Ahmed Elkot, a researcher at the Agricultural Research Centre in Egypt, with his research team in a wheat field

Food security is a massive challenge in a world of 7.8 billion people who are growing exponentially. Reliance is on scientific research and innovation to find unconventional methods and solutions to address this unprecedented challenge in human history. Hence, the Newton-Mosharafa Fund targets sustainable food production as one of its priorities to support scientific research and innovation in Egypt. With a funding of £50 million, the Newton-Mosharafa Fund seeks to support scientific research in Egypt by establishing partnerships between Egyptian research institutions and their counterparts in the United Kingdom. The fund provides the opportunity to build capacities and skills, enhance research collaboration between the two countries, and transfer of innovation, knowledge and expertise.

Here are three inspiring stories of researchers and scientists striving to achieve food security and sustainable food production through controlling plant diseases using genetic engineering, addressing the impacts of climate change on agricultural crops, and using cloud computing and big data analysis to support farmers.

Protecting the yellow gold from rust

Wheat is the most important cereal crop in Egypt, providing 30 per cent of the population's nutritional needs. However, the local production of the crop, estimated at nine million tons annually, suffices only half of the required consumption. The main food crop in Egypt faces an imminent threat, rust diseases, which cause the loss of huge quantities of wheat. Protecting yellow gold from rust is the main goal of Ahmed Elkot, Researcher at the Agricultural Research Centre in Egypt, through a research partnership with the John Innes Centre in the United Kingdom.

The research project aims to fight those diseases that infect wheat crop by developing new strains that contain multiple disease resistance genes. A new technology developed at the Johns Innes Centre allowed the rapid discovery and sequence identification of disease resistance genes. Using this revolutionary technology, resistance genes against rust and mildew in Egyptian wheat strains can be identified. Then these genes can be used to develop new wheat strains that can better resist diseases and reduce the yield loss of wheat.

'We have evaluated 300 bread wheat strains against rust diseases in four different locations in Egypt. We have used this data through the new technology to identify candidate disease resistance genes... We have identified a candidate gene for major diseases of wheat and its function has been confirmed.' Ahmed Elkot explains

The Newton-Mosharafa funded project was not only limited to the research part. Through the project, 25 young Egyptian scientists from various universities and research centres were trained on a number of necessary non-research skills, such as scientific publishing, applying for funding grants and science communication. This contributes to building the capacities of Egyptian researchers and helping them achieve their academic and scientific ambitions.

Addressing climate change effects on food security

Providing food for more than 100 million inhabitants is one of the main challenges facing Egypt's development. With a steadily increasing population, reaching more than 160 million inhabitants by 2050 - according to United Nations estimates, food production should increase by 70 per cent. However, at the same time, Egyptian food security will face another challenge, which is the effects of climate change on food crops. Understanding these effects is what Yasser Shabana, Professor of Plant Pathology at Mansoura University, seeks through a research partnership with the University of Hertfordshire, UK.

The research project aims to study how climate change affects the spread and distribution of fungal diseases infecting wheat and maize in Egypt. Climate change can bring about many changes in fungi that infect plants with diseases, in terms of disease cycle, pathogenicity, and geographical distribution. This is extremely important to effectively control fungal diseases that infect wheat and maize, the most important agricultural crops in Egypt, with the aim of reducing the yield losses.

Yasser Shabana explains: 'We have determined the occurrence and distribution of seed-borne pathogens on wheat in Egypt, as well as identifying their characteristics by biological, physiological and molecular methods. Maps of distribution of the most important fungal pathogens have been produced. Weather-based disease and growth models to predict severity and yield loss are being developed.'

The Egyptian-British research team at the Plant Pathology Laboratory, Faculty of Agriculture, Mansoura University, Egypt

The research project funded by the Newton-Mosharafa Fund is the first of its kind to study the effects of climate change on fungal diseases infecting agricultural crops in Egypt. The results of the project will be used in formulating new strategies and policies to face the impacts of climate change on the productivity of agricultural crops in Egypt. This will contribute to enhancing food security in addressing the growing population.

In addition, the research project provides an opportunity for Egyptian scientists and researchers to publish research papers in high-impact journals, and to actively participate in international conferences, workshops and training programs. This directly contributes to building and developing their capacities, in addition to improving the ranking of Egyptian universities in the global university rankings, which would not have happened without the Newton-Mosharafa fund, as Yasser explained.

Cloud computing at the service of the egyptian farmer

Achieving agricultural development is not only limited to focusing on agricultural crops, but also extends to support workers in the field of agriculture, especially farmers. About 31% of the workforce in Egypt works in agriculture, which contributes nearly 14 per cent to the GDP. Using cloud computing technology to support Egyptian farmers is the vision adopted by Mohamed Khafagy, Professor at Fayoum University in Egypt through a joint research project with the University of the West of England, Bristol, UK.

Mohamed explains: 'We have developed a platform that includes datasets for complaints made by farmers and the response provided by the agricultural experts… acquired from Egypt’s agricultural Centres. This digitization of the dataset is extremely valuable in developing automated tools for providing support and advice on the new complaints of Egyptian farmers, by employing big data analytics and machine learning techniques.'

The main objective of the project is to create a complaints management and decision support system using big data cloud computing technologies, through digitizing written government records of farmers' complaints and inquiries, and answers provided by agricultural experts. By relying on big data analysis using cloud computing, better support and guidance can be provided to Egyptian farmers. This system will enable farmers to adopt sustainable agricultural practices, which in turn will contribute to achieving food security in Egypt.

The Newton-Mosharafa funded project did not stop at that level of achievement, but also helped in developing the infrastructure of Fayoum University as well as building the capacity of researchers and students. Through Egypt-UK research partnership, a research laboratory for cloud computing and big data was developed, to be the first specialized laboratory of its kind not only at Fayoum University, but also in all Egyptian public universities. In addition to this, Egyptian researchers have been trained on the state-of-the-art techniques in the fields of data science, data analysis and cloud computing, as part of the knowledge and technology transfer adopted by the project in these fields.