addition to the URJC, the Institute of Sustainable Agriculture of the CSIC, the University of Vic, the Agrogenomics Research Center, the start-up BioCrop Innovations SL and the NGO Aprisco de Las Corchuelas.

The project will last five years and has a budget of nearly 8 million euros, co-financed between the European Commission through Horizon Europe funds, the Swiss Confederation and UK Research and Innovation.

The starting point of this project will take place in Aranjuez between February 6 and 8, where more than 50 members of the consortium will meet for the first time in person and present their lines of research and development program so that COUSIN achieves its objectives. proposed: increasing the sustainability of agriculture through the conservation and use of biodiversity, specifically the wild relatives of crops.

Success stories from wild relatives

Jabal, a variety of durum wheat that was obtained by crossing a cultivated variety with one of its wild relatives, gained media attention a year ago for being an extreme drought-tolerant variety. In addition to Jabal, there are many other examples that demonstrate the great value of wild relatives. “Our future varieties of wheat, barley, pea, lettuce or broccoli, species on which we will focus in the COUSIN project, will depend on the genetic diversity available for their improvement and adaptation to global changes,” highlights Christian Schöb. "Therefore, the conservation of wild relatives, accessibility to phytogenetic material and knowledge of the characteristics of each of their populations is key not only to conserve biodiversity, but also to ensure our nutrition for future generations," he concludes. he.