Memorandum submitted by Rothamsted Research (SFS 15)

 

 

Introduction

 

1. Rothamsted Research (RRes) is the largest institute in the UK conducting scientific research into agriculture and the environment. The Institute employs approximately 300 scientists (45 research groups) and each year has a postgraduate student population of over 60 as well as a similar number of visiting overseas scientists. Research income in 2008/09 is ca. 30m (including work at North Wyke Research which is soon to be amalgamated into RRes); BBSRC is the primary sponsor organisation now providing about 60% of the total funding through a range of different modalities. The portfolio of the Institute embraces arable and grassland production systems. Much of its research is focused on, or relevant to, food security.

 

2. The institute's mission is:

'To be recognised internationally as a primary source of first-class scientific research and new knowledge in response to stakeholder requirements for innovative policies, products and practices to enhance the economic, environmental and societal value of agricultural land.'

 

3. The primary objectives of Rothamsted Research are to advance scientific knowledge and understanding to provide new opportunities for removing constraints on crop (food, forage and non-food) production by enhancing resource use efficiency (land, water, nutrients, non-renewable energy, labour etc.). Its research integrates mathematics, physics, chemistry, ecology and the crop sciences (including: genetics, pathology, entomology and soil science) to contribute predictive understanding and scientifically-sound options for the maintenance of economically and environmentally sustainable systems of production.

 

4. Defra is a valued customer for RRes and it sees the Department of one of its major stakeholders. However, Defra has become increasingly less influential on strategic thinking in RRes as its policies for investment in science have placed emphasis on areas outside the RRes mission. The proportion of the Institute's research funds derived from the Department has more than halved from over 25% just 5 years ago. In 2002/03 the Institute received 7.1m for research in support of Defra policy objectives; by 2008/09 the value of Defra funded work has fallen to 3.2m.

 

5. This response to questions posed by the Inquiry is predicated on three straight-forward positions that the Institute holds with regard to global food security, the UK's own agricultural production and the role that the country can and should play in advancing the capacity and capability to enhance food production.

 

i. For all the reasons summarised in the Inquiry announcement there is no doubt that there is an urgent need to scale up the quantity and nutritional quality of global food production; there are few that will now deny this. RRes has clarity of purpose in this context which we hope can be translated into government policy. Novel agricultural products and practices must be all about ensuring that wastage of water, essential nutrients and energy is kept to a minimum when we set the context as a necessity to elevate per hectare output (i.e. crop yields) and not increase the environmental footprint of agriculture. This is the truly "green" agenda for global food production that we should all embrace and one that requires clear enunciation to and acceptance by those who influence public opinion or are empowered to take public and private investment decisions. Agricultural systems that overtly set out to maximise productivity avoid the need to cultivate more land with all the feed-back effects that will occur in terms of likely elevated green house gas emissions due to: oxidation of carbon currently sequestered in soil, removal of carbon sinks and increases in emissions resulting from cropping practices (Glendining et al., 2008). It is currently estimated that land-use change, primarily deforestation, is responsible for as much as 18% of global greenhouse gas emissions. This is not to mention likely impacts on biodiversity and water resources.

ii. The primary objective of land use for agriculture is the efficient conversion of solar energy into varied and valued forms of chemical energy for utilisation by mankind. This encompasses crops grown for food, fuel and fibre while some land is best used to produce forage for animals as intermediates in the energy conversion process. The energy conversion referred to above (i.e. the practice of agriculture) involves manipulation and management of the interaction between crop genotype and the environment (physical and biological). The requirement to do this consistently and predictably, year after year, also demands continuity of agro-ecosystem functions; this captures the temporal and renewable concept of sustainability. Maximising efficiency on the smallest necessary land area provides options to use non-agricultural land to achieve other objectives which should not be confounded with the requirement to produce food and other agricultural products as efficiently as possible.

 

iii. All nations, and particularly wealthy ones in climatically advantaged regions (such as the UK), have global obligations with regard to efficient, sustainable food production and investment in enabling technology. The UK should be taking a leadership position in Europe by propagating and championing a forward looking policy which acknowledges this. Several of the UK's primary crops (e.g. wheat, oilseed, rape and potatoes) are also of great global importance; global demand is currently barely met by supply. However, the UK contribution to global production of these crops is small (less than 1%) while nevertheless providing more or less self-sufficiency. These facts, coupled with the relative wealth of the UK and its ability to access global markets (even when prices rise) go a long way to explain why primary agricultural production in the UK has been judged so unimportant by policy makers. It also explains why the public have become complacent about food availability or even hostile to the agricultural sector. RRes hopes that the UK will rapidly rediscover the importance of delivering on global obligations towards ensuring future food security where it is still world-leading and has in the past been catalytic through science and technology and its application.


 

Responses to the specific questions

 

How robust is the current UK food system? What are its main strengths and weaknesses?

 

6. The onset of the world crisis in food security and volatility in commodity prices has brought about a rapid shift in perspectives for agriculture in the UK and the EU but movement in policy objectives has been slow. Policies in the EU over the last two decades have focussed on mechanisms of providing income to farmers for the management of land for purposes other than efficient food production. At the same time, the EU has introduced a regulatory framework surrounding agriculture that tends to impede innovation and works against elevation of productivity: for example, the proposals to remove access to valued pesticides and the difficulties surrounding field experimentation with GM crops. The changing circumstances and the need for scientific delivery that will counter the complacency and misdirected approaches of the last two decades are reflected in RRes research objectives.

 

7. Against this background, UK agriculture is potentially robust. In 1994 England was 75% self-sufficient in food production but this has been allowed to fall to 58% (RASE, 2008), through reduced investment (in skills and capital), a focus on practices with questionable environmental benefits and reliance on imports; this can be rectified with appropriate policies. Climate change predictions suggest that north-west Europe, including the UK, will be a key area for global food production in the mid- to late-21st century, with fewer limitations on Net Primary Production here than in other parts of the world (Baldocchi et al., 2004). The UK can and should take note of this and play a lead, catalytic role in elevating world food production. We have the natural resources, skills, knowledge and motivation to do this, including research capability. However, the latter have been severely eroded. 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.

 

8. Fluctuation in prices of inputs (energy, fertilisers and feed) is a major contributor to the stability and security of the food production sector. Without stable, secure and sufficient locally-based primary production where safety and quality is high, there is little incentive (given labour costs) for the large food manufacturing sector to remain in situ. The arable sector is probably less vulnerable than livestock sectors in this context but the interconnectedness, mutual dependency and yet poor integration of primary production, manufacturing and retailing represent a genuine risk to long-term security.

 

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?

 

9. The UK is very well placed in terms of its natural resources, such as soils, and skilled farmers, supported by researchers and advisers. However, the 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. For example, the recent Royal Agricultural Society of England report by its 'Practice with Science Group' (RASE 2008) emphasised problems of succession in soil and water management, but the problem is much wider, embracing most areas of science informing on food production. Defra has drawn attention to this problem with regard to knowledge transfer capability in its own reviews of priorities.

 

10. Constraints on crop production are well understood: radiant energy for photosynthesis (dependent on latitude), temperature (dependent on latitude and altitude), water, plant nutrients (primarily nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium), pests (vertebrates and invertebrates), diseases (bacteria, viruses and fungi) and weeds (other plants). It might also be appropriate to add to this list the availability of knowledge, expertise and technology alongside the obvious requirement for enough suitable land. In broad terms, responses to the need for greater production can involve the cultivation of more land (or land-use change), the improved application of currently available knowledge (which invariably requires significant investment in capital and human resource) and the acquisition of new knowledge translated into novel products and practices (taking account of the complex interactions that often occur between key constraining factors). All this pre-supposes a policy framework and drive in the direction of elevated output. Of these options, the former is least desirable but is the usual short-term response. The latter two require positive longer-term commitment and action.

 

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

 

o soil quality

 

11. Healthy, unpolluted soil is a pre-requisite for sustainable food production. UK soils suffer from wind and water erosion in some areas, which will cause irreversible (outside of geological time) soil loss. Compaction and thus poor root growth is also a risk, especially where large and heavy machinery is regularly used, such as in sugar beet harvesting on wet soils in winter. Physically damaged soil can be repaired but this takes time during which productivity is sub-optimal. Concern over declining organic matter levels has probably been overemphasised. The recent NERC-led Countryside Survey (http://www.countrysidesurvey.org.uk/) and a re-analysis of Scottish National Soil Inventory data (Prof Colin Campbell, Macaulay Institute, personal communication) contradict the conclusions of the National Soils Resources Institute (Bellamy et al., 2005) that the organic matter content of most UK soils is declining. Even where organic matter levels are declining or low, this can be rectified by changing practice: the Rothamsted-developed KeySoil system (http://www.keysoil.com/home/) has been proven in Defra-funded work under the Catchment Sensitive Farming Scheme to enable farmers to rebuild soil organic matter levels and assess the economic value of this. Thus, generally, problems of soil quality exist but can be rectified.

 

12. Local soil pollution from toxic heavy metals and persistent organic pollutants (POPs) is important. Research suggests that the former reduce or even eliminate nitrogen fixing rhizobia in soils. Such irreversible problems must be avoided. Research is key to identifying such problems and providing the means of avoidance. New molecular methods are revealing the diversity and function of soil microorganisms. Such research is essential for understanding what diversity, and thus what land management practices, are needed to sustain healthy soil functions and productive agriculture.

 

 

 

 

o water availability

 

13. Current climate change scenarios suggest that water availability will be a critical limitation on food production in the south east of England. Research at Rothamsted and elsewhere is seeking to understand better the crop traits that can contribute greater drought tolerance in crop plants to support genetic improvement for this increasingly important characteristic. Computer models are also being used to predict drought and wider climate change impacts and appropriate land management strategies to mitigate these. For the UK's major crops there needs to be a nationally agreed and coordinated strategy for delivering genetic improvement taking account of the future and traits such as water and nutrient use efficiency as well as resistance to pest and disease alongside elevated yield potential. Delivery of these objectives requires effort on the time scale of decades and a lead from the relevant government Department might be expected.

 

14. Crop modelling work (funded by Defra) (Semenov, 2008) indicates that unpredictable and increasingly frequent extreme temperature events are likely to have a greater impact than water deficits on the future ability to sustain predictably high wheat yields in the UK. This suggests high temperature tolerance of an important target in crop genetic improvement programmes.

 

o the science base

 

15. Key areas of expertise in areas of research relevant to food security, especially production agriculture, have been allowed to decline. The UK now has a mere handful of research institutes with a remit for agricultural research, including food security, compared to over 20 institutes 30 years ago. Defra funding for research in production agriculture has all but ceased and BBSRC investment is mostly in "up-stream" scientific understanding as distinct from practical application and implementation. This has resulted in 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. At the same time, the number of people in UK institutions with direct experience of the needs from agricultural sciences in the developing world is also very few. This makes it increasingly hard for the UK to make practical impact from its otherwise strong bioscience base. The science base needs to be reconfigured and reconstructed to a considered plan if the UK is effectively to contribute to resolving the issue of food security; the ad hoc short term expediency of the past will not deliver a secure future.

 

o provision of training

 

16. The drastic decline in research institutes with expertise in agriculture and agronomy limits the provision of training. At the same time there has been a similar contraction in universities with departments of agriculture. Until very recently, the agricultural industry was not considered positively by young people as offering a fulfilled and worthwhile career. There is some evidence that the forthcoming global crisis in food sufficiency and its connectivity to other major challenges (such as climate change and environmental degradation) has again begun to arouse motivation and stimulate the interests of young minds. A marked change of policy relating to training at all levels over the next 10-20 years is necessary if the UK is to have the expertise necessary to ensure food security.

 

 

 

o the way in which land is farmed and managed

 

17. The emphasis on delivering environmental goods and services over the last 20 years has impacted on the public perception of what land is for and greatly reduced the research base for food production (see paragraph 4). Changing the policy emphasis back towards production can be done quickly, but providing the necessary research and advisory expertise will take longer. Current advice and technical input to farmers from the supply side of the industry (including distributors) and independent advisers such as members of the Association of Independent Crop Consultants is generally good. However, a new generation of scientifically trained and technologically-aware extension specialists is needed and the former strong connectivity between the research base and practitioners in the industry needs to be built back.

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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?

 

18. Since its creation, Defra has not convincingly demonstrated real commitment to ensuring the health and well-being of the food and agricultural industries of the UK. The Department's policies have tended to respond to other drivers relating to regulation and public perception. There is a real need to ensure sustainability of agricultural ecosystems and to reduce both non-renewable inputs and emissions. However, much emphasis has been paid to delivering more superficial and cosmetic changes of unproven environmental value. In addition, much of Defra's focus has been on elucidating the ecological and environmental impacts of agriculture; studies on how ecological processes impact on the productivity of agricultural system should now receive much more emphasis. Actions designed to rebuild the research base and target increased agricultural productivity are needed. Tangible action on the ground and in the form of a radically changed policy environment is needed rather than more reviews, committees and workshops. Defra has to accept shared responsibility with others such as BBSRC and the HE sector for maintaining the research base as the Costigan (2006) report recommended.

 

How well does Defra engage with other relevant departments across Government, and with European and international bodies, on food policy and the regulatory framework for the food supply chain? Is there a coherent cross-Government food strategy?

 

19. Defra does appear to engage well on food policy and regulatory issues but rarely appears to lead, particularly with regard to food production. Effective dialogue with BBSRC and NERC needs to be re-established so that a coherent policy on food security, with agreed responsibilities for supporting key expertise and long-term strategically important projects can be established.

 

20. Defra is much less well provided internally with relevant expertise in, for example, agricultural sciences. In the past, MAFF had substantial numbers of officials who had direct personal experience of the conduct of scientific research; it would be interesting to ask the question about how many Defra officials, who are engaged on the administration of research funding, have actually had a career trajectory involving practical agricultural research. The expectation is that the number is now very low which would explain the Department's increasing use of consultants who themselves are not often well connected with the mainstream of research providers. There is a good case to be made for Defra to operate review systems for research contracting which draw on expertise in Research Councils and also to reconnect actively with the UK research base.

 

What criteria should Defra use to monitor how well the UK is doing in responding to the challenge of doubling global food production by 2050 while ensuring that such production is sustainable?

 

21. There are plenty of key indicators of food production that Defra has investigated. RRes led a project for Defra to assess how food and fibre indicators might be used to assess soil quality: 'Soil indicator robustness testing, food and fibre'. This project was reviewed recently. Although focused on soil quality, four of the five robustness indicators identified could equally well be used to monitor food (and fibre) production: 'Total above-ground biomass production', 'Net primary production', 'Area occupied by winter wheat; yield per unit area', 'Yield for a number of commodities in relation to a unit of input'.

 

22. It is always going to be hard for a government Department to ensure its policies keep pace with change and this is particularly the case in the context of the EU's dominance over agriculture and food. Events in 2007/08 showed that changes on the ground in response to markets will happen faster than policy and science can respond - although the latter, appropriately resourced, will always provide options for response. It could help if there was a better and more widely accepted definition of what is meant by sustainability when it comes to food production; it is expedient for different groups to place emphasis on different aspects. Defra (with input from others) should be able to examine critically all policies and incentives in terms of precise sustainability criteria and seek more data where this is necessary. It would then be appropriate to encourage uptake of products and practices which are compatible with movement in the required direction by modifying or reformulating policies, incentives and regulations. There are clear options for increasing production (see paragraph 9) but there will always be trade-offs (win-win is not always achievable) and little can be achieved without appropriately directed investment. In the UK it should be possible, relatively easily, with the right incentives to increase output by 50%. Beyond this is likely to require major planning and investments relating use of land and natural resources, application of new technologies and detailed consideration about how the whole food chain is integrated and managed.

 

References

 

Baldocchi, D and Valentini, R. (2004) Geographic and temporal variation of carbon exchange by ecosystems and their sensitivity to environmental perturbations. Ch 15, pp 295-315 (Colorplate 10) in 'The Global Carbon Cycle: Integrating Humans, Climate,and the Natural World', eds Christopher B. Field and Michael R. Raupach, Island Press, Washington.

 

Bellamy, P.H. et al. (2005) Carbon losses from all soils across England and Wales 1978-2003. Nature 437, 245 - 248.

 

Costigan, G. (2006) Research Council Institutes, Centres, Surveys and Units: A Review of Governance Issues. Office of Science and Technology.

 

Gledining, M.J. et al. (2009) Is it possible to increase sustainability of arable and ruminant agriculture by reducing inputs? Agricultural Systems (available online http://www.sciencedirect.com science 10.1016/jagsy.soo8.11.001)

 

Godwin. R. et al. (2008) The current status of soil and water management in England. RASE 'Practice with Science Group'.

 

Semenov MA (2008) Impacts of climate change on wheat in England and Wales. Journal of the Royal Society Interface 10.1098/rsif.2008.0285

 

 

January 2009