Memorandum submitted by Rothamsted Research (SFS 15)
Research (RRes) is the largest institute in the
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.
nations, and particularly wealthy ones in climatically advantaged regions (such
Responses to the specific questions
· How robust is the
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
7. Against this
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?
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
o soil quality
unpolluted soil is a pre-requisite for sustainable food production.
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
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
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.
· What role should Defra play both in ensuring
that the strengths of the
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
· 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
· What criteria should Defra use to monitor how
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
D and Valentini, R. (2004) Geographic and temporal variation of carbon exchange by ecosystems and
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Bellamy, P.H. et al. (2005) Carbon losses
from all soils across
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)
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(2008) The current status of soil and water management in
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