Memorandum submitted by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) (SFS 50)

 

Summary and main messages

 

BBSRC is the UK's leading public funder of research underpinning agriculture and food supply, and plays a key role in supporting relevant science through universities and the BBSRC research institutes.

Climate and other environmental change are important factors but food security must also be considered more widely.

BBSRC research institutes are a key resource and national asset, central to the UK's capability to respond to the challenges ahead.

Improvements are needed in the translation of underpinning science into practical applications: Defra and the Technology Strategy Board must play a leading role in partnership with BBSRC.

Substantial and sustained new funding for research and training from the public (research councils, government departments) and private sectors will be essential to deliver basic and applied research and to ensure its translation into practice.

There is a need for better coordination across research funders, including more leadership from Defra as the responsible government department.

 

Introduction

 

1. The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC[1]) is the UK's leading public funder of research and postgraduate training in the non-medical biosciences, including agriculture, food, and diet and health. Embedded within our strong ethos of excellence in research we actively promote knowledge transfer from basic research to applications in industry, policy and public services, and foster public engagement across the biosciences.

2. This response should be read in conjunction with the submission from Research Councils UK, to which BBSRC contributed and which addresses each of the questions posed by the EFRA Committee. In addition, four BBSRC research institutes have submitted separate evidence that each provide more detailed scientific perspectives, in particular on animal diseases (Institute for Animal Health), crop production (John Innes Centre and Rothamsted Research) and food safety and nutrition (Institute of Food Research).

The challenge of food security

3. We strongly welcome this inquiry by the EFRA Committee. Future food security for the UK and globally is a crucially important and wide-ranging issue that requires coordinated approaches across government, industry and other stakeholders. Research and skilled people will be essential to meet the significant challenges ahead.

4. Food security is not simply about climate and environmental change. If we had no climate change then, as the Government's Chief Scientific Adviser has made clear, mankind would still be faced with a significant food security challenge - for example through global population growth, changing demographics and competition for land. But factors such as climate change exacerbate the problem through additional threats to food production.

5. While crop production and the security of grain supplies have received much attention, we emphasise that food production and security (and the underlying research needs) must be considered more widely. Crop production depends on sustainable management of agricultural land and soils. Also centrally important is the production of animals for food (including farm animals, aquaculture and fisheries). The understanding, prediction and control of pests and diseases of livestock and crops are further vital topics, particularly in the context of climate change that is likely to lead to changes in the distribution of disease-causing organisms and/or their vectors (insects, etc) (see BBSRC institutes, below).

6. Food security drivers and associated research needs need to be considered at UK, European and global levels, while recognising that all are inter-related. Furthermore, the security of food supplies must be considered in the broader context of global production and international trade; storage, distribution and transport; food processing, manufacture, preservation and reducing waste. Food safety must be maintained throughout the supply chain. The relation between diet and health must be better understood as part of the context of providing increased supplies of nutritious food.

7. A further aspect of the broader context is that food security depends on energy, water and other inputs such as fertilisers and pesticides - directly for food production and also as fuel etc needed for food processing and supply chains.

Role of BBSRC

8. BBSRC, as the principal public funder of research related to food production and security, supports fundamental, strategic and applied research and postgraduate training that underpins agriculture and food supply. This continues a long history in the UK of high quality research related to agriculture and food, funded largely by BBSRC and its predecessors.

9. BBSRC total spend in this area was around 185m in 2007/08. This included research on: 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; agricultural systems and the effects of environmental change on those systems.

10. BBSRC supports research in UK universities and in the Council's sponsored institutes. Research ranges from basic underpinning biology aimed at fundamental understanding of how plants, animals, microbes and biological systems function (at molecular, cell, organism and population levels), to more strategic and applied research (including work in collaboration with industry) focused on important questions of direct relevance to food production and supply.

11. BBSRC works to support international partnerships and research collaborations around the world, including links with countries of growing economic importance such as China and Brazil. We are also pleased to work closely with DfID and have recently put in place two major research initiatives co-funded with the department, both directly relevant to food security in developing countries.

12. Examples of BBSRC-funded and other research (relating particularly to crop production and underpinning plant science) can be found in the recent BBSRC publication Bioscience behind secure harvests[2].

BBSRC institutes

13. The BBSRC sponsored research institutes form a core component of the UK's national capability in research and training relevant to agriculture and food security. They provide critical mass of scientific expertise together with essential facilities, infrastructure and resources for research. They are also a vital source of independent advice to Government.

14. The BBSRC institutes related to food security are:

Institute for Animal Health (Compton and Pirbright) - combating livestock diseases www.iah.bbsrc.ac.uk

 

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

 

John Innes Centre (Norwich) - plant and microbial science underpinning crop production www.jic.ac.uk

 

Rothamsted Research (Harpenden) and North Wyke Research (Devon) - arable and grassland agricultural systems www.rothamsted.ac.uk

 

15. In addition, BBSRC continues to provide significant funding for research relevant to agriculture at two former institutes that have recently transferred from BBSRC to universities: the Roslin Institute (Edinburgh - farm animal science, www.roslin.ac.uk), and the Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences (IBERS, Aberystwyth - grassland and associated livestock science, www.directoribers.co.uk).

16. Particular strengths of the BBSRC institutes include the ability to 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 and long-term field experiments). The institutes 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. They are active in public engagement, and also contribute significantly to training future generations of scientists: the institutes host numerous postgraduate research students, building on the many links between the institutes and leading UK universities.

17. Most of the UK's capacity to work on pathogens of livestock and crops rests in BBSRC sponsored institutes. This is particularly the case with animal disease where the Institute for Animal Health (IAH) is a major international centre of excellence. An example of the crucial role of the institute's research is that of the recent occurrence of bluetongue virus (BTV) in the UK. Bluetongue is a significant disease of ruminants such as sheep and cattle which is carried by biting midge vectors. Scientists at IAH have monitored the progression of the disease and its vector from northern Africa through the Mediterranean to northern Europe. In 2007 they were able to predict, based on temperature and weather patterns, the first occurrence of the disease in eastern England. This significantly increased the UK's preparedness for the disease and a vaccination campaign (again based on IAH research) in 2008 prevented significant recurrence. IAH remains at the forefront of the battle against BTV as further different types of the virus now threaten the UK. An independent report by consultants DTZ[3] estimated that the institute's work on BTV has potentially saved the UK economy 485m and 10,000 jobs. Further details of the science behind bluetongue and the role of IAH can be found on the Institute's website[4].

Future funding and coordination

18. Food security is a broad and complex area: food production and supply must be set in the wider context that includes environmental and socio-economic considerations. The Food Matters report is a welcome analysis, and the submission from RCUK sets out some of these complexities from a research perspective. Research on many topics will be central to meeting the challenges of future food demands.

19. Substantial and sustained new investment in research and development will be needed over the coming years and decades. Food security will be a priority for BBSRC research funding, but coordinated investment from other partners across government and industry will also be essential.

20. Defra is clearly an important player and the department should take more of a lead across government and in partnership with others. The submission from RCUK draws attention to the long-standing difficulties in interactions with Defra over funding for Research Council institutes, and in particular Defra's failure to implement RIPPS[5] and acknowledge its role in contributing to the sustainability of the research base and infrastructure. The department's focus on short-term funding has not been conducive to planning what are intrinsically longer-term research programmes. Overall, Defra's support for research in agriculture and food has declined considerably over many years. Funding cuts have had significant impact, notably at BBSRC institutes and especially when imposed with little notice, and it has not been possible for the Research Councils or other funders to fill the gap.

21. While Defra should take a lead in coordination across government and other stakeholders, BBSRC will have an important role as a major funder in this topic. We will continue to work closely with other funders including Defra to deliver the necessary research and help meet the future challenges.

Translation into practice

22. While the UK has major strengths in basic bioscience and other relevant disciplines, the translation of that underpinning knowledge into practice is less well developed and rather fragile. Key areas of concern where translation is problematic (all relevant to Defra and where the department should have a role) include: the improvement of crops and farm animals; addressing the health and welfare of farm animals; food safety throughout the supply chain; and issues around impact of EU legislation on UK farming practice. There are also important translational considerations in areas such as the support of collaborative research between academia and industry, enabling SMEs to engage in relevant research, and the promulgation of best practice throughout the farming sector.

23. Further emphasis, with suitable incentives and rewards for researchers, needs to be placed on strategic and applied research, and directed towards promoting practical application by industry.

24. BBSRC and its institutes have an important role to play in helping to deliver the full range of research, from basic to applied, and its translation into practice. But other funders must also contribute. It is to be hoped that plans to develop funding mechanisms in partnership with the Technology Strategy Board can be brought to fruition.

Future directions - BBSRC food security meeting, February 2009

25. BBSRC is currently developing a new strategic plan for the next five years, in which food security, and the relationship between diet and health, will feature prominently. To take forward its new strategy, the Council is holding a high-level meeting in February 2009 to draw together scientific thinking about food security, including input from the Government's Chief Scientific Adviser, Professor John Beddington. The purpose of the meeting is to develop a 'roadmap' for coordinating scientific and user responses to the research challenges of food security - on timescales of 20 and 40 years - and to provide a framework for BBSRC's future investment in association with other Research Councils and government departments.

26. Skills shortages are a problem in a wide range of topics related to food security (the RCUK submission to this inquiry also refers). Recognising the fragile nature of the delivery pipeline, there will need to be an emphasis on the provision of appropriate skills, mechanisms and funding for strategic and applied research to translate the findings of the UK's excellent basic science in biology and other disciplines into practical applications by the farming and food industries.

 

BBSRC, January 2009



[1]BBSRC, a non-departmental public body, is one of seven Research Councils supported through the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS). BBSRC works with partner Research Councils through RCUK. Further details are available at www.bbsrc.ac.uk.

 

[2] Bioscience behind secure harvests (BBSRC, 2009) http://www.bbsrc.ac.uk/publications/corporate/bioscience_behind_secure_harvests.html

[3] DTZ report: www.iah.bbsrc.ac.uk/ecosoc/docs/Blue-Tongue-case-study.pdf

[4] Bluetongue information on IAH website: www.iah.ac.uk/news/btnews.shtml

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