Memorandum submitted by the Professor John Beddington, Government's Chief Scientific Advisor (SFS 31)

 

Summary

 

The challenge to ensure secure and sustainable UK food supplies to 2050 is intrinsically linked to a series of interconnected global issues, including climate change, population growth and the inexorable rise in global demand for food, energy and water. UK food security must be considered in that wider context.

 

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. The future challenge is to deliver increased production with reduced inputs such as water, energy and nutrients, on limited land, whilst ensuring environmental sustainability and coping with climate change impacts.

 

The UK research base can has a major role to play in meeting this challenge, with a track record of world-class outputs delivering substantial benefits both to the UK and overseas, linked to our goals for global food security and poverty reduction.

 

The Government Office for Science is strongly engaged on these issues, both to strengthen the evidence base and understanding of the issues and to sharpen and enhance the overall coherence of the UK response in the area of research and innovation.

 

Introduction - the global context

 

1. The challenge to ensure secure and sustainable food supplies in the UK up to 2050 is one of a series of closely interconnected issues, impacting strongly at the global level but with implications for all countries. Most notable amongst these are climate change and the need to sustainably manage the world's rapidly growing demand for energy and water, at the same time as global population is set to soar to around 9 billion by mid-century and to become more prosperous.

 

2. In an increasingly globalised world, and one in which issues such as climate change can only be tackled through international endeavour, it becomes increasingly difficult to consider only a UK perspective.

 

3. These issues are further connected by their impact on global poverty, most acutely in the developing world, and on achievement of the Millennium Development Goals. The FAO has estimated that 854 million people globally are undernourished, the great majority in developing countries. With the cost of food and energy soaring in 07/08 the World Bank estimated that a further 100 million people risked falling into extreme poverty. Food and other commodity prices have more recently declined again as a result of the global economic downturn and the abatement of some short term factors. However underlying drivers such as climate change, energy and water demand, and population growth will impact increasingly on food production and food security over the long term. They present a significant problem that will become increasingly acute in the absence of an adequate response at all levels, from global to local.

 

4. The recent price shock revealed starkly how UK food supplies and costs to consumers are strongly impacted by developments overseas. This includes natural events such as adverse weather conditions affecting harvests in other regions (particularly if combined with similar occurrences in the UK), the policies of other nations developed in response to these, and other factors such as the growth of biofuels affecting supply and demand in international markets. After an extended period of relatively low and stable or declining prices, it provided a clear warning of the need to avoid complacency in tackling now the longer term challenges.

 

5. Total world water demand is projected to increase by over 30% by 2030, and energy demand by over 45%. Agriculture is by far the largest user of water, at approaching 70% to total supplies. The agricultural sector will increasingly need to compete for this with demand from the world's growing cities.

 

6. Economic advances projected for the developing world will help lift millions from poverty, but in other ways will add to the challenges. As incomes rise to 1 - 5 per day people eat more meat and dairy products, causing a rapid growth in demand for agricultural commodities to feed livestock. Driven by population rises and growing prosperity, world food production will need to increase by some 50% by 2030 to meet this burgeoning demand.

 

7. The backdrop against which this must be met is one of rising global temperatures, impacting on water, food and ecosystems in all regions, and with extreme weather events becoming both more severe and more frequent.

Rising sea levels and flooding will hit hardest in the mega-deltas, which are important for food production, and will impact too on water quality for many.

 

8. The need both to mitigate climate change and to adapt to that which it is too late already to avoid is clear. It has been suggested that global greenhouse gas emissions must be reduced by at least 50-60% by 2050 compared to current levels. The UK's target to reduce emissions by 80% on that timescale means that all sectors must make a major contribution, achieving steps changes in past performance.

 

9. What does this mean for the agri-food sector? The world must produce 50% more food, on less land, with less water, using less energy, fertiliser and pesticide - by 2030 - at the same time as bringing down sharply the level of greenhouse gas emissions emitted globally. It is a non-trivial challenge, but it is one that can be met if the right steps are taken.

 

10. I believe we need a new and greener revolution, a revolution that science and technology can help deliver both for the UK and internationally.

 

11. Ultimately, UK food security will link closely to global food security. A "go it alone" strategy is unlikely to be either feasible or desirable, although environmental drivers argue for some further shift towards locally sourcing.

 

The contribution of science and technology

 

12. Despite Malthusian fears of looming famine in the first half of the 20th century, the graph below illustrates how agricultural production was able to climb well above the rate of population growth in the last four decades. Global production has more than doubled in the past 40 years, despite only an 8% increase in the use of land for agriculture since the 1960s[1]. Dramatic improvements have been achieved in both developed and developing countries. Cereal production in China for example increased from 91 million tonnes in 1961 to 390 million tonnes by the end of the century, with a similarly impressive increase from 70 to 186 million tonnes in India[2]. More recently, Brazil has doubled grain production since 1990 with very little increase in land area, partly through large-scale mechanisation[3].

FAO: World production and population since 1961

 

13. Much of the success over this period can be attributed to technological and process innovations, such as the introduction of chemical pesticides, fertilisers, irrigation and crop improvement through breeding.

 

14. In contrast, the absence of such approaches in Africa has contributed, alongside other factors, to an enduring stagnation in yields.

 

15. Significant untapped potential remains even with current crop varieties to reap the benefits of past achievements from science and technology. The FAO has estimated that if half the extra yield considered attainable with current varieties were realised in 11 major rain-fed wheat producing countries, world wheat production could be increased by 23%.

 

16. The benefit of investment in agricultural research is clear, for example delivering an average internal rate of return of 43% in 700 R&D projects evaluated in developing countries[4]. Yet developing countries invest just a ninth of what industrialised countries put into agricultural R&D as a share of agricultural GDP. Another perspective is that agricultural R&D has tripled in China and India over the past 20 years, but increased barely 20% in sub-Saharan Africa (declining in about half of the countries there). This has contributed to the widening yield gap with the rest of the world, with further key issues relating to the adoption even of available technologies. It represents both a major challenge and an opportunity for future UK policy and research, centred on Government goals to tackle global poverty and enhance food security and to ensure UK food security in an increasingly interconnected world of global markets.

 

17. Despite the demonstrable benefits of research, the extended period of stable or declining global food prices in recent years has been one driver for reduced growth in the levels of investment globally in publicly-funded agricultural R&D. Private sector research has grown but its commercial orientation has placed emphasis on cost reduction rather than yield increases, and in particular there has been less incentive to address the needs of poorer farmers and to focus on more strategic, longer term issues[5].

 

18. There is a compelling case that the declining trend in the growth of global public R&D should be reversed. Studies suggest a strong link between agricultural productivity improvements in a given year and investments in agricultural research over the previous 30 years and more[6]. The UK must frame its own future domestic and international contributions in this context.

 

Current and future research challenges

 

19. There is an enormous contribution that science and technology can make to help ensure UK and international food security over the long term.

 

20. For example, focusing on the UK, one study suggests a theoretical yield potential of 19.2 t/ha for UK wheat and 9.2 t/ha for oilseed rape, if future research enables physiological limits to be achieved. This compares to current average yields of 7.74 t/ha and 3.2 t/ha respectively, based on Defra figures. The realistic yields attainable will be much less, however there are still substantial gains to be made. Looking ahead to 2025 and 2050, other work suggests realistic yield potentials of 11.4 t/ha and 13.0t/ha for wheat and 4.1 t/ha and 5.7 t/ha for oilseed rape on these timescales respectively.

 

21. Annual UK wheat production since the 1980s has averaged around 14m/t, peaking at 16.7 m/t in 2000. Achieving the yield potential estimated as realistic, on the same area of land, would deliver annual production of 23.9 m/t - over a 70% increase compared to the current average.

 

22. The wider adoption of existing knowledge, technologies and best management practices could on its own deliver significant improvements. For example, extending further the illustration above, could increase yields to 8.71 t/ha for wheat and 3.88 t/ha for oilseed rape respectively. It will be important to strengthen mechanisms for the translation and wider deployment of research outputs if this potential to be achieved. This is where the "early wins" are likely to be. However the greatest gains, combining both productivity and environmental benefits, will come from further R&D investments. Priority areas for research include e.g. crop improvement to enhance nutrient and water capture and conversion, maximising the capture and conversion of light, and improving natural resilience to pests and diseases. More generally, climate change adaptation will remain a key research topic, including climate-water modelling.

 

23. Crop protection is crucial. Around 30% of crops are lost even before harvesting due to pests and diseases, with the figure far higher in some cases, and substantial further losses are experienced post-harvest. Pesticides play a vital role in safeguarding yields, a fact that I believe has been insufficiently recognised elsewhere in Europe as EU regulations covering this area have recently been updated. The withdrawal of existing pesticides products without alternatives to replace them, and without demonstrable benefits to human health or the environment, could result in a significant reduction in crop yields in the UK and across Europe, with the potential also to impact beyond Europe's boundaries.

 

24. New generations of pesticides have increased in effectiveness, with application rates down to "grams per hectare" from "kg per hectare" a few decades ago. This has brought both environmental benefits and efficiency savings. Supported by UK research, other non-pesticide approaches to crop protection are also proving effective in set circumstances, and are particularly valuable in the developing world where access to and safe use of pesticides has been a problem. For example, one of the most damaging weeds in Africa is a witchweed, Striga, responsible for billions of dollars of damage each year. In Kenya, a "push/pull system" has been trialled successfully, supported by BBSRC funding. This involves the intercropping of a fodder crop - Desmodium - that prevents Striga from germinating, in conjunction with another technique, 'trap cropping', which attracts pests to a crop bordering the main crop[7].

 

25. Genomics has been important in improving crop varieties for yield, sustainability and quality. Successes to date have included salt resistant durum wheat and more disease resistant oil seed cassava. Crop breeding has also focused recently on the opportunity to enhance the nutritional and health value of food itself. Following the demonstration that vitamin A can be produced in rice, breeding programmes have begun to select crops for improved levels of a range of important micronutrients[8].

 

26. Conventional breeding has achieved dramatic increases in productivity. However, quantum leaps in future may involve fundamental new approaches to plant science. One possibility, still at an early research stage, is to re-engineer the photosynthetic pathway in rice, with consequent potential for greater production per unit input of solar energy.[9] Genetic modification techniques, although remaining controversial in the UK and some other countries, provide new possibilities for crop improvement and to accelerate the development of solutions. The Royal Society's current study on biological mechanisms to enhance food crop production promises to make an importance contribution in this area, by providing a balanced assessment of the different biological approaches that could be used to enhance supplies and their likely consequences and impacts.

 

27. Technological innovation through the use of mineral fertilisers has been another key factor since the 1960s in enabling the increases in productivity that have been achieved. Unless nutrients removed through cultivation are replaced, from organic or inorganic sources, crop production cannot be sustained. Other benefits from fertilisers include enabling the potential of high yielding seeds to be realised where the natural nutrients in most soils are insufficient and enhancing productivity on nutrient poor soils.

 

28. However fertiliser use also presents environmental challenges, such as through nitrate leaching, and requires careful management. The key aim is to match nutrient supply and demand to maximise crop production whilst minimising loss to the environment. It is a key area where science can contribute. For example, research by Rothamsted has resulted in farmers applying very little nitrogen to cereals in autumn or winter, as studies showed almost all of this to have been wasted. As a consequence, it is estimated that surplus nitrogen applied to wheat crops is now less that a third of what it was 20 years ago. Leaching in nitrogen sensitive areas is estimated to have been reduced by 20%.

 

29. Future research priorities include to further improve understanding of when to apply fertilisers dependent on factors such as crop variety, climate and soil type.

 

30. At the forefront of science, nanotechnology promises new products and approaches to assist crop protection, as well as having applications in other agricultural areas. For example, smart sensors and delivery systems may help combat viruses and other crop pathogens, and new products may help plants' ability to absorb nutrients. Already today, nanotechnology has delivered improvements to pesticide delivery through encapsulation and controlled release methods. Capsules can be inert until contact with leaves or insect digestive tracts, at which point they release the pesticide.[10] In combination with the use of nanoemulsions (suspension of nanoparticles), pesticides can be applied more easily and safely. Smart sensors, applied to the field, may in future allow early detection of disease and monitoring of soil conditions to improve application of water, fertilisers and pesticides.

 

31. The benefits of agricultural research illustrated above need to be set in the context of the broader role science and technology can play in the food supply chain, from 'farm to fork'. Improvements in food quality, efficiency of processing and supply, and reduced losses of food bring major benefits, including in terms of increased choice, higher quality and lower costs for consumers.

 

32. Nanotechnology is already used in packaging to improve the shelf life of foods by the inclusion of silicate nanoparticles that prevent oxidation and spoilage. Increased shelf life for foods subject to rapid spoilage such as fruit and vegetables could contribute to reducing household waste, and so food demand. In the UK, roughly a third of the food bought by consumers is thrown away.[11]

 

UK research bodies and programmes

 

33. The UK is supporting major research programmes both in the UK and internationally in areas related to food security. For example:

 

The Biotechnology and Biological and Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) funds fundamental, strategic and applied research that underpins agriculture and food supply. Total spend in this area was 185m in 2007/08. This included research on the following areas: plant and crop science (including the control of pests and diseases); soil science; aquaculture; animal health; animal welfare; food safety; food manufacturing; diet and health; effects of environmental change on agricultural systems; and agricultural systems.

 

Defra, via its Sustainable Farming and Food programme, currently invests around 29m p.a. in agricultural and food research. This includes for example supporting Genetic Improvement Networks, which underpin breeding for crops combining high yields with traits for increased sustainability. Other research focuses on reducing the effects of agricultural inputs on air and water quality, and on the industry's resilience to short term disruptions. 

 

DFID under its new research strategy has committed to spend 400m on agricultural research from 2008 to 2013 to support research in six areas: to develop food that is more nutritious with higher yield crops; to create agricultural jobs for the poor from high-value crops; to protect farming communities against climate change, drought, pests and diseases; to better understand how markets can benefit poor farmers; to achieve the sustainable management of forests, fisheries and wildlife resources. This support is channelled to international research organisations (mainly Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research - CGIAR), regional research organisations in Africa and Asia, joint research programmes with BBSRC, and to public-private partnerships and programmes to get research into use. A key recent achievement was the agreement reached in December to reform and revitalize CGIAR organisation, to improve the impact and efficiency of future research.

 

Strengths and Challenges for UK Science

 

34. The UK has great strengths in science and technology related to food, extending across agriculture, fisheries, animal health, sustainability, food safety, diet and other areas. We can be proud to host many world class facilities, such as Rothamsted Research, the John Innes Centre, the Plymouth Marine Laboratory and the Institute of Food Research.

 

35. In bioscience, the UK ranks 2nd overall in the world in terms of research outputs.

 

36. In climate science and modelling, a key area linked to our food security goals, UK capability includes the world-leading Met Office Hadley Centre, as well as the Climate Impacts Programme providing increasingly refined information and projections to support adaptation and planning at a regional and local level.

 

37. Building on these assets, and combined with other factors such as a moderate climate and fertile soils, the UK is well placed to ensure domestic food security over the long term and to contribute substantially to similar goals at a global level.

 

38. Securing this contribution from science will require a clear recognition of the importance of sustained investments in research for future benefits, as well as maintaining and developing the supporting infrastructure for this.

 

39. Another priority will be to tackle skills gaps identified in areas such as plant breeding and plant pathology, agronomy and soil science.

 

40. As importantly, I believe there is a need to ensure timely exploitation of research outputs and to place greater emphasis on applied R&D linked to productivity as well as environmental goals. Stronger partnerships and dialogue between the public and private sectors will be required. I will be exploring these issues further with key stakeholders, as set out below.

 

Government Office for Science (GO-Science) contributions on food security

 

41. GO-Science is directly leading to a range of work on food security, both to strengthen the evidence base and understanding of issues from a UK and global perspective, and to sharpen the UK response where research, technology and innovation can contribute. Key current activities are set out below.

 

Foresight Food and Farming Project

 

42. Foresight has recently begun an exciting project looking at the global future of food and farming, guided by the question: "How can a future global population of 9 billion people all be fed healthily and sustainably?" The findings are due to be launched around October 2010.

 

43. The project will draw on cutting-edge science from diverse disciplines to take a long-term (25-50 years) view of the issues. It will:

analyse the global food system: including changing demand, production and supply and broader environmental impacts;

identify key drivers of change and investigate how they could combine to affect the food system across the world and give rise to wider impacts. This analysis will define major challenges in the future, and the uncertainties associated with them; and

consider how new science, policies and interventions could best address those future challenges - both in the UK and internationally.

 

44. The project will consider food and farming in oceans and freshwater, as well as on the land.

 

Foresight UK Land Use Futures Project

 

45. Foresight is also undertaking a major study on future land use in the UK, exploring how this could change over the next 50 years. This includes examining society's future needs and values towards land use. It will use the latest evidence and expert opinion across the environmental, economic and social science disciplines to identify where the greatest pressures on land could be and to identify practices which encourage valued and sustainable land use practices. The findings are due to be launched in January 2010.

 

46. The project has already highlighted, for example, the need to build capacity to tackle land use issues systemically and in a more integrated way, and to place greater emphasis on the management of key resources such as water.

There is widespread agreement that the demands being made on land are greater than ever. It is clear that food policy will continue to influence demands on land use over the long term. Food security concerns may lead to pressure to increase agricultural production. Foresight will examine how these demands might be balanced against others such as the need for additional housing, access rights and forestry; and how the role of new technologies and management practices might influence overall patterns.

 

Optimising Public Sector R&D

 

47. Following up a key recommendation from the Cabinet Office Food Matters report, I am leading a cross-government group to strengthen the coherence and coordination of food research across the public sector. An important aim of the group is to promote a more joined-up approach on research, centred on the Government's vision for safe, healthy and sustainable food, a thriving UK agri-food sector and UK and global food security.

 

48. The group will provide a forum where key cross-government food research and innovation issues and priorities can be discussed and addressed. It will also facilitate engagement on these issues with wider stakeholder groups, including research providers, funders and users. Early work by the group will focus on developing a high-level food research strategy to facilitate better cross-government working. Another current priority is to gain a better understanding of the level and scope of current research related to food across the public sector.

 

49. In addition, GO-Science is supporting discussions involving the Technology Strategy Board, Defra, BBSRC and others on options for a Technology Strategy Board initiative in the agri-food area, as a means for improving the development and exploitation of agricultural and food research in the UK. This recognises the critical role that the private sector has to play in the translation of research outputs into practice, both to meet the Government's food security goals and to reap the opportunities that exist within a huge UK and global market.

 

Other activities

 

50. GO-Science has also commissioned two important academic studies which it is shortly to publish in advanced draft form (finalisation being subject to further independent expert review which may identify additional areas for development). These have examined respectively: (i) the world food commodity price events of 2007-8 and the factors driving these, and (ii) the potential to increase wheat and oilseed rape productivity in the UK. Analysis from these reports has helped to inform aspects of this memorandum.

 

 

Professor John Beddington

Government Chief Scientific Advisor

 

January 2009

 



[1] IPCC AR4 WGIII TS8

[2] FAO AGROSTAT, April 2000

[3] Embrapa, Brazil

[4] World Development Report 2008, IFPRI

[5] USDA May 2008

[6] Alston et al. 2000

[7] Integrated pest management, Hassnali et al, Phil Trans R. Soc B, Vol 363 no. 1491 p.611-622

[8] http://www.harvestplus.org/research.html

[9] http://www.irri.org/media/press/press.asp?id=137

[10] http://www.syngentaprofessionalproducts.com/to/prod/primo/

[11] WRAP, The food we waste, http://www.wrap.org.uk/retail/food_waste/research/the_food_we_waste.html