Healthy global population | 1 February, 2017
Professor Andrew Meharg has gained a worldwide reputation for his research into a global food problem – the high levels of toxic arsenic in rice, the staple diet of half the world’s population.
But he would be the first to admit there is a certain irony in this. He points out, ‘No, we don’t grow a lot of rice in Belfast!’ But what is certainly being grown is the reputation of the Institute for Global Food Security and the School of Biological Sciences where he is Professor of Plant and Soil Sciences.
Andy says, ‘We’re interested in research that makes a difference throughout the world. The work I’ve been doing was characterisation of arsenic in rice. Our work has led to new regulations from the EU and the World Health Organisation (WHO), setting guidance standards, and it’s changing US laws. People are recognising the problem, the dangers of disease such as lung and bladder cancer. Now we want them to act and come up with solutions.’
He and his team have come up with one answer – developing a rice cooker that works like a coffee percolator. ‘It is a real breakthrough,’ he says.
Andy has been Acting Director of the Institute in the period between the promotion of its first Director, Professor Chris Elliott, to the role of Pro-Vice-Chancellor of the Faculty of Medicine, Health and Life Sciences and the arrival of the new Director, Professor Nigel Scollan, a world expert in animal agriculture and associated supply chains.
A Queen’s graduate, Andy began his academic career in chemistry, focusing on plants and soils. ‘I was really interested in thinking about more fundamental environmental issues, and I’ve been able to use chemistry in this direction too.
‘We’re looking at how pollutants move through agronomic food chains, how they get into soils, how they’re transferred into plants, and the human exposure to that. We base all our analysis on high end analytical chemistry.’
Queen’s is investing £6m towards the work of the Institute, supporting three main research themes: the integrity of food supply, disease and nutrition, and the farms of the future – how to change agricultural practices to enhance profitability and sustainability without compromising biodiversity and ecological stability.
The Institute will also be a hugely important component of the new £39m building for the School of Biological Sciences, due to open in 2018.
Andy spent 13 years at the University of Aberdeen before coming back to Queen’s five years ago.
‘I could see what was happening here. This Institute is a whole new way of thinking, a new and novel approach to agriculture. It’s about the whole process, from the soil right the way to human health outcomes, how food is central to that and how the choices we make about food affect our livelihood and the health of the planet.
We have a considerable flow of people from around the globe working in our labs as visitors, as PhD students, as postdoctoral fellows and as staff. We have people from China, Bangladesh, Brazil, Thailand and elsewhere – all working on the problems with rice but doing it here in Belfast. The influence we have and the impact we make are remarkable.’
And there are the graduates. ‘Our key industry in Northern Ireland is agriculture and we are creating the future leaders of that industry. They leave with skills and they leave with responsibility.
‘The students we train are virtually 100% employed straight off. They have what the market needs and wants but they also have that wider knowledge and experience of the global issues that are important to us all.’
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