Memorandum submitted by the National Institute of Agricultural Botany (NIAB) (SFS 61)

 

 

NIAB's expertise is in plant genetics, plant breeding and the services, staff and infrastructure required to deliver improved crop varieties and seeds to farmers. Our submission therefore focuses on these areas.

 

 

Executive Summary

 

1. The challenge for 21st century agriculture is to double food production over the next 40 years, on a finite amount of land and using increasingly scarce and costly resources. Advances in plant breeding will be the single biggest factor in meeting this increased demand, and significant opportunities exist - using both conventional and transgenic approaches - to boost crop productivity.

 

2. Exploiting these opportunities, however, will require a step-change in public sector investment in the translational research and infrastructure needed to support innovative plant breeding for public benefit.

 

3. The UK has progressively cut public sector investment in applied agricultural research and knowledge transfer in favour of a market-based approach. But it is clear that the income from commercial plant breeding - through royalty payments on seed - is not enough to support a more speculative, long-term approach to R&D.

 

4. The pipeline from research has now narrowed to a precarious level. While our research institutes and universities remain world-leaders in basic plant science, much of that work is taking place in model crop species without being transferred to potentially useful crops.

 

5. Working in partnership with these plant science organisations, NIAB has the unique scientific skills and agricultural expertise to translate advances in basic plant science into genetic backgrounds and material which will be of use to commercial plant breeders.

 

 

Q1. How well placed is the UK to make the most of its opportunities in responding to the challenge of increasing global food production by 50% by 2030 and doubling it by 2050, while ensuring that such production is sustainable?

6. Global demand for food is beginning to outstrip supply, and with limited land available to bring into agricultural production, the only viable option to feed a rapidly increasing world population will be through productivity growth - producing more output per hectare.

 

7. Furthermore, climate experts predict that the world's agricultural production will become increasingly dependent on temperate regions such as Europe and North America as climate change affects crop yields and water availability in sub-tropical regions.

 

8. The UK in particular benefits from good quality soils and a favourable climate for consistent, high-yielding crop production. On the whole, UK farmers are technologically aware and quick to adopt new innovations.

 

9. Crop improvement through plant breeding will be the major contributor to increased crop productivity for the indefinite future. Interim findings of a recent study by NIAB suggest that between 1947 and 1982, around half the yield gain of major UK arable crops such as wheat and barley could be attributed to plant breeding, shared equally with the contribution of other factors such as improved agronomy, machinery and inputs. Since 1982, the contribution of plant breeding to yield gain has increased to more than 90%.

 

10. There is scope to deliver continued incremental improvements in plant breeding, for example through double haploid production, improved understanding of genotype x environment interactions, and more routine use of marker-assisted selection to reduce the breeding cycle time.

 

11. Advances in our basic knowledge of plant genetics are also opening up major opportunities for radical, dimension-changing developments in plant breeding. Improved understanding of the photosynthetic process, for example, could allow conversion of C3 crop species such as wheat and rice into more productive C4 crops such as maize. The development of apomictic crops - allowing asexual reproduction through seed - would enable desirable traits to be maintained year after year, with no loss of hybrid vigour. The introduction of perennial cereal crops would result in reduced inputs - e.g. no ploughing - and other environmental benefits.

 

12. Exploiting these opportunities, however, requires a fundamental shift in research funding (see response to Q2, below).

 

 

Q2. In particular, what are the challenges the UK faces in relation to the following aspects of the supply side of the food system?

 

- the science base

 

13. There are clear indications that the annual rate of yield improvement in the major UK arable crops has slowed in recent decades. For example, the annual increase in average UK cereal yields has fallen from around 4% in the 1980s to less than 1% today. This decline in UK agricultural productivity can be directly linked to a progressive withdrawal, since the mid-1980s, of public sector investment in applied agricultural science and technology transfer.

 

14. The need to reverse this chronic under-spending in applied UK research for crop improvement was identified in a major BBSRC review of UK crop science in 2004 led by Professor Chris Gilligan of Cambridge University. This review confirmed the strength of the UK's fundamental science-base, but also identified weaknesses in the translation of basic genetic discoveries into improved crop varieties of practical relevance and application for farmers and growers.

 

15. Professor Gilligan's review highlighted an urgent need to strengthen the delivery pipeline to take the findings of underpinning research - mostly conducted in model crop species - through to practical application by plant breeders.

 

16. Measures put in place since Professor Gilligan's review - including support for the establishment of Crop Genetic Improvement Networks, and projects supported under the BBSRC's 13 million Crop Science Initiative - have helped strengthen links between public research and commercial plant breeding sectors. In addition, there is increased recognition in funding priorities for public sector research of the need to validate and transfer gene discovery to practical application. However, lack of public sector support for essential translation activities - particularly pre-breeding - remains a major block to the delivery of step-change innovation in the main UK arable crops.

 

17. The fixed nature of plant breeders' income through seed royalties seriously limits investment in more speculative or long-term approaches to breeding and trait selection - and so prevents the practical application of major advances taking place in gene discovery.

 

18. Total royalty income to UK plant breeders across all crops is in the order of 30 million per year, of which perhaps 2% (600k p.a.) might be available for speculative research. In the context of commercial plant breeding, it is clear that a market-based approach to funding near-market or applied agricultural research is not working because the market is simply not big enough.

 

19. The widening gap between our basic understanding of plant genetics and our ability to apply that knowledge in practice presents a compelling case for public sector funding to bridge the gap.

 

20. As a demonstration of what can be done, NIAB through its strategic alliance with the John Innes Centre and in partnership with other research institutes (Rothamsted, IBERS) and Universities - is re-connecting the R&D pipeline by providing a dedicated pre-breeding platform capable of translating basic genetic discoveries into materials suitable for use in commercial wheat breeding programmes.

 

21. This innovative programme will provide a delivery mechanism allowing novel traits and associated marker technologies to flow from publicly funded research through to exploitation in commercial breeding. Trait genes and markers will be validated and assessed in pre-competitive germplasm, adapted to UK conditions, and made available for use by commercial breeders and other research organisations.

 

22. NIAB has already made significant progress towards that goal, with a 1.25m investment in laboratory facilities, equipment and growth rooms at its Cambridge site. Over the past two years, a team of more than 30 highly-skilled scientific staff, including three plant breeders, has been recruited.

 

23. The building blocks are in place, and already NIAB has secured a number of short-term research contracts - both independently and with other research partners - which serve to illustrate the pre-breeding skills and capability on offer. But plant breeding is a long-term process - the challenge now is to establish a secure funding base which will safeguard the future of the centre and the team behind it as a vital resource in support of plant breeding for the public benefit, focused on the following strategic objectives:

 

o Low-input farming & climate-proofing traits

o Improved human & animal nutrition -

o Durable disease & pest resistance

o Plant-derived industrial products

 

 

 

- the provision of training

 

24. There are widespread concerns within the agricultural research sector over the lack of new blood coming through to succeed a generation of applied agricultural scientists now reaching retirement. There is a strong view that researcher career paths - and project funding priorities - have in recent decades been driven and rewarded more by scientific publications than by practical research impact.

25. As a training organisation, NIAB provides a range of courses across virtually all aspects of crop production - from seed sampling, testing and inspection through to the latest methods in plant breeding and quantitative genetics. The practical focus of NIAB's role as a training organisation is now virtually unique among UK plant research institutes, yet the need to strengthen links between research and productive agriculture is viewed as essential to meet future policy objectives.

26. The establishment of a pre-breeding initiative presents a significant opportunity to provide genuine career opportunities for applied plant scientists motivated less by 'high science' publications than by delivering practical impact and innovation on the ground.

 

 

Q3. What role should Defra play both in ensuring that the strengths of the UK food system are maintained and in addressing the weaknesses that have been identified? What leadership and assistance should Defra provide to the food industry?

 

27. Today, Governments around the world are introducing new laws and financial support to address and mitigate the effects of severe economic conditions.

 

28. Tomorrow's crises will be in food, energy and water supplies. Given the right signals and the necessary support, the UK science base is well-placed to respond, but the UK Government must act now to invest in crop science, plant breeding and knowledge transfer.

 

29. There appears to be increased recognition within Defra of the importance of food security, and the role of productive agriculture in addressing future food needs. The recent establishment of a Council of Food Policy Advisors is a welcome development, and the Secretary of State's recent speech to the Oxford Farming Conference highlighted the importance of maximising UK-based food production, and the vital role of science - and plant breeding in particular - in meeting that objective. These words must now be backed up by positive action.

Tina Barsby and Andy Greenland

 

January 2009