A sustainable agri-food system is one in which a variety of sufficient, nutritious and safe foods is available at an affordable price to everyone, and nobody is hungry or suffers from any form of malnutrition. The UN Secretary-General convened the very first Food Systems Summit in September 2021 to forge consensus on bold new actions to transform the way the world produces and consumes food, with an aim to get back on track to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals.
In honour of this, we spoke to Boon Chin Tan, senior lecturer and deputy director in the Centre for Research in Biotechnology for Agriculture (CEBAR) at the University of Malaya, and editorial board member of our new open-access journal Discover Food.
My research focus lies on unraveling the mechanisms of plant responses and adaptation to environmental stresses, hoping to find ways to improve crop tolerance for near-future climates. Environmental stress from climate change and agricultural activity threaten global food production, posing a severe threat to food security. As most developing countries depend heavily on agriculture, the effects of climate change are likely to threaten both agriculture production and relevant stakeholders. Current farmers’ adaptation practices to cope with the agricultural vulnerability due to climatic change are not adequate. Considering the expected growth in world population and demand for foods, finding ways to improve crop tolerance concerning environmental stress factors is indispensable.
My research fits under the second Sustainable Development Goal (SDG2): “Zero Hunger” and specifically to address knowledge gaps and drive innovation that helps to enhance food production. The current global food system causes millions of people food insecure. Concerns about the sustainability of global food systems, the SDG 2: Zero Hunger, has been adopted by the United Nations (UN) General Assembly to end hunger, improve nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture. Having this in mind, we have initiated a few programs to develop a sustainable, environmental-friendly, and economical solution to increase food production in the face of climate change. In a recent project, we have investigated the stress-responsive mechanisms and molecular regulation of stress signaling through genome editing approaches in several important food and fruit crops, such as rice and banana. We are now aiming to (1) develop a product in the form of biostimulants to mitigate climate stress for these crops, which is also well-suited for future urban agriculture practices, (2) develop an appropriate educational program for farmers to promote sustainable agriculture, and (3) make recommendations to policymakers. With the data and knowledge acquired through this initiative, we believe it will lay a solid foundation for the scientific community and contribute to society.
Measuring the success of achieving these goals is essential. However, the way to measure the success of achieving these goals is still debatable. We have seen a lot of discussion taking place concerning the measurable criteria beyond the publication metrics. Indeed, measuring success based on publication metrics will not suffice to capture broader societal impacts. The ultimate goal of conducting research, in general, is for researchers, together with people who are likely to use their findings, to produce scientific information or knowledge that can provide solutions to humanity and society's problems. So, we should measure the outcomes instead of the outputs.
Communication is vital to disseminating research findings. It is paramount to communicate the research findings with the scientific community, funders, stakeholders, public, and policymakers. One should be strategic in today’s crowded landscape of content and data. How do you capture the attention of your audiences or stakeholders? How do you make sure that you are seen and heard, especially the public and policymakers? I think identifying and understanding your audiences should be the first step in mind in communicating your research. We need to know that each person has different interests and priorities. Asking a few questions could help you identify your target audience. For example, who can benefit from my research? How should I present my findings in a way that my audience could understand? Besides, publishing research in an open-access format so that others can view it unrestrictedly and sharing main results through social media/blogs or present at conferences are effective ways to engage with your audience.
Early career researchers are critical to the future of research, but they often face many challenges and feeling isolated when striving for societal impact. One of the key things that early career researchers should do is collaborating and seeking support from their supervisors and senior colleagues. Collaborating on research projects that colleagues are conducting may allow them to start publishing and contribute to society while securing opportunities and funding to begin new research.
Lack of resources to conduct research can mean you do not have results to write about or develop products/technology that can benefit society. Although funding is crucial, applying for grants as an early-career researcher can be challenging. The early career researchers may need supports from their institution for a research start-up fund and training on how to write a grant proposal.
Early career researchers should be given opportunities to communicate their research findings and express their views. Perhaps, a community platform is a way to do so.
Publishers play an important role in supporting and facilitating researchers to disseminate scientific information to the community. I envisage that research data is an integral part of scholarly communications, especially in addressing the SDGs. Hence, it would be helpful if publishers could provide formal channels to share data or make data publicly available. This could promote the importance and value of the data as a scholarly output. The Springer Nature’s open data journal, Scientific Data, is one such example. Besides, publishers should encourage researchers to share their datasets in trusted repositories for maximum reuse.
Boon Chin Tan is a senior lecturer holding the position of Deputy Director in the Centre for Research in Biotechnology for Agriculture (CEBAR) at the University of Malaya.
His current research aims to combine molecular and genome-editing approaches to understand the environmental stress-responsive mechanisms in crops and provide solutions to mitigate environmental stress for these crops. He is also actively involved in conducting educational programs for farmers to promote sustainable agriculture.
Boon Chin Tan is currently an Editorial Board Member of Molecular Biotechnology (MOBI), Asia Pacific Journal of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology (APJMBB) and Discover Food. He is also an Honorary Secretary for the Malaysian Society for Molecular Biology and Biotechnology, council member for the Malaysian Proteomics Society and Asia Oceania Agricultural Proteomics Organization.