Memorandum submitted by the Research Councils UK (SFS 49)

 

SUMMARY

 

This response from Research Councils UK focuses primarily on research and postgraduate training in the UK.

The UK has a strong research base underpinning agriculture, aquaculture, fisheries and food, including major centres of expertise and facilities at Research Council institutes. Applied R&D and translation into practice are weaker and need to be strengthened.

The UK can be expected to contribute through its scientific expertise to meeting future challenges of increasing global food production and managing supply while minimising environmental impact.

Sustained funding for research will be crucial to enable the UK research base to deliver the necessary basic and applied research and to ensure its translation into practical application.

Defra should play a leading role including appropriate contributions to research programmes and working effectively with the Research Councils to ensure sustainable UK capacity and capability in agricultural research and development.

Some of the issues raised in this document are also being discussed by the members of the Living With Environmental Change partnership, of which the Research Councils, Defra and some of its agencies are members. The aim is to co-design and co-deliver research addressing food and water issues in the context of a rapidly changing environment.

 

INTRODUCTION

 

1. Research Councils UK[1] is a strategic partnership set up to enable the seven UK Research Councils to work together more effectively and enhance the overall impact and effectiveness of their research, training, innovation and public engagement activities.

2. The Research Councils welcome the opportunity to respond to this Inquiry. This evidence is submitted by RCUK on behalf of the following Councils:

Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC)

Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC)

Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC)

Natural Environment Research Council (NERC)

 

3. It represents their independent views, and includes contributions from relevant NERC-sponsored centres and units (Annex 1). It does not include or necessarily reflect the views of the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (the sponsoring government department for the Research Councils). In addition to this response, the BBSRC and several of its research institutes are submitting separate information to the Inquiry.

4. This response focuses mainly on research and training, in keeping with the Research Councils' mission and roles. Annex 2 provides summary information on relevant cross-council research programmes, and Annex 3 sets out some definitions.

POINTS RAISED BY THE EFRA COMMITTEE

 

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

 

5. The UK is around 60% self-sufficient in food production[2] and could in principle be made more so, but even if greater self-sufficiency were achieved it would not provide total security of UK food supply. The UK would remain dependent on import of foods that could not be produced domestically, and (crucially) also dependent on imported fossil fuels required for food production and distribution. Future policies may require changes in farming practice away from oil dependency, possibly at considerable cost to the consumer and productivity.

6. Strengths

a. The UK is well suited to some food production, with a moderate climate and fertile soils, generally with good water supply (see also Q2).

b. Highly productive and efficient, modern agriculture (although growth in UK productivity since the mid-1980s fell behind than in some other European countries, and this has been associated with reduced public spending on agricultural R&D[3]).

c. Excellent research base in basic/strategic biological (including biotechnology) and environmental science underpinning agriculture, fisheries and food. Major facilities and centres of expertise at Research Council institutes (Annex 1) are key parts of the national capability. (But see weaknesses regarding erosion of parts of the research base and the need for improved translation of basic research into practice.)

d. Expertise in modelling of climate, the climate-water cycle and agricultural productivity. Research capacity to tackle complex multi-sectoral issues that impinge upon food security.

e. Long term, spatially extensive, national datasets (soils, water, biodiversity) exist - required to monitor and assess the vulnerability of UK and internationally sourced food supplies.

7. Weaknesses

a. Lack of coordination across the many players in a varied and fragmented industrial sector where there is a need to provide a systems perspective of the rural economy.

b. A lack of integrated analysis of food-related policy objectives to include environmental and socio-economic aspects e.g. advice from the FSA on health benefits of increasing fish consumption is in conflict with current pressures on wild stocks and problems in the fisheries supply chain.

c. Limited coordination across government for collaboration between UK researchers and those overseas, especially outside the EU.

d. Many factors have contributed to changes in the emphasis given to food research, including decline in Defra's funding of research related to agriculture, food and fisheries over many years, with negative impacts on the research base and infrastructure including Research Council institutes. Agriculture and food research and training in the universities have also declined, with closure of some departments, facilities and courses and loss of associated expertise.

e. Shortages of key skills, leading to recruitment and succession problems in topics such as agronomy, weed science, plant pathology and mycology, plant breeding, soil science, animal disease research and whole animal physiology, agri-environment and areas of ecology and hydrology, numerical modelling and social policy.

f. Translation of underpinning research into practice needs to be informed by integrated insights from social science and made more effective. Applied agricultural R&D has declined; extension services for demonstration and advice also appear to be less effective than previously. Translation from basic and strategic research through more applied work and into practical application by industry needs to be strengthened.

g. Dependence of food production and supply chains on inputs such as energy and fertilisers puts them potentially at risk from rising energy prices and disruptions (as shown, for example, during industrial disputes that disrupted petrol supplies in 2000 and 2008).

h. Fisheries are at risk from overfishing and from discarding catches, poor implementation of scientific advice and enforcement measures, and potentially climate change and ocean acidification. Fish farming (but not shellfish or seaweed farming) is in turn largely dependent on wild capture fisheries and can itself have detrimental environmental impacts.

i. Agri-environmental practices can be too narrow, lacking adequately holistic frameworks and therefore undermining their long-term sustainability.

j. Improvements are required in the extent and availability of spatial datasets (eg soils) that are essential to both long-term monitoring, planning and assessment, and short-term management. The UK also needs to improve its capacity to anticipate, model and appropriately respond to invasive species, ranging from viruses to larger vertebrates, that can threaten food supplies.

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. The UK is well suited to produce some foods, given its moderate climate and rainfall and fertile soils. With changing climate, northern Europe is projected to become more important in global food production. The climate of south-east England is projected to resemble the current climate in the Mediterranean, hastening the growth of new agri-industries (e.g. wine growing), while making some existing crops uneconomic - especially in areas that are already water stressed.

9. Global fisheries yields from marine capture appear close to their sustainable limits. Rebuilding of depleted stocks and further diversification of the industry may lead to some small increases in production. Increases in aquaculture production may be possible but are limited in the UK by the tendency to farm carnivorous species (e.g. salmon, trout) which in turn require substantial inputs of animal protein. Increased farming of shellfish and macro-algae has much greater potential.

10. Arguably among the greatest contributions the UK can make is in applying its scientific expertise to the global challenges. Greatly increased production using the same or less land and resources will be achievable only through integrated research and its effective application. For example, in many areas supply of freshwater may limit agricultural production on land, so marine farming lower in the food chain is an obvious area for expansion. UK research played a major part in the 'green revolution' of the 1960s. The UK retains a strong research base in underpinning science[4] and can be expected to make similar significant scientific contributions towards increased production, both in the UK and internationally. As leading centres, the Research Council institutes will be crucial in the UK effort. But major sustained investment in high quality research will be required over the coming years to deliver the required improvements (see also Q3, science base).

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

11. Sustainable agricultural production depends critically on maintaining soil quality (soil fertility requiring suitable chemical and microbiological composition and physical structure). Basic and applied research (including soil mapping) will be needed to advance understanding of soil biogeochemical processes and to develop improved agricultural practices that conserve soil quality, control erosion and run-off, reduce compaction and enable reduced inputs.

- water availability

12. Climate change will impact on land use and lead to changes in rainfall, evapotranspiration and, crucially for groundwater resources, natural replenishment of aquifers. Increased demand for irrigation water can be expected in the dryer south-east of the UK. The UK will need to follow other regions of the world and speed up the use of unconventional water resources (saline and brackish, waste waters from sewage and industry, etc) in agriculture, and develop technical and policy solutions to reduce consumption.

13. In addition to changes in average rainfall, increasing variability and increasing frequency of extremes will affect agricultural productivity and food security. Our understanding of, and hence ability to model and predict natural variability is quite poor. A repeat of the prolonged dry period in the late 19th century would severely test the UK's food (and water) security.

14. The global food production targets for 2050 will need to be met without increasing demands upon already unsustainably exploited water resources. While the green revolution doubled food production from many key food crops, this was accompanied by a trebling of water consumption.

- the marine environment

15. Defra's core aim is for safe and productive seas which can sustain fisheries and other human activities whilst also supporting a rich and diverse wildlife via an ecosystem-based approach to marine management. Challenges include balancing competing pressures (e.g. fisheries, marine renewable energy and nature conservation), spatial planning and implementing Marine Protected Areas. Monitoring and research will be needed to support the ecosystem approach and to develop planning tools that support multiple, synergistic uses of the marine environment including food provision.

16. It is widely accepted that the Common Fisheries Policy has been a failure within the UK in terms of delivering its objectives of supporting economic, social and biological sustainability. There has been insufficient emphasis upon conserving the biological resource and the consequence has been degradation of the economic and social objectives. A challenge is to reduce the volume of capture fisheries within UK, EU and global waters and its collateral damage to ecosystems and local economies, without reducing profitability while competing in a global market.

17. Food production from marine ecosystems is under combined pressure from climate and fisheries. Pollution issues include wastes from and disease in fish farms, and impacts on migratory species and from terrestrial run-off. Changes in ocean temperature, storminess and acidity can be expected to affect productivity. Many species that are currently fished will decline; in particular cold water species (e.g. cod) will become less abundant in EU waters. Warmer water species (e.g. mackerel, sea bass) may compensate to some extent.

18. The projected loss of the Arctic ice sheet in summer months may lead to a local increase in fish numbers, mainly benefitting nations around the Arctic Ocean but contributing to the global supply of protein.

19. Aquaculture will outstrip fisheries as the major producer of marine food within the next decade, representing a paradigm shift in exploitation of the aquatic environment. As freshwater resources are already over-committed in many areas, this increased production will come from the sea. This represents a major challenge to sustainable management of the marine environment. Research investment in this area is required.

20. Wild fish supplies from warmer latitudes are likely to reduce as a consequence of climate change, but especially through over-fishing. Fish farming in Asia and Africa is likely to increase.

21. Fresh waters also support diverse fisheries and aquaculture operations. Research is needed into links between freshwater quality and habitat quality within the framework of integrated water catchment management planning.

- the science base

22. The UK has a strong research base relevant to food production. But in order to meet future challenges it will be essential to sustain sufficient investment to provide appropriate capability, skills, infrastructure and facilities and enable the necessary research and its transfer into practice in the UK and overseas. Sustained funding is needed to support basic underpinning science, feeding into strategic, applied and policy research, and coupled with knowledge transfer through to practical applications for end users by mechanisms including effective extension and advisory services.

23. Research will need to become more interdisciplinary to address complex questions relating to food security, especially in the context of climate, environmental and social change. Systems approaches and research at a range of scales from molecular to field, catchment and regional will be needed. Integration of biological, environmental and socio-economic research will be essential, and the Research Councils will continue to promote and support interdisciplinary approaches wherever appropriate (see also Annex 2).

24. In relation to fisheries and aquaculture, improved co-ordination and links between the government-funded laboratories (FRS, CEFAS and AFBI) and the NERC capacity (marine laboratories and research ships) could maximise benefits.

- the provision of training

25. A continued supply of skilled natural and social scientists will be essential to meet future challenges, both to sustain the research base and for the benefit of the economy more widely. The Research Councils play a central role in provision of training, particularly at postgraduate level. The Research Council institutes are an important component, hosting significant numbers of research students in relevant topics in underpinning biological and environmental sciences.

26. There appears to have been a shift in recent years in student numbers away from biology (and especially agriculturally relevant courses) towards biomedical topics. Skills shortages (see also Weaknesses) tend to be complex issues, with problems potentially arising in both supply (e.g. declining numbers of students) and demand (availability of relevant jobs). Incentives need to be improved to take up training and careers in more applied topics.

- trade barriers

27. The UK is a trading country with an open economy. A secure food supply does not, therefore, solely depend on the UK's potential for domestic production; this must be balanced with importation. Many national governments, however, responded to food price increases by adopting protectionist policies. Research shows this only serves to exacerbate price spikes and food security issues, cutting off trading flows at a time when they are most important. Food market regulation and socio-economic research can help inform both national and international practice and policy. This must be pursued, however, with a view to ensuring fair prices for both consumers and producers around the world; in this way the facilitation of an open global market in the food industry can be balanced by a commitment to tackle global poverty through the economics of food production and trade. Moreover, given the UK agricultural industry's dependence on energy inputs sourced from elsewhere, it is vital that efforts for international trade liberalisation also extend to these industries.

28. Other important issues to take into account are debt, distribution of wealth amongst producers and consumers within the UK, and local engagement in policy development, to enable bottom-up approaches with an understanding of cultural and social drivers. The impact of trade on the sustainable use of water resources globally is also important.

- the way in which land is farmed and managed

29. To meet the increase in global food demand, the availability of agricultural land may need to increase, but land for food production will continue to face competition from encroaching urban development. A major challenge will be achieving a balance of productive agriculture (for food, fuel and raw materials) while also providing other ecosystem services (such as water, biodiversity, recreational use of the countryside) and in the context of climate and other environmental change. Severe water shortages, sea level change and the need to reduce inefficient fertiliser and pesticide usage are further challenges. In the interests of global food security it is paramount that agricultural productivity reaches its high untapped potential in the developing world and that efforts to reduce international poverty are more successful.

30. Research will be needed to support agricultural systems that manage land for a variety of purposes, and to predict, manage and mitigate possible consequences such as soil degradation, depletion/ replenishment of groundwater resources and impacts on biodiversity in agricultural and associated habitats.

31. Further research is needed into the effect of farm size upon agricultural productivity. Small household farming units can help maintain food supply and underpin local rural economies. But larger production units (such as in Brazil) can often improve agricultural productivity.

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?

 

32. The Food Matters report reviewed the main trends in consumption. An increasing proportion of consumers are likely to want foods offering health benefits and some will be prepared to pay a premium for this. There will be increasing demand for foods that are perceived to have low environmental impact or not to degrade quality of life in developing countries. Convenience foods are associated with increased energy input and wastage and this may become increasingly unacceptable to consumers and to industry, particularly as 30-50% of production is lost to food chain wastage. However, cost will remain a prime concern for the majority of consumers.

33. Consumers will want to be increasingly reassured of the provenance of foods and traceability will become more important. Local food networks may become more important but are unlikely to provide more than a minority of sales and will not address issues such as diversity, convenience and cost. Locally sourced foods may be attractive but must be priced right and available through existing sales infrastructures.

34. A drive to greater national self-sufficiency would lead to increased seasonality and a much narrower choice of foods that would require considerable changes in attitude for acceptability. However, benefits to health, the environment and industry make attempting to change consumer attitudes worthy of perseverance.

35. Other issues that must be considered in relation to consumer behaviour include demographic changes (i.e. different ages have different tastes and desire different foods) and current concerns over obesity and health in relation to dietary trends.

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?

 

36. In our view Defra (acting with its devolved counterparts) should take a leading role, in its capacity as the government department with responsibility for farming and food. The department's focus in recent years has tended more towards environmental issues than to food production per se. The Foods Standards Agency (and FSAS) has shown a strong lead in relation to food safety and nutrition; similarly the Environment Agency (and SEPA) has a clear role in environmental protection and regulation. The position for food production and supply is less clear.

37. The Research Councils have little direct experience of Defra's interactions with the food industry. However, it is a matter of record[5] that in the area of animal health the department is exploring cost sharing with the farming industry. The philosophy seems to be that of 'industry pays for the research that it wants' . While this may be appropriate for some activities, the industry is likely to be unable or unwilling to contribute on the scale envisaged. Government needs to step in and show leadership where it is necessary to address market failures.

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?

38. We address these questions under separate sub-headings of engagement across government and cross-government food strategy.

Engagement across government

39. We are in a position to comment only on direct interactions of the Research Councils with Defra. The department engages appropriately through UK advisory and coordinating bodies on various food-related research topics (e.g. microbiological food safety). Defra leads for the UK in various international fora and engages well with the Research Councils (e.g. in developing the EU Framework Programmes; the European Commission's Standing Committee on Agriculture Research (SCAR); tetrapartite meetings on agri-food research with France, USA and Canada).

40. Defra's engagement with Research Council programmes and support for research through its policy-linked work is welcomed. Defra has been a significant player in the design of LWEC (see Annex 2) which has a specific objective on food and water. However, declining Defra funding of BBSRC institutes with a direct relevance to food production and diet and health has been problematic. A particular issue has been the department's reluctance to acknowledge its role in contributing to the sustainability of the research base and infrastructure, contrary to RIPSS[6] principles. The House of Commons Science and Technology Committee reviewed these funding issues in its report on Research Council institutes (March 2007) and recommended that Defra should implement RIPSS. This remains outstanding.

Cross-government food strategy

41. To date there has not been a coherent cross-government food strategy but recent coordinating activity following the Food Matters report gives cause for optimism that a strategy is being developed. We strongly welcome the interest and leadership shown by the Government's Chief Scientific Adviser.

42. We further welcome the establishment by Defra of the Council of Food Policy Advisors, although in our view it would be strengthened if its membership included additional scientific expertise. The recent growing interest across government in food policy is welcome and creates considerable opportunity to improve the governance of the UK food system with enhanced policy engagement including in relation to the EU and World Trade Organisation.

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?

 

43. Defra should continue to publish statistics on UK agricultural and fisheries production, and related environmental measurements such as water use and quality. In liaison with DfID and relevant international bodies such as FAO, similar measurements of global food production and the environmental impacts of agriculture, fisheries and aquaculture should be monitored. Data and associated metadata should be made fully available in a timely manner, to assist researchers.

44. The Defra report recognises the need to better quantify the greenhouse gas emissions associated with food production and supply. As methods develop it will be necessary to monitor such emissions.

45. In exploiting the UK's leadership in global climate-water modelling, Defra/DfID/FCO in conjunction with the Research Councils should support improved modelling of global and regional climate-water-food-population relationships. This could be done under the auspices of existing partnerships such as UKCDS and LWEC (Annex 1).

46. The department should monitor its research spending in relation to food production, alongside that by the Research Councils in the UK and also government counterparts overseas. Full details of all the department's research investment and strategy should be readily available.

 

RCUK, January 2009


ANNEX 1

Research Council centres and institutes relevant to food security

 

BBSRC institutes
www.bbsrc.ac.uk/organisation/institutes/sponsored_institutes.html

 

The BBSRC institutes conduct long-term, mission-oriented research using specialist facilities, some of which are unique in the UK or internationally (such as animal disease containment facilities, long-term field experiments). They maintain strong interactions with industry, government departments and other end-users of their research to provide advice and promote knowledge transfer, and are leading partners in numerous overseas collaborations.

 

Institute for Animal Health (Compton and Pirbright) - combating livestock diseases.

Institute of Food Research (Norwich) - food structure, quality and safety, diet & health.

John Innes Centre (Norwich) - plant and microbial science underpinning crop production.

Rothamsted Research (Harpenden) and North Wyke Research (Devon) - arable and grassland agricultural systems, including long-term field experiments (some continuous since 1843).

 

NERC Research and Collaborative Centres
www.nerc.ac.uk

 

British Geological Survey (BGS) - the world's longest-established national geological survey and the UK's premier centre for earth science information and expertise. Research covers soils and groundwater.

Centre for Ecology & Hydrology (CEH) - climate-water, water resources, droughts, floods, water quality, ecology, agri-environment, irrigation, soils, genetically modified organisms, land use, biodiversity, invasive species, energy crops.

Proudman Oceanographic Laboratory (POL) - oceanographic research including ecosystem modelling.

Plymouth Marine Laboratory (PML) - research on environmental issues in marine science including sustainable marine ecosystems, environment and health (which encompasses the sustainable management of the oceans).

National Oceanography Centre, Southampton (NOCS) - research, teaching and technology development in ocean and earth science.

Scottish Association of Marine Science (SAMS) - research and modelling underpinning a) the sustainable use of the marine environment for aquaculture; b) the quality and safety to humans of marine shellfish and c) novel food products from marine organisms.

Sea Mammal Research Unit (SMRU) - interdisciplinary research into the biology of marine mammals, including fisheries interactions.


ANNEX 2

Some cross-Research Council programmes and partnerships related to food security

 

Ecosystems Services for Poverty Alleviation (ESPA) - NERC, ESRC and the Department for International Development (DfID) join forces to explore the potential for a multi-disciplinary research programme that will address how to achieve sustainably managed ecosystems.

Living with Environmental Change (LWEC) - a ten-year programme, to provide decision makers with the best information to effectively manage and protect vital ecosystem services. Partners include all the Research Councils together with departments of state, devolved governments and agencies, business and other stakeholders.

 

The Research Councils' Energy Programme has funded the Food Climate Research Network (University of Surrey) to provide a focus for research and policy on food and climate issues in the UK.

Rural Economy and Land Use (RELU) - an interdisciplinary programme focusing on understanding the social, economic, environmental and technological challenges that rural areas face. RELU is funded by ESRC, NERC, and BBSRC with additional support from the Scottish Government and Defra.

Global uncertainties; security for all in a changing world - All Research Councils will work together to address four inter-related global threats to security - crime, terrorism, environmental stress, and global poverty, each linked in a systematic way to address three themes - causes, detection, and possible interventions to prevent harm. (www.rcuk.ac.uk/research/ccprog/security.htm)

 

UK Collaborative on Development Sciences (UKCDS) - a forum bringing together relevant UK government departments and research organisations to improve coordination of research in support of international development. Current and recent activities include studies on climate change and food security.

 

Sustainable Marine Bioresources (joint between NERC, Defra, Scottish Government and AFBI)

 


ANNEX 3

Definitions and scope

We take the scope of the 'UK food system' to cover the supply of safe and nutritious food to the UK. It includes primary agricultural production (crops and farmed animals), freshwater and marine fisheries and aquaculture in the UK. In addition it is essential to consider the wider context including: global food production and international trade; storage, distribution and transport; food processing, manufacture, preservation and wastage; food safety throughout the supply chain; and the interactions of diet and health. In addition, energy, water and other inputs (for production and supply chains) must be taken into account.

Food security must be understood as a multi-faceted concept that operates at household, local, national and international levels. It is defined differently under different jurisdictions and as such is highly complex. While new food production methods and systems are an important element of food security, issues of price, access, nutrition and environmental impact are also important. Above and beyond all of these concerns lie policy issues at all levels as well as questions of responsibility and ethics.

We take 'food production' to cover production of crops (for food and farm animal feed) and animals (farm animals, aquaculture and fisheries), including management of agricultural land and soils, and dealing with pests and diseases of crops and livestock. Production of non-food crops (for fuel or industrial raw materials such as fibre) may also need to be considered, for example to address competition for land and other resources.

January 2009



[1] Further details are available at www.rcuk.ac.uk

[2] Ensuring the UK's Food Security in a Changing World (Defra, 2008), para 4.12

http://www.defra.gov.uk/foodrin/foodstrategy/security.htm

[3] The need for a new vision for UK agricultural research and development (Commercial Farmers Group, 2008); summary at http://www.arthurrankcentre.org.uk/projects/rusource_briefings/rus08/644.pdf

[4] For example, the UK is ranked top among G8 countries for citation impact of papers in biological sciences (DIUS statistics, Jul 2008): table and chart 1.10.03 at http://www.dius.gov.uk/publications/IntComparativePerformanceUKResearch.pdf

 

[5] Defra cost sharing proposals (2007-08): http://www.defra.gov.uk/animalh/ahws/sharing/index.htm

[6] RIPSS: Research Council Institute and PSRE Sustainability Study (DTI, 2004) http://www.berr.gov.uk/dius/science/science-funding/ripss/page22675.html and http://www.berr.gov.uk/files/file14578.pdf