Mark Young

Plant population and community modelling

The objective of plant population and community modelling in the Agroecology group is to understand, and where necessary anticipate, the effects on arable vegetation of technical innovations and global change, and thereby to understand the role of the vegetation in the sustainability of the arable system as a whole.  System-level responses, such as primary production, nutrient retention and biodiversity, emerge over time, often unpredictably, from complex ecological and evolutionary processes. By developing models of plant populations and communities, we are able to assess the response of arable vegetation in a way that can't be addressed by experiment or observation alone.

Our current focus is the influence of the genetic and functional characteristics (life-history traits or their physiological determinants) of plants on system-level properties. A common thread is the definition of populations and communities in terms of the genetic and functional variation of individuals. Using the individual enables intra- and inter-specific variation to be presented on a common scale and both ecological and evolutionary processes to be combined in a single model framework.

Sustainable Systems

The biological mechanisms that drive primary production and other ecological functions should not be compromised: a balance must be kept between what is removed from the field for subsistence and profit and what is left to support the system’s essential life forms. We are attempting to define the bounds and conditions in which these life forms can operate so as to ensure the system’s long term health and resilience.   

.. a habit of mind in harmony with reason and the order of nature ..

Cicero, MT. De Inventione

Trait characterisation in crops

Photograph of growing-tubes in SCRI glasshousesCrop productivity has increased dramatically in recent decades through a combination of improved arable management and breeding of higher yielding crop genotypes.

Further increases in productivity are needed to cope with growing demands for food. The price, availability and high energy costs (carbon footprint) of inorganic fertiliser mean that food production will need to be achieved with fewer chemical inputs and with greater emphasis on a sustainable approach to arable cropping. 

New crop genotypes that require less chemical fertiliser and pesticide for a given level of yield could be developed by characterising plant traits associated with reduced nutrient requirements and high pest tolerance.

Contact: Alison Karley

Plants and plant communities

Photograph of happy field workers sampling plantsResearch in Plants and Plant Communities aims to define those properties of crops and arable plants that would maintain yield and the purity of yield while reducing the environmental footprint of cropping. The work includes basic studies of plant processes such as germination, flowering and nutrition, genetic and physiological variation in model crops and arable plants, the ecology of plant (seedbank) communities, plants as the base of the arable food web and models of geneflow, selection and evolution. The practical output will be combinations of plant traits that can be targeted in crop improvement or encouraged by agronomy. Disciplines and methods include plant physiology, genetics, statistics, modelling, microscopy and field survey.

Agroecology News Archive

Ecological roles of weeds In an invited plenary talk, Geoff Squire represented the group's ideas on the roles of weeds at the XIII Colloque International sur la Biologie des Mauvaises Herbes held at Dijon, France 8-10 September 2009. The main points of the talk were: weeds have been with us in northern Europe for more than 5000 years - we haven't got rid of them; so we need to understand them better, spend less trying to remove them and make use of their positive roles in the ecosystem. Arable cropping in Scotland is already some way towards coexisting with weeds: its cereal yields and weed seedbanks are both among the highest in the UK!  (Added 14 September 2009)

Publications archive

Refereed publications and major reports from the Agroecology group

Newton, A.C., Begg, G.S., Swanston, J.S. 2008. Deployment of diversity for enhanced crop function. Annals of Applied Biology (doi:10.1111/j.1744-7348.2008.00303.x).

Monocultures are used in high-input systems to maximise short term profitability, but over time yield and quality can become unstable. This paper considers how diversity can be reintroduced to cropping systems to confer stability without compromising quality. It combines expertise between three of SCRI's programmes: Pathology (ACN), Genetics (JSS) and Environment (GSB).

Squire, G.R., Hawes, C., Begg, G.S., Young, M.W. 2009. Cumulative impact of GM herbicide-tolerant cropping on arable plants assessed through species-based and functional taxonomies. Environmental Science and Pollution Research 16(1), 85-94. Published online 2 December 2008 (doi: 10.1007/s11356-008-0072-6).

Co-existence with GM crops in European Agriculture

SIGMEA logoThe EU project SIGMEA is examining the feasibility of growing GM and other crops together in the agricultural landscapes of Europe. A central part of the project - Workpackage 2 or WP2 - collates and analyses experimental studies on geneflow by seed and pollen, but also considers field experiments on the ecological impacts of GM cropping. WP2 has over 20 partners who are sharing and analysing definitive data on over 100 field experiments, making the SIGMEA database the most comprehensive of its type. The agroecology group at SCRI co-ordinates this unique synthesis of biology and agronomy. Contact: Geoff Squire

Ecological biosafety and gene flow

Image of Laying out field experiment in the Carse of GowrieThe agroecology group at SCRI continues to make major contributions through research and extension to questions on GM crops. We examine their potential roles in cropping systems, their positive and negative environmental effects, the movement of genetic material through pollen and seed and the  means by which GM and other crops might coexist in European agriculture. We combine knowledge of biology, modelling and molecular science to answer some of the most important topical questions in ecological biosafety. All our findings are made public. Members of the group are regularly invited to advise national and international commissions in biosafety and to develop training methods for environmental risk assessment.

Farm Scale Evaluations (FSEs) of GM Herbicide Tolerant Crops

Map showing FSE sites 2000 - 2002

The group conducts impartial and independent assessment of GM crops by research financed through public funding. The Farm Scale Evaluations (FSE) of GM herbicide tolerant (GMHT) crops was commissioned by government and, including follow-up studies on GM persistence, ran from 1999 to 2006. It arose out of general concerns that the intensification of farming had reduced arable biodiversity to the point where species were disappearing from the UK and essential functions of the habitat were impaired. Despite potential benefits of GM cropping with herbicide tolerant varieties, concerns were raised that GMHT cropping would lead to even further impairment of arable systems. The FSE was commissioned to investigate the potential effects of this type of biotechnology.

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