Memorandum submitted by the Research Councils
response from Research Councils UK focuses primarily on research and
postgraduate training in the
funding for research will be crucial to enable the
should play a leading role including appropriate contributions to research programmes
and working effectively with the Research Councils to ensure sustainable
· 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.
1. Research Councils UK 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
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).
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.
term, spatially extensive, national datasets (soils, water, biodiversity) exist
- required to monitor and assess the vulnerability of
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.
coordination across government for collaboration between
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.
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
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?
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
among the greatest contributions the
Q3. In particular, what are the challenges the
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
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
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
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.
is widely accepted that the Common Fisheries Policy has been a failure within the
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.
projected loss of the Arctic ice sheet in summer months may lead to a local
increase in fish numbers, mainly benefitting nations around the
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.
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
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
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).
relation to fisheries and aquaculture, improved co-ordination and links between
the government-funded laboratories (
- 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
important issues to take into account are debt, distribution of wealth amongst
producers and consumers within the
- 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.
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
Q4. What trends are likely to emerge on the demand side of the food
system in the
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
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 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
are in a position to comment only on direct interactions of the Research
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 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.
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
Q7. What criteria should Defra use to monitor how well the
should continue to publish statistics on
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.
department should monitor its research spending in relation to food production,
alongside that by the Research Councils in the
RCUK, January 2009
Research Council centres and institutes relevant to food security
The BBSRC institutes conduct long-term,
mission-oriented research using specialist facilities, some of which are unique
Institute for Animal Health (Compton and Pirbright) - combating livestock diseases.
John Innes Centre (
Rothamsted Research (Harpenden)
and North Wyke Research (
NERC Research and
British Geological Survey (BGS) -
the world's longest-established national geological survey and the
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
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.
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 (
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)
Definitions and scope
We take the scope of the '
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.
 Ensuring the
 The need for a new vision for
 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