Securing food supplies up to 2050: the challenges faced by the UK - Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee Contents


4  ACTING ON THE VISION

Targets for production

95. We have explained that we believe that the UK should aim to produce more food, more sustainably and we have explored Defra's responsibility for articulating this vision. In this chapter, we focus on how Defra should go about realising the vision and the challenges it will face as it does so. It could be argued that one way to increase the production of certain commodities would be for Defra to set targets. Defra could announce that it wanted the UK's self sufficiency in apples to rise from the current 33% to 50%. Hilary Benn was sceptical about the target-setting approach:

    To be honest, I do not know for the life of me how you would set a target for potato production in the UK, and what the policy would be if you did not meet the target I do not quite understand either.[152]

Both these points are convincing arguments against production targets. It is certainly difficult to think of a logical rationale for setting the level of the targets. The idea that UK production should increase in line with the projections of global demand made at the FAO conference—increasing by 50% by 2030 and doubling by 2050—is not credible. Chatham House commented: "There is no economic or environmental rationale for government to set targets to raise UK output of particular food products (whether expressed in calories, kilos or dollars) in step with changes in global food demand."[153] Nor is it clear what action the Government could take if the targets were not met, or how setting targets would in itself achieve an increase in production without a guaranteed buyer for the commodities. In theory, the Government could buy the surplus commodities and use them as food stocks, but this would be viable only for non-perishable commodities.

96. There are serious problems with targets, but there are also problems with leaving food production entirely to the market. Hilary Benn commented:

    [I]f we were not as a world to make progress in producing more food for a growing population, one would expect that to be reflected in the price, and that would then have a consequence of bringing forward more production.[154]

If demand increases and prices rise, the food and farming industries will certainly attempt to supply that demand. However, unless they have the capacity to respond to market signals they may not be able produce more food sufficiently quickly. When we asked Peter Kendall for the NFU's definition of food security he replied: "It is not about setting targets for what we should produce, it is about having the tools and the instruments that allow us to meet our potential going forward."[155]

97. Targets are a crude and, in most cases, impractical way of increasing food production. We see no point in Defra adopting production targets for particular commodities. Instead, Defra should concentrate on helping to build capacity within the food and farming industries so that they are well placed to respond to market signals. However, if the global or national situation with regard to food were to worsen significantly, and the market did fail to deliver supplies of certain food stuffs, the possibility that the Government may need to consider production targets, and Government-held stocks of particular commodities, should not be ruled out altogether.

The Common Agricultural Policy

98. In 1957, the Treaty of Rome set out five objectives for the Common Agricultural Policy:

  • to increase agricultural productivity by promoting technical progress and by ensuring the rational development of agricultural production and the optimum utilisation of the factors of production, in particular labour;
  • thus to ensure a fair standard of living for the agricultural community, in particular by increasing the individual earnings of persons engaged in agriculture;
  • to stabilise markets;
  • to assure the availability of supplies;
  • to ensure that supplies reach consumers at reasonable prices.

99. Although these are nominally still the objectives of the CAP, in practice the policy has changed a great deal since its inception. There were reforms during the 1980s and 1990s and particularly far-reaching reforms in 2003, when the single payment scheme was introduced. This scheme broke the link between direct payments and production, although some production payments were retained. The next chance for substantial reform will be in 2013, when the budget for the CAP can be revised.

100. In December 2005, Defra and the Treasury published A Vision for the Common Agricultural Policy, which set out the Government's determination to eliminate direct payments to farmers altogether and to concentrate support on rural development and environmental protection. We drew attention to some of the weaknesses of this document in our report, The UK Government's "Vision for the Common Agricultural Policy", which emphasised the lack of analysis that underpinned the Government's proposals. A Vision for the Common Agricultural Policy discussed the impact of the elimination of direct payments on food security. It stated that food security was "normally associated with developing countries where low production, unaffordable imports and distributional issues mean that food supplies are uncertain or even inadequate". It did note that "developed countries that can easily afford imports are also concerned about food security" and that concerns had been expressed that "reducing agricultural domestic support levels will result in a decrease in both domestic production and production capacity, and hence a further reliance on imports". However, it concluded that the impact of the proposed removal of direct payments on domestic production "may not be that significant" and that, in any event, "although food security is often considered to be synonymous with self-sufficiency, domestic production is neither a necessary nor sufficient condition for food security".[156]

101. The 2008 Health Check gave member states an interim opportunity to make limited reforms to the CAP before the changes to the budget in 2013. In May 2008, a Defra press release stated:

    The Health Check is an important step towards the Government's longer term vision for the CAP, published in 2005, which calls for the end of all direct farm payments by 2015 to 2020, leaving the CAP targeted at the protection of the environment.[157]

The Health Check negotiations took place at the height of the concern about food prices. A report in The Daily Telegraph underlines just how differently some member states reacted: "Britain argues that high food prices make subsidies for growing food even less necessary, while France is using precisely the same issue to argue the inverse—that the food crisis makes farm supports more vital than ever."[158]

102. In the event, the Health Check, which was agreed in November 2008, resulted in a further reduction in payments linked directly to production—a process known as decoupling—and shifted more money from direct payments to the rural development budget. In January 2009, the European Parliament's resolution on The Common Agricultural Policy and Global Food Security stated that the CAP "should remain the cornerstone of EU food-security policy now and beyond 2013" but commented that the European Parliament believed strongly that "the CAP should be further adapted to meet food-security concerns". The European Parliament stated that it was disappointed that the European Commission had not fully faced up to the challenge in its Health Check proposals. It also said that it was "opposed to the dismantling of market management measures and cuts in farmers' support payments."[159]

103. Our witnesses did not share the French Government's view that there should be a return to direct payments for production. Peter Kendall, the President of the NFU, said that there was a collective commitment to decoupling because "it stops us having false production". He explained: "If I have to plant an acre of wheat to get my support, it means I carry on doing it regardless of what the market signal is."[160] However, there was strong support for the retention of some form of direct payment to farmers. For Peter Kendall, it was partly about retaining capacity. He stated that decoupled payments enabled farmers to stand back from the market when the signals were not there, but retain the ability to respond quickly when they were: "I can probably crop the best half of my farm in those difficult years and when the price signals get better I have got the resources in place to go and farm the whole of the land."[161] Anastassios Haniotis of the European Commission agreed that retaining the capacity to produce was important: "what you have to guarantee is the ability of land to be available for production […] and that is why we consider that a certain level of income support should remain".[162] This is not an argument that holds much sway if one believes, as Defra argued in A Vision for the Common Agricultural Policy, that domestic production is not a necessary condition for food security. However, we believe that it is a necessary condition and, more to the point, Defra has recently placed increasing emphasis on the importance of retaining a domestic supply base. Defra should consider whether its stance on the elimination of all direct payments and its new position on the contribution made to food security by domestic production are reconcilable.

104. It was also argued that subsidies were a way of protecting producers from the higher environmental and welfare standards that the European Union imposed. Peter Kendall commented: "While […] I can have my market distorted by different welfare and different environmental schemes, I need some sort of protection."[163] Professor Allan Buckwell, Policy Director at the CLA, made a similar point, but approached the argument from a slightly different perspective. He stated that removing public support "is not an intelligent thing to do […] until you have agreed how you are going to pay for the environmental services you want when you have got this more market-oriented agriculture".[164] Anastassios Haniotis's comments back up this point. He cited the findings of a study that examined different scenarios for European agriculture in 2020, one of which involved "the complete abolition of any type of public support for agriculture, from subsidies to tariffs". He commented:

    The results do not indicate a lower overall level of production; in fact in most sectors production would slightly increase, but what they indicate is more intensive production in some environmentally sensitive and vulnerable regions and land abandonment in what you can call least favoured areas or least competitive regions.[165]

105. Direct payments result in the provision of environmental services because producers are required to meet certain requirements—known as cross-compliance conditions—in order to receive the payments. Willem Jan Laan, Director of Global External Affairs at Unilever, drew attention to a number of weaknesses in the cross-compliance system that needed to be addressed. He cited a report by the European Court of Auditors that concluded that the conditions should be simplified and clarified, and that Member States should be better at implementing them.[166] However, Professor Lang drew attention to another problem: the scope and nature of the cross-compliance conditions. He commented: "What we are not doing is linking environmental gains into food production. We are seeing the decoupled CAP as paying for environmental goods instead of paying for food to deliver those environmental goods."[167] He wanted the CAP to evolve to become a Common Sustainable Food Policy.

106. We do not consider that the interests of food security would be served by a return to direct production subsides under the CAP, although, again, if the global situation with regard to food supplies were to worsen significantly, the possibility of some form of direct production subsidy should not be excluded altogether. The CAP is a way of rewarding farmers for the provision of environmental services. However, the focus of the post-2013 CAP should be on sustainable food production, rather than land management by itself. Europe has a responsibility to contribute to global food supplies and the EU must ensure that European countries are in a position to respond to increased demand. We are disappointed that the Lisbon Treaty did not address the out-of-date nature of European agricultural obligations and reflect the increasing importance of sustainability. The principles of the new CAP should be reflected in future amendments of EU treaties.

Research and development

107. Professor Beddington, the Government's Chief Scientific Adviser, commented: "Science and technology has contributed greatly in the past to enhancing food security in the face of substantial increases in demand, and there is enormous potential for it to do so in the future."[168] As an example of the contribution science could make to securing food supplies, Professor Beddington cited a study into yields for wheat in the UK. He compared the current average yield of 7.74 tonnes per hectare with the theoretical yield potential of 19.2 tonnes per hectare and commented that although the yield that could be attained would realistically be much less, there were still "substantial gains to be made". He stated that by 2025 and 2050, the realistic yield potentials could be 11.4 tonnes per hectare and 13 tonnes per hectare respectively.[169] Science has a part to play not only in raising production and productivity, but in ensuring that it is possible to do so sustainably. Professor Beddington described matching nutrient supply and demand—to maximise crop production whilst minimising leaching to the environment—as "a key area where science can contribute". He stated that it has been estimated that, as a result of work by Rothamsted Research, surplus nitrogen applied to wheat crops was now less than a third of what it was 20 years ago.[170] Andrew Wood of Natural England commented that, at its best, the precision targeting of fertilisers meant that farmers could use less fertiliser and use it "in appropriate places so run-off is less and impacts are less."[171]

108. UK science was seen as important not only because of the role it could play in securing the UK's food supplies, but because of its potential to contribute to the security of food supplies in other parts of the world. Andrew Jarvis of Chatham House was one of several witnesses to emphasise the importance of "creating solutions" that could be used in "the wider world".[172] Northern Foods drew attention to the benefits even simple solutions could bring:

    India is the leading producer of fruit and vegetables yet 40% of produce currently grown fails to reach the consumer because of a lack of preservation and distribution infrastructure. UK expertise can be employed far beyond national boundaries to help develop local solutions to global problems.[173]

109. The relationship between Embrapa—the research agency of the Brazilian Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Food Supply—and Rothamstead Research in Harpenden in the UK is an example of positive international collaboration on food and farming research. It is also a sign of the high regard in which the UK's research is held. Embrapa is developing a series of laboratories, which are known as Labexes, in other countries as a way of placing scientists at international centres of excellence so that they can monitor scientific advances, while building up links with other researchers. It recently set up a Labex at Rothamsted. This kind of relationship has the potential to make a significant contribution to global food security by facilitating the sharing of best practice and the latest discoveries.

110. There was some good news about the current state of food and farming research in the UK, although the positive comments were usually qualified in some way. The John Innes Centre commented:

    The UK has a strong science base in both Universities and Research Institutes however research and development is urgently needed to improve our ability to exploit the full genetic potential of crops, and to develop R&D for improving the resilience of crop production to global climate change, while maintaining adequate production with reduced impact on the environment and reduced inputs.[174]

Rothamsted Research stated:

    In 1970, the then Agricultural Research Council supported a comprehensive network of over 20 sector-relevant research institutes which underpinned the agricultural industry. Today BBSRC has only four remaining institutes focused on agricultural and food science; these remaining institutions are however demonstrably internationally excellent in their respective spheres of operation.[175]

111. The four remaining institutes mentioned above are Rothamstead Research and North Wyke Researach; the Institute for Animal Health; the Institute of Food Research; and the John Innes Centre.[176] We have recently visited all four and have seen the strengths of UK research into food and farming for ourselves: we encountered dedicated, enthusiastic researchers, who were engaged in a range of valuable projects, such as the work the John Innes Centre is about to undertake to analyse plant, animal and microbial genomes, Rothamsted's soil analysis project, and the Institute of Food Research's work to minimise waste in the food chain. However, many of the scientists we spoke to had serious concerns about some aspects of UK food and farming research. Similar concerns were voiced repeatedly in the submissions we received and during the oral evidence sessions. They fell under three main headings: the size of the food and farming research budget; what the budget is spent on; and what happens to the research once it has been carried out. We explore these concerns in more detail below.

112. UK scientific research is crucial to the security of food supplies. Without adequately structured, funded and focused research, the challenge of producing more food and producing it sustainably will not be met. Concentrating on developing a strong research base in the UK could also have a beneficial impact on global food security. The Government should encourage UK research institutes and universities to build more links with research centres that are working on food and farming worldwide, particularly in developing countries.

THE RESEARCH BUDGET

113. Until very recently, central funding for research was channelled through the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS) in the form of the science budget. However, in June 2009, DIUS was merged with the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform to create a new Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, which will now be responsible for the science budget. Over 85% of the science budget goes to the seven Research Councils, which direct and fund research across the UK university sector and in research institutes. The Research Council most relevant to food and farming is the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC). The remaining 15% of the science budget is directed to the National Academies, capital funding and various other programmes. Defra also commissions its own research.

114. One of the main concerns was the decline in the budget for public-sector research into food and farming since the mid-1980s. Defra stated that it provided £68 million a year for food and farming research, including £39 million for animal health and welfare. It commented that the BBSRC provided £185 million and the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board £20 million, and that industry and NGO contributions to LINK research—a subject to which we return—amounted to £6 million.[177] The NFU stated that, between 1986 and 1998, there had been a 45% real-terms cut in publicly funded agricultural science in the UK. It commented: "There is normally a 20 year lag between initial research and application, so the results of those cuts are now appearing." It gave the example of European cereal annual yield improvements, which "were in the order of 4% in 1980s, 2% in the 1990s, and less than 1% currently".[178] On Defra research in particular, Rothamsted Research told us that its funding from Defra had more than halved from £7.1 million in 2002-03 to £3.2 million in 2008-09.[179] There are some signs that the decline in spending that began during the 1980s is being reversed: Professor Beddington sent us a table that showed that the BBSRC's spending on food research rose from £129 million in 2003-04 to £189 million in 2008-09. However, because BBSRC's overall research budget went up, the proportion of spending on food research remained the same, at roughly 50%.[180]

115. Despite the fact that the BBSRC is spending more money on food research now than it was five years ago, Professor Douglas Kell, the Chief Executive of the BBSRC, recently called for investment in agricultural sciences to increase by £100 million a year to improve the security of food supplies.[181] In evidence to us, Professor Beddington also called for increased spending on "appropriate agricultural research". He agreed that there had been a "significant decline" in agricultural research and added: "if you take out the animal welfare and animal health agenda, that decline is even greater". He commented that this was "not the ideal time to be talking about major new investment", but said that the matter was "sufficiently important" to warrant seeking an increase in spending.[182] On Defra in particular, he commented that the decline in Defra's research budget for food was unfortunate and should be reversed.[183]

116. The public sector is not the only source of funding for food and farming research. The private sector also funds its own research. As part of the inquiry, we visited Syngenta's Jealott's Hill research centre, which is described as "the largest dedicated agricultural research centre in Europe".[184] We were impressed by what we saw and heard, which included details of Syngenta's work on a new fungicide. However, Anastassios Haniotis of the European Commission drew attention to the difference between public and private sector research:

    Part of the problem is that the focus of private research is different than the focus of public research because the private research will take place exactly where the sector involved with the provision of inputs in agriculture sees more immediate possibility to get some profits. This is why they are in business. Public research tends to cover areas where the potential to reach a level where you make a new product profitable is much longer term […].[185]

We certainly do not believe that the entire food and farming research effort should be left to the public sector. However, we agree that there is a difference in focus between private and public sector research, and the former cannot be regarded as a replacement for the latter.

117. There are several new groups for food and farming research that could be used to make the case for increased public-sector investment. On 14 January 2009, Defra announced the creation of the Food and Environment Research Agency, which brings together Defra's Central Science Laboratory, Plant Health Division, Plant Health and Seeds Inspectorate, and the Plant Variety Rights Office and Seeds Division as one agency. There is also the recently established Food Research Sub-Group of the Food Strategy Task Force, which brings together public sector funders of food-related research, including the Research Councils and the devolved Administrations, and which is chaired by Professor Beddington. The aims of the group are to take forward a cross-Government research strategy for food; to promote the co-ordination and coherence of food and agricultural research programmes and funding across departments and the wider public sector; to provide a forum where cross-government food research can be addressed, and to facilitate engagement with stakeholders. Allied to the Food Research Sub-Group, there is the Food Research Partnership, which brings together academics and senior representatives from the public sector, non-governmental organisations and industry, and aims to provide a forum for cross-sector dialogue. [186] These new groups are, in one sense, a welcome sign of the increased importance being attached to food and farming research, however it is essential that they produce results.

118. More money needs to be spent on public-sector food and farming research in the UK. The long-term nature of returns from research means that this money needs to be committed without delay. We urge Defra, the Government's Chief Scientific Adviser, and the BBSRC to continue to make the case for increased investment in food and farming research, using new structures such as the Food Research Sub-Group to convey their arguments in a co-ordinated and coherent way.

THE FOCUS OF THE RESEARCH

119. There was concern that the existing food and farming budget was not being spent on the "right" projects, which in this context means projects that will enhance the security of the UK's and the world's food supplies. There were two slightly different, although related, arguments. The first was concerned with the balance between basic and applied research. According to The Frascati Manual: Proposed Standard Practice for Surveys on Research and Experimental Development, which is published by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, basic and applied research are defined as follows:

    Basic Research: Basic Research is experimental or theoretical work undertaken primarily to acquire new knowledge of the underlying foundations of phenomena and observable facts, without any particular application or use in view.

    Applied Research: Applied Research is also original investigation in order to acquire new knowledge. It is, however, directed primarily towards a specific practical aim or objective.[187]

The submission from the Tenant Farmers Association was one of many that commented on the Government's withdrawal from applied research and the importance of such research to addressing the UK's future food needs.[188] When we asked Professor Beddington whether the public sector had got the right balance between "blue skies" research and practical research, he replied: "My instinct is that the balance is wrong, but it needs clearly to be examined and debated."[189] He commented that it was the sort of matter that the Food Research Sub-Group could explore. Dr Donal Murphy-Bokern commented that there was a need to restore parity of esteem for applied research. He stated: "In the UK, a researcher who addresses questions of practical significance to wider society is usually regarded as less able or less worthy of peer recognition than one who addresses research questions defined by him/herself or by scientific peers."[190]

120. The second argument was concerned specifically with Defra's research priorities. Bill Clark of Rothamsted Research commented: "in the last five, ten years, Defra's policies have not been about production and production-orientated research just was not done. As a result of that, we have lost the expertise."[191] This is another area where Hilary Benn's statement about British agriculture producing as much food as possible needs to filter through into action. If Defra really does want UK agriculture to produce as much food as possible, it must ensure that the research it commissions reflects this. Dr Murphy-Bokern, who used to work at Defra and was involved in the development and management of its agricultural research programme between 1999 and 2007, drew our attention to the effect of changes that Defra had made to the management of its research in recent years. He explained that the task of setting research priorities had been increasingly handed over to policy teams within Defra and commented: "The direct coupling of research programmes with individual policies means that the flap of a butterfly's wing in policy development or even just in the way policy is communicated by ministers can cause a storm in research prioritisation."[192] This is worrying giving the long-term nature of the challenges involved in securing food supplies. The focus of public sector food and farming research should be on increasing production sustainably and on realising benefits to the consumer and to the environment across the whole of the food chain. Defra should develop a long-term strategic research agenda, overseen by its Chief Scientific Adviser, rather than allowing its research priorities to be determined wholly or largely by policy teams. Such an approach must reflect both the potential of UK agriculture, and the threats it faces from pests, diseases and climate change.

Research into genetically modified organisms

121. One area of research that elicited widely different views was genetic modification. On the one hand, Professor Beddington commented: "Proponents of GM who claim it is the only answer, I believe, are incorrect, but it may well be part of an answer to a number of very difficult problems".[193] He emphasised that it was not a matter of thinking that GM technology was either "good or bad", but a question of whether GM technology could solve the problem. He added: "If it can solve the problem, we need to be thinking about it."[194] He agreed that one of the reasons for uncertainty about GM technology was that there was "some distrust of the large corporations that were involved in it". This point was also made by Peter Kendall, the President of the NFU, who stated that if the Government was more involved in the GM debate "there might be less cynicism and less ability to say this is all about the private sector chasing short-term greed at the expense of the wider environment".[195]

122. At the other end of the spectrum from the views expressed about the potential benefits of GM technology, were the views of Anthony Jackson, who commented:

    It is still amazing that after a quarter of a century of failure some people still seem to need to peddle the nonsense that GM crops can play any part in solving any of the problems that we have concerning food and farming.[196]

The Soil Association also expressed strong opposition to GM technology, citing as reasons the technology's "inherent uncertainty" and "inherent risk".[197] When we asked Defra its views on GM technology, Hilary Benn commented that the Government was responsible for addressing two questions: "one, is food produced by GM safe to eat, and I know of no evidence that it is not, and, secondly, is it safe to 'grow', in other words what is the environmental impact of it?" He added that "in order to be able to answer the second question you need to be able to do trials" and said that it was "a source of real frustration to me and to others that there are some who do not want to allow us even to find the answer to the question".[198]

123. We agree that there are risks and uncertainties involved in GM technology, but this seems like an argument for further research, rather than an argument for dismissing GM technology out of hand. It is not within the scope of this report to offer a detailed assessment of the role of GM technology in securing food supplies up to 2050 and beyond. However, we believe that the potential of GM technology in the context of sustainable food production should be explored further. Defra has a role to play not only in commissioning some of the research, but in gaining public trust through the provision of comprehensible information, based on evidence. It should make an effort to "negotiate a ceasefire" on the destruction of GM crop trials so that more facts can be established.

TRANSLATIONAL SERVICES AND RESEARCH

124. One of the strongest concerns voiced during our visits to the research institutes was about the lack of services to translate the results of research into practice. Disquiet on this subject was also expressed during our oral evidence session with Rothamsted Research and Warwick HRI. Bill Clark of Rothamsted Research told the Committee that there was "world-class science going on in research centres in the UK which has impacts all around the world," but that it was "world-class science on the shelf" because of the lack of translational services designed to make practical use of it.[199] Professor David Pink of Warwick HRI commented: "You can carry out research but if you have not got those translational skills […] there is a blockage in the pipeline".[200] The NFU commented: "Whilst the UK farming industry benefits from a plethora of private sector consultants, it has lacked a single delivery vehicle for applied technology since the privatisation of ADAS (Agricultural Development and Advisory Service) in the 1990s."[201] Our visit to Brazil illustrated the importance of translational services. Embrapa, the Brazilian food and farming research agency, has a close relationship with both large and small-scale farmers, enabling them to benefit from its work. At Farm Pamplona, we were told that 50% of the seed varieties the farm purchases have been developed by Embrapa. If the farm has a specific problem, it asks Embrapa to work on a solution.

125. Hilary Benn commented: "we need to think creatively about how we can take the product of the research because in the end it will be whether it is applied on the ground […] that will make the difference".[202] Defra told us that one of the ways it provides translational services is through LINK projects. LINK funding falls under five headings: food (advanced manufacturing technologies and quality); horticulture; renewable materials; sustainable arable; and sustainable livestock production. It commented: "These programmes have been very successful in supporting projects that solve practical problems for these sectors."[203] Under standard LINK contracts, the Government provides 50% of the total project costs. The other 50% must be matched by industry. During the visit to the John Innes Centre, the Committee was told that it was hard for small companies to provide the level of funding that was needed to be involved in LINK projects. Professor Beddington praised the LINK programme, but commented:

    Government should not be putting money in to solely benefit a large corporation which can actually match those funds. Getting a model where, in fact, you get a buy-in from smaller enterprises has got to be an aspiration for us.[204]

Defra told us: "Across Government, the Technology Strategy Board (TSB) is now responsible for collaborative R&D in support of innovation." It commented that discussions were in progress with the TSB "on setting up, with other funders and industry interests, a sustainable agri-food chain 'Innovation Platform' to address future needs for innovation and translational research or technology transfer".[205] It is important that the new Innovation Platform considers how to involve even very small enterprises in its projects.

126. In addition to LINK, Defra mentioned several other translational services that it funds, including the Farming Futures communications project. Defra explained that Farming Futures uses fact sheets, case studies and workshops to provide advice to farmers on how to deal with the impact of climate change and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.[206] This, and the other services Defra mentions, seem commendable, but the level of anxiety we encountered among the scientific community about the translation of research into practice suggests that, by themselves, Defra's existing services are not sufficient. It is essential that, once research has been carried out, its benefits can be realised by people working in the food and farming sectors. The extent to which this was identified as a failing in the present system is a serious cause for concern. In conjunction with the BBSRC, Defra should set out what more it intends to do to address this failing. There is a case for the reinstatement of a public-sector provider of advice on best practice, similar to the old ADAS system, to co-ordinate and build on existing translational services. It should act as an agricultural equivalent of Business Link.

Skills

127. Several submissions expressed concern about the erosion—or even disappearance—of particular skills connected with food. These concerns centred on farming and applied research. Rothamsted Research commented: "[T]he average age of farmers is in the late 50s, and that of researchers and advisers with expertise in production agriculture is similar. This resource of skills and knowledge will be lost unless appropriate policies and funding for succession are rapidly introduced."[207] It referred to "a crisis in succession in areas of applied research such as agronomy, soil science, weed science and plant pathology, with a complete absence of expertise in some areas."[208] Warwick HRI stated:

    There are major weaknesses in the UK food supply chain associated with human resources. It is our view that there is likely to be a shortage of knowledge and expertise in the medium term in relation to skills associated with crop production and land management (the average age of UK farmers is estimated to be well over 50) and also in crop research and development (particularly in more applied areas such as soil science and agronomy).

It commented that recruitment of young career scientists was a "significant challenge" because plant and crop sciences were not attractive to students in comparison with other areas, such as biomedical sciences.[209] It stated that the lack of students wanting to study crop and animal production had resulted in the closure of many of the UK's agricultural colleges, with those that remained tending to specialise in non-food areas such as equine studies.[210]

128. The John Innes Centre, which commented that there was "a serious lack of national expertise in some key skills", stated:

    Defra has a role in funding training at the masters and doctoral levels, to supply staff with advanced training in these areas to UK companies, to academic research and to research at the interface between the public and private sectors, such as pre-breeding and public-good plant breeding.[211]

It described the withdrawal of the studentship scheme run by the former Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF) as "regrettable" and added: "It was anticipated that the gap in training of personnel in agricultural sciences would be met by Research Council studentship but this expectation has largely not been met."[212] The University of Reading also praised the MAFF studentship scheme and called for Defra to resume it. The university commented: "Limited funding does remain, but is a fraction of that available previously."[213] Professor Pink of Warwick HRI commented that, following the end of the MAFF studentship scheme, PhD studentships were now largely funded by the Research Councils and "have tended to move to more pure science types of PhDs". [214]

129. Defra is already aware of the need to tackle potential skills gaps in farming and applied agricultural research. On farming, it gave the example of its support for Fresh Start, an industry-led initiative that provides training and mentoring for new farmers. It also mentioned the Agri-Skills Forum, which was formed to establish a "skills agenda". Defra seems to be playing a supporting role in these initiatives, with the lead coming from the farming industry, but, given that the industry is best placed to assess its own needs, this may be no bad thing.

130. On this aspect of agricultural research, Defra commented:

    We have some concerns that expertise in agricultural sciences, and in specific technical areas (for example, soil science, weed science, "whole organism" biology, agricultural engineering), are not being replaced; universities are no longer teaching relevant courses, and long-term career prospects are limited.[215]

However, its initial submission did not explain what action it planned to take as a result of its concerns. When we asked for further information about what Defra was doing to address the potential skills gap in specific areas of agricultural research, it referred us to an independent report it commissioned into the external scientific capabilities on which it draws to support its work. Defra commented: "The report is not a statement of Defra policy or intent, but we expect it to influence future planning and strategic evidence management."[216] It also told us that, following the publication of the Royal Agricultural Society of England's (RASE) report, The Current Status of Soil and Water Management in England, Defra, the Environment Agency and Natural England had agreed that they would co-fund a "gap analysis" of research needs in these areas.[217] We emphasise the urgency of addressing the potential gaps in food and farming skills. We are particularly concerned about the applied sciences. We believe that there is already sufficient evidence for Defra to reintroduce a studentship scheme based on the scheme formerly run by MAFF, with the aim of encouraging more young people to acquire the skills that will help the UK and the world to produce more food, more sustainably. We recommend that Defra reintroduce such a scheme.

The food chain

131. The British Retail Consortium commented: "Although the operation of the supply chain in the UK is largely a private sector issue, the Government can have a significant influence and impact on its operation."[218] However, it added that, in order to play a role, "Defra needs to improve its understanding of how the UK supply chain operates, particularly beyond the farmgate."[219] This point was also made in several other submissions. Sainsbury's stated that, at times, Defra displayed "a fundamental lack of understanding about how UK supply chain operations work".[220] Melanie Leech, the President of the FDF, said that the FDF had "a very good level of dialogue with Defra", but added: "My perception is that knowledge and understanding of the industry is diminished in Defra compared with the past."[221] She also commented:

    We see Defra officials every week and within my team every day, but what does it lead to? […] The question is whether it makes any difference in terms of getting greater consistency across government and a better approach to regulation […]. [222]

Defra should set out how it plans to address the perceived weaknesses in its understanding of the food supply chain and what measures it intends to take to ensure that dialogue with the food industry leads to action. As a first step, it should arrange for more of its officials to undertake work placements in different sectors of the food and farming industries so that they can experience the problems, challenges and possibilities at first hand.

132. The BRC described the UK food system as "extremely robust".[223] It gave three reasons for this view, one of which was the strength of the food chain. It commented: "[R]etailers have improved the robustness of their chains through investment and working closely with their suppliers. […] The supermarkets have long term relationships with the majority of their suppliers, which means they have grown their businesses together forming a strong partnership."[224] The NFU had a rather different view: it described one of the challenges faced by UK agriculture as "poor food chain relations". It commented: "The best conditions for investment to increase production are long-term relations in the supply chain and relatively stable prices. Many sectors suffer from weak contractual relations, short-term attitudes, and price unpredictability leading to a lack of confidence and under-investment." [225]

133. One of the main issues is price. The NFU cited the Competition Commission's investigation into the grocery market and stated that, in the face of constant pressure from retailers and processors, farmers were finding it increasingly difficult to maintain profitability "thereby reducing room to invest in greater efficiency and/or environmental improvements."[226] Lucy Neville-Rolfe, Executive Director at Tesco, stated that "a lot of people in this country need cheap food and therefore you have to work with the industry to try to ensure the food is available at a price that people can afford."[227] However, Monty Don, the President of the Soil Association, had a different approach. He commented: "If people cannot afford food why are we not subsidising their food in the same way as we subsidise their prescriptions or their housing? Why do governments not see healthy good food as a necessary part of a healthy good society rather than as a luxury?"[228] Food must be affordable to the consumer, but its prices must also make it worthwhile to produce in the first place. An agricultural system must be profitable to be healthy. Defra should initiate work to establish whether the different agricultural sectors are currently sufficiently profitable to enable them to invest, and therefore improve productivity in the long term.

134. Defra saw its own role in supply chain relationships as, primarily, the provision of advice in the event of particular difficulties. It commented:

    [W]e consider that it is for the supply chain to determine the optimal relationships that best add value. It is not for the Government to dictate what those relationships need to be unless there's a demonstrable market failure or a public good that can only be delivered by intervening in the market.[229]

The Pig Meat Supply Chain Task Force, which Defra established in February 2009, following recommendations made in our report on The English Pig Industry, is an example of the kind of initiative that Defra can use to intervene in the supply chain. Defra commented that Pig Meat Supply Chain Task Force is intended "to identify not just how value and resilience can be added along the chain, but also how social goods (animal welfare) and citizen interests (the provision of information about pigmeat products) can be delivered too."[230] Strong relationships in the food chain are an important element of securing food supplies over the long term. Defra should consider applying the principle of the Pig Meat Supply Chain Task Force to other sectors where necessary.

135. The collapse of Dairy Farmers of Britain in June 2009 drew attention to another role for Defra. The milk co-operative had 1,800 members and accounted for 10% of UK milk production. The joint receivers, PricewaterhouseCoopers, were quoted in the Financial Times as saying that the co-operative "lost money in the liquids business because their efficiency wasn't great and they were having trouble getting money from their customers, the retailers". The same report stated: "Rival dairy companies declined to comment publicly on the group's problems but claimed they were specific to Dairy Farmers and did not reflect broader industry problems."[231] Members of the co-operative lost their savings and their payment for the milk they had supplied the previous month. The impact of the collapse of Dairy Farmers of Britain on the UK's supplies of milk is not yet fully clear, but the collapse is a reminder of the extent to which long-term objectives for securing food supplies are dependent on a secure critical infrastructure. Defra should monitor the supply chain infrastructure in the short-term to ensure that potentially damaging trends are identified and addressed before they affect the UK's abilities to secure its food supplies in the long term.


152   Q 536 Back

153   Ev 46 Back

154   Q 545 [Hilary Benn] Back

155   Q 330 Back

156   Defra and the Treasury, A Vision for the Common Agricultural Policy, December 2005, p. 47 Back

157   http://www.defra.gov.uk/news/media.htm Back

158   "Battle looms over CAP Health Check", Daily Telegraph, 20 May 2008 Back

159   The Common Agricultural Policy and Global Food Security, paras 19-20 Back

160   Q 329 Back

161   Q 328 [Mr Kendall] Back

162   Q 479 Back

163   Q 328 [Mr Kendall] Back

164   Q 326 Back

165   Q 474 Back

166   Q 264. The report to which Mr Laan referred is available at: http://eca.europa.eu/portal/pls/portal/docs/1/2246310.PDF Back

167   Q 38 Back

168   Ev 20 Back

169   Ev 22 Back

170   Ev 23 Back

171   Q 354 Back

172   Q 101. See also Q 186 and Q 384 Back

173   Ev 288 Back

174   Ev 354 Back

175   Ev 58 Back

176   Ev 396 Back

177   Ev 213 Back

178   Ev 124 Back

179   Ev 57 Back

180   Ev 41 Back

181   BBC news online, "Science cash 'to beat food riots'", 27 April 2009, http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/8020589.stm Back

182   Q 57 Back

183   Q 60 Back

184   Ev 423 Back

185   Q 501 Back

186   Further details about both these groups can be found at Ev 233 Back

187   Ev 41 Back

188   Ev 298. For similar points see Evs 388, 406, 420, 430. Back

189   Q 73 Back

190   Ev 473 Back

191   Q 155 Back

192   Ev 472 Back

193   Q 71 Back

194   Q 69 Back

195   Q 339 Back

196   Ev 290 Back

197   Q 454 Back

198   Q 567 [Hilary Benn] Back

199   Q 143 [Mr Clark] Back

200   Q 142 [Mr Pink] Back

201   Ev 124 Back

202   Q 566 [Hilary Benn] Back

203   Ev 237 Back

204   Q 65 Back

205   Ev 327 Back

206   As above. Back

207   Ev 59 Back

208   Ev 60 Back

209   Evs 63-64 Back

210   Ev 65 Back

211   Ev 353 Back

212   Ev 356 Back

213   Ev 316 Back

214   Q 180 [Professor Pink] Back

215   Ev 213 Back

216   Ev 237 Back

217   Ev 238 Back

218   Ev 379 Back

219   As above. Back

220   Ev 431 Back

221   Q 246 [Ms Leech] Back

222   As above. Back

223   Ev 377 Back

224   As above. Back

225   Ev 124 Back

226   Ev 124 Back

227   Q 200 Back

228   Q 428 [Mr Don] Back

229   Ev 238 Back

230   As above. Back

231   "Dairy Farmers milk co-op goes sour", Financial Times, 4 June 2009, p 20 Back


 
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