Memorandum submitted by John Innes Centre (SFS 36)
· 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
· 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
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
· Defra should fund R&D to deliver as well as
inform policy (cf
Q1. How robust is the current
1. The comparative stability in the yields of
arable crops in the
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
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
6. A growing weakness is public opposition to
technologies on which the
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?
8. A key technology for increasing food
production is plant improvement. The
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
Q3. In particular, what are the challenges the
- 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
- 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.
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
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
- the provision of training
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
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
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
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
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
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
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