Submission from Prof Jonathan D G Jones FRS (SFS 74)

 

1- Food production capacity with current technology is struggling to keep up with demand; this situation will persist. Climate change and its implications for water supply will make this struggle more difficult. The expanding middle class in India, China and elsewhere is demanding more meat, which is inefficiently produced from grains. We need to consider that due to drought and desertification elsewhere, moist and warm northern Europe may have an increasing responsibility to contribute to world food supply, and that food supplies on world markets for the UK cannot be relied upon.

2- Agriculture, whether organic or conventional, has a huge impact on the environment. If we wish to promote biodiversity, we need dedicated areas of extremely productive agriculture (especially for cereals), enabling us to set aside other areas in which biodiversity can thrive.

3- A major contribution of science and technology to crop productivity is genetic improvement. Recent advances in DNA sequencing methods create unprecedented opportunities to accelerate breeding via "genomics". Furthermore, GM methods can also improve yields. However, these methods are not being fully deployed by the private sector in the UK because returns on investment are too low. To make the most of current and anticipated technology for crop improvement, an enhanced role for the public sector is required. This needs to be taken forward in a private/public partnership with support from the industry. Wheat is a prime example of where more public investment could be extremely productive. The farm gate value of wheat is ~ 1.5B/yr, yet wheat seed sales earn only ~60M/yr and royalties to seed companies are ~14M/yr. Monsanto anticipate that by combining GM with marker-assisted selection to accelerate breeding, they will double maize and soy yield by 2030. We could do the same in wheat, creating 1.5B/yr in value, but not if we rely on the investment to come through the royalty income to the four UK private breeders (~3.5M/yr each). Private breeders are also concerned by the lack of public sector activity, because most of their breeders are over 50, and the public sector is not training new breeders. Public breeders less focused on short-term returns would broaden the genetic base of crops, and take forward GM solutions to major diseases such as take all of wheat. We also would recreate synergy of basic plant science and plant breeding, facilitating translation and capture of value created by excellent UK plant science expertise and discoveries.

4- Public sector plant science is currently supported across multiple ministries, such as DEFRA, DFID and BBSRC (DIUS). This effort does not appear to be sufficiently "joined up". Recruitment by DFID of BBSRC peer review expertise sets a good precedent; DEFRA should consider this model for funding top quality science in research areas relevant to a food security mission. The US National Plant Genome Program provides a good example of the value created by effective inter-agency cooperation for a common goal.

5- Support for science cannot be switched on and off like a tap as political fashions change; it is essential for commitments to be sustained, though of course with quality control to ensure sustained performance. The BBSRC one-off funding round after crop science review was welcome but is insufficient and does not constitute a program.

6- The UK government must stand up determinedly for GM crops. If Austria can defy EU rules and ban GM crops, then the UK could (and should) defy EU rules and declare that we no longer need EU permission to evaluate GM crops and plant any that we find beneficial. Blight-resistant potato and Roundup-resistant sugar beet are available now, and would be good for the environment and would reduce crop production costs, contributing to lower food prices at time when incomes are being squeezed. We should also undertake a major testing program of private and public GM genes in a new national crop improvement program, focusing initially in wheat on disease resistance, and nitrogen and water use efficiency.

 

March 2009