Memorandum submitted by John Innes Centre (SFS 36)

 

Executive Summary

 

The UK has a strong science base in both Universities and Research Institutes. However research and development is urgently needed to improve our ability to exploit the full genetic potential of crops. We also need to develop R&D for improving the resilience of crop production to global climate change, while maintaining adequate production with reduced impact on the environment and reduced inputs.

In order to encourage the application of research and training to food security, there should be greater recognition for researchers who make exceptional contributions in this area. At present, it is widely believed (often with good reason) that a career in fundamental research on model systems offers greater rewards than one in more immediately applicable research on crop systems. Such recognition should nonetheless require excellence (within the appropriate frame of reference) because scientific excellence is required for research to be relevant and have impact.

New levels of organisation need to be established to make efficient use of new technologies (high throughput genotyping, next generation sequencing, marker assisted breeding) enabling their deployment in the UK breeding industry.

There is a serious lack of national expertise in some key skills, notably the field-level sciences of plant breeding, crop physiology and field plant pathology. Again excellence is critical. Defra has a role in funding training at the masters and doctoral levels, to supply staff with advanced training in these areas to UK companies, to academic research and to research at the interface between the public and private sectors, such as pre-breeding and public-good plant breeding.

Defra should fund R&D to deliver as well as inform policy (cf USDA, US DoE) with projects peer-reviewed and monitored by the most appropriate research Councils (cf DfID-BBSRC).

 

 

Q1. How robust is the current UK food system? What are its main strengths and weaknesses?

 

1. The comparative stability in the yields of arable crops in the UK is the result of a generally mild climate and good land management, combined with technological innovations to maintain yields despite variation in such factors as weather and parasites. The output of UK arable farming is therefore sustainable but vulnerable to increased variation in the climate and excessive restriction on the application of science to agriculture. Significant challenges include climate change, competing demands for land use, rising costs of oil (resulting in an increased cost of fertilisers) and variability in pests and diseases.

2. The UK's strengths include the high productivity of arable farming and the high degree of technological awareness of most farmers. Food production in the UK is well-placed to contribute to food security by maintaining output despite changes in climate and consumer demand, provided that it is able to continue to take advantage of new technology.

3. The science base in the UK is a particular strength because organisations such as the internationally recognised BBSRC Institutes in Norwich, the Institute of Food Research and the John Innes Centre, provide the scientific underpinning required to address the issue of food security, focus research on the effects of climate change on yields and assist the industry in improvement of crops for food, chemical and energy use.

4. A long-term weakness over the past 25 years is financial and regulatory pressure on the farming sector as a whole. This has caused much of the considerable investment in new technology made by arable farmers over the last 25 years to be directed at reducing costs rather than increasing the UK's total output (see paragraph 7). A long-term weakness for future food production is that the UK (as elsewhere) lacks understanding of how the environment and climate change will affect crops.

5. Given that most of the increase in yield of arable crops per unit area over the last 30 years has come about through improved plant varieties (source: NIAB), the health of the UK plant breeding industry is critical. The sector is technologically strong but is largely owned by non-UK parent companies, which means it is potentially vulnerable to commercial changes unrelated to the needs of UK agriculture. A further weakness is the shortage of trained personnel in some key areas (see paragraph 17).

6. A growing weakness is public opposition to technologies on which the UK's highly productive arable farming relies, notably important pesticides. This points to an underlying weakness in the education of UK citizens about food and farming.

 

Q2. 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?

 

7. The UK has a strong science base and new technologies are often applied rapidly in arable farming. In principle, the UK should be well-placed to respond to the challenge of increasing food production despite the increasing uncertainty in the national and global climate. However, this will require both the economic basis of food production to be strengthened and the regulatory framework to be relaxed, so that arable farmers have both the incentive and the capacity to apply technological innovations towards increasing total production rather than maintaining existing production at lower costs.

8. A key technology for increasing food production is plant improvement. The UK has some but not all of the components required to ensure continuation of the food production industry's ability to capitalise on the strong research base in genetics and the emerging genomic technologies. Particular areas that require strengthening are training in certain key areas (see paragraph 17) and public education about the role of technology in food production.

9. As the climate changes, there will be an increasing need to develop more resilient varieties and crop production systems (i.e. better rotations perhaps with new crop species). Climate change will affect the physical stresses on crops, such as temperature and rainfall, and the severity and prevalence of diseases. In both cases, increased genetic diversity will help to buffer crops against inherently unpredictable variation. This could include both a greater range of crop varieties and the use of genetic variation within crops to achieve greater stability in yields. Continuous improvements in plant varieties need to be combined with continued advances in agronomy to sustain the high yields of UK crops. Regulations which restrict farmers' ability to use technological innovations with no proportionate benefits to health or the environment should be seen as undesirable from the point of view of food security.

 

Q3. In particular, what are the challenges the UK faces in relation to the following aspects of the supply side of the food system:

 

- soil quality

 

10. The potential limitation of phosphate supply to agriculture, given that it is a solely mined resource, requires a robust approach to increasing fertilizer use efficiency that address not only P but also N, K and S. This area could be addressed in several ways including: a) by applying GM approaches to improving nutritional quality (more value from the same biomass) in "better than natural" products, which would also have better chance of public acceptance, b) understanding how soil microbes and other microbiota interact with different crop species and how this may change in response to climate change, and in relation to this understand whether legumes change soil microbes by the production of H2 as a consequence of their symbiosis, c) developing increased sustainability in rotations (legume inclusion) and d) understanding how to improve root biomass and how regulatory networks and genetic pathways function in root development.

 

- water availability

 

11. Presently drought stress is the major limiting factor to crop production in developing countries and is an area of science where the UK can have an impact. Plant genetic diversity, advanced genomic science and comparative biology can be used to develop tools and technologies that will help plant breeders produce crop varieties adapted to drought.

 

- the science base

 

12. The UK has a strong science base in both Universities and Research Institutes however research and development is urgently needed to improve our ability to exploit the full genetic potential of crops, and to develop R&D for improving the resilience of crop production to global climate change, while maintaining adequate production with reduced impact on the environment and reduced inputs.

13. New levels of organisation need to be established to make efficient use of new technologies (high throughput genotyping, next generation sequencing, marker assisted breeding) enabling their deployment in the UK breeding industry. R&D alliances, such as those between JIC, RRES and NIAB, between EBI (European Bioinformatics Institute) and JIC, and between NIAB and breeders, are starting to link the required expertise and develop joint research programmes to establish some of the components of "public good plant breeding" especially pre-competitive germplasm improvement. This should initially be focussed mainly on wheat improvement but other crops, e.g. Oilseed rape, could also benefit from a similar approach. A much greater and concerted effort is required at the national, and probably European level,

14. Coordinated and concerted effort to develop the existing R&D in interdisciplinary and collaborative ways, including that crossing large academic gaps (e.g. plant developmental biology to global environmental sciences) in the long term, across the university, institute and industrial sector is required.

15. Capitalisation on the translation of genomic technologies developed in model and non-plant systems into commercially relevant crop species is required allowing the integration of genomic technologies with traditional breeding reducing the time required for the identification and selection of useful traits.

16. The main UK rotation crops - wheat, barley, legumes, oilseed rape, sugar beet and potatoes - need coordinated, concerted activity in genetic improvement. Focussing on one rotation crop will not provide benefits in the long term. This involves genomics to discover new genes and useful genetic diversity, wide crosses and marker assisted breeding to accelerate breeding from a wider base of useful variation, and GM methods where a single gene has agricultural and consumer benefits. Increased knowledge of gene function generated in model systems such as Arabidopsis will flow through to crop improvement, therefore maintaining parallel paths of basic and applied research is of paramount importance.

 

- the provision of training

 

17. There is a serious lack of national expertise in some key skills, notably the field-level sciences of plant breeding, crop physiology and field plant pathology. Degraded funding and infrastructure has made it difficult to address this diminished skill base. Defra has a role in funding training at the masters and doctoral levels (also see paragraph 34), to supply staff with advanced training in these areas to UK companies, to academic research and to research at the interface between the public and private sectors, such as pre-breeding and public-good plant breeding.

18. In order to encourage the application of research and training to food security, there should be greater recognition for researchers who make exceptional contributions in this area. At present, it is widely believed (often with good reason) that a career in fundamental research offers greater rewards than one in applicable research. Strenuous efforts should be made to change this. For example, promotion opportunities for scientists should value significant practical results of research as greatly as publications in highly-cited journals, while the Research Assessment Exercise should be overhauled to give much stronger encouragement to universities to participate in long-term research to support food security. Nonetheless an unremitting emphasis on peer-reviewed excellence (within the appropriate frame of reference) is required for delivery of high impact even for work near to application.

 

- the way in which land is farmed and managed

 

19. An approach based on greater integration of standard, organic and alternative types of farming should result in more sustainable practices. Integration of organic practices with scientific innovation would be highly desirable. Currently there is an ideological barrier that impedes the productive alignment of research in sustainable low input agriculture and genetic improvement of crops.

20. Developing precision agronomy linked with better understanding of climate change and crop response (satellite tracking, nutrient status and appropriate minimal treatment).

21. Understanding the potential of biochar in soil improvement, nutrient delivery to crops, and impacts on soil microbiology, and hence crops, requires assessment.

22. Maintaining the capacity to respond to ever-changing variation in pathogens, for example through the UK Cereal Pathogen Virulence Survey and responding to new diseases by 'buying time' with pesticides while breeders produce resistant varieties.

23. Decreasing post-harvest losses must also be a major scientific target.

24. For legume crops, the need to adopt changes in patterns of food consumption, focussing on legumes (pulses) as sources of high nutrition foodstuffs, requires greater development of legume genetics, genomics and agronomy.

25. A wider acceptance of GM approaches to improving crops needs to be promoted. An example of this would be GM engineered virus resistance which will become important given that the European Parliament would like to ban most of them, resulting in a loss of pest control.

 

Q4. What trends are likely to emerge on the demand side of the food system in the UK, in terms of consumer taste and habits, and what will be their main effect? What use could be made of local food networks?

 

26. Meat consumption is increasing to above sustainable levels consumption patterns will need to change and a shift from milk and dairy consumption to legumes (e.g. pulses) as a high protein foodstuff will be needed. This must be aligned to increased productivity with lower inputs, based on the environmental impacts of agriculture and the cost of energy for inputs.

 

Q5 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?

 

27. Defra should consider funding R&D in key subjects related to crops and food security emphasising excellence for relevance and impact.

28. Continue to support LINK-type research involving partnership between academics & industry, particularly in the area of plant breeding enabling the production of crops better adapted to climate and parasite variation.

29. Be prepared to support public-good breeding/biotech especially for minor crops ignored by industry and also for traits not addressed adequately by industry.

30. Play a direct role and show leadership in Europe in the reduction of regulations to enable farmers to use technology effectively.

31. Play a role in educating the public making them aware of the food production process.

32. Overall Defra presently funds research largely to inform policy development. In the US, USDA and DoE fund R&D to deliver policy outcomes, e.g. co-funding (with NSF) of genome sequencing for key food and energy crop species. Defra should provide substantial peer-reviewed funding for such policy delivery goals administered by the appropriate Research Council(s) (cf the recent DfID-BBSRC International Development Science Programme).

 

Q6. 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?

 

33. Regarding support for science and technology, the LINK programme is an excellent example of collaboration between Defra, other government departments, levy boards, trade associations, individual companies and private sector researchers. The best LINK projects exemplify the application of good science to technological innovation. Any replacement for LINK, such as Technology Strategy Boards should maintain the close connection between researchers and industry. It is important that initiatives for future LINK projects (or projects funded by successor organisations) can come from researchers as well as from industry. It is also important that LINK and its successors make it as attractive for leading researchers to participate in collaborative projects with industry as to seek funding for fundamental research.

34. The withdrawal of MAFF's studentship scheme was regrettable. It was anticipated that the gap in training of personnel in agricultural sciences would be met by Research Council studentship but this expectation has largely not been met. Studentships offered by levy boards are helping to fill the gap but a scheme run by Defra itself, comparable to the old MAFF scheme, would help to reverse the decline in training relevant to the technology of arable farming.

35. The plant breeding sector consists of several mainly small companies. Defra has a special role in ensuring that they have access to technological developments and trained staff. The requirement for a 50% minimum contribution from industry should be relaxed, as it severely limits the ability of small companies such as plant breeders to take advantage of the opportunities offered by LINK. The size of contribution from industry to CASE studentships excessive for a small company and this should also be relaxed, to encourage advanced training in science and technology relevant to breeding.

36. Regarding the regulatory framework, it is evident that there is a strong trend for European regulations to suppress the use of technology in agriculture, including pesticides and genetic modification. Against this trend, Defra should advocate an integrated approach to crop management but the current status of legislation on the use of pesticides (mid-January 2009) indicates that Defra has had only limited success in this direction. Greater efforts are required to ensure that arable farmers in the UK (and indeed in Europe as a whole) will continue to have access to the full range of tools they require to maintain, let alone increase, food production.

 

Q7. 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?

 

37. There are many sets of official statistics relating to food security and climate change available that could be used to monitor how well the UK is responding to increasing global food production.

 

January 2009