British scientists have launched 12 new research projects to help address the challenges of agriculture and food security in developing countries.

Funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and the Department for International Development (DFID), some £7M is being spent on the work.

The new research is aimed at tackling some of the most damaging and widespread pests, diseases and harsh environmental conditions which can devastate crop yields across the developing world.

“Three out of four poor people in developing countries live in rural areas and most depend on agriculture for their livelihoods,” said a BBSRC statement.

“Increasing agricultural productivity will benefit millions through higher incomes, more and cheaper food, and more jobs in both rural and urban areas.”

The new projects will look at how a variety of crops – from maize to coconuts, rice to bananas – respond at a molecular level to hostile factors, including pests and diseases.

Their findings will offer new opportunities to develop crops better able to survive and thrive in their changing environments.

One project being undertaken by UK, Canadian and Tanzanian scientists is aimed at halting armyworm rampage in Africa.

The African armyworm is a major migratory insect pest, which feeds voraciously on cereal crops, and the project aims to use a naturally occurring virus as a biological pesticide.

Another project, spearheaded by researchers from the UK, India and Senegal, aims to develop crops which are resistant to witchweed. This is a noxious parasitic plant which attacks all manner of subsistence crops in the Third world.

Other work involves improving the genetic tolerance to drought of pearl millet in India and Ghana, fighting nematode worms with fungus in Kenya and reducing arsenic levels in rice in Asia.

Commenting on the new research, Gareth Thomas, parliamentary under-secretary of state for international development said: “Investing in science and research is essential to provide poor farmers with the seeds, knowledge and tools to make a better life for themselves.

“This research has the potential to revolutionise farming in the developing world and reduce global poverty.”

The research is taking place under the Sustainable Agriculture Research for International Development (SARID) project, launched by BBSRC and DFID in 2006 to help meet the Millennium Development Goals for combating poverty and starvation.

Details of all the projects being funded by the new initiative are available in a media briefing.