Memorandum submitted by the Professor John Beddington, Government's Chief Scientific Advisor (SFS 31)
The challenge to ensure
secure and sustainable
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
Introduction - the global context
1. The challenge to ensure secure and
sustainable food supplies in the
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
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
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
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
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. Dramatic
improvements have been achieved in both developed and developing countries.
Cereal production in
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
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%.
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. 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
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.
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. The
Current and future research challenges
There is an enormous contribution that science and technology can make
to help ensure
For example, focusing on the
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
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
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.
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. Genetic modification techniques, although remaining
controversial in the
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. 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
· 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.
via its Sustainable
· 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
35. In bioscience, the
36. In climate science and modelling, a key area
linked to our food security goals,
37. Building on these assets, and combined with
other factors such as a moderate climate and fertile soils, the
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
Foresight Food and
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
44. The project will consider food and farming in oceans and freshwater, as well as on the land.
45. Foresight is also undertaking a major study
on future land use in the
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
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,
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
Professor John Beddington
Government Chief Scientific Advisor
 IPCC AR4 WGIII TS8
 FAO AGROSTAT, April 2000
 World Development Report 2008, IFPRI
 USDA May 2008
 Alston et al. 2000
 Integrated pest management, Hassnali et al, Phil Trans R. Soc B, Vol 363 no. 1491 p.611-622
 WRAP, The food we waste, http://www.wrap.org.uk/retail/food_waste/research/the_food_we_waste.html