6 Harnessing technology |
and the food security challenge.
94. The need for technological innovation
in securing future UK food supplies and in contributing to global
food security was an almost universal theme in the evidence we
received. For example, the British Retail Consortium (BRC) commented
that "science and technology, as it always has, will help
to improve food security."The
Food and Drink Federation stated:
Getting "smarter with science"
will be fundamental to raising the limits of sustainable production,
addressing new threats, driving resource efficiency throughout
the food supply chain and making food safer, more nutritious and
affordable for all, not least through innovations in formulation,
packaging and storage as well as improvements in plant and animal
genetics and the functioning of primary agriculture. 
The Government has recognised this in
its new Agri-Tech Strategy launched earlier this year.
The Agri-Tech Strategy and technological
95. One of the key Government objectives
in its strategy for food security is to support innovation and
knowledge transfer through the Technology Strategy Board, which
is charged with supporting collaborative research and development
The Government's new Agri-Tech strategy, managed and delivered
through the Technology Strategy Board, was published jointly by
BIS, Defra and DFID. It is co-funded by industry and will provide
£160 million of translational research from science to technological
innovation and development, aiming to re-position the UK as a
world leader in the sustainable intensification of agriculture.
96. The Government says it is:
also working with the Technology
Strategy Board (TSB) to drive innovation to support a more competitive,
resilient and sustainable agri-food sector via the £90m Sustainable
Agriculture and Food Innovation Platform; £4.5 million investment
in a new Sustainable Intensification Platform to help translate
knowledge into practice to help farmers; and the £70 million
Agri-tech Strategy's catalyst innovation competitions with industry
led by TSB (with a £10 million contribution from DFID for
projects in developing countries).
97. The Agri-Tech Strategy has been
described as a bold and innovative response to the challenges
of food security.
Paul Mullan told us that it was stimulating enormous interest
and excitement in the industry.
The Research Councils were pleased that it provided new types
of funding, hitherto unavailable.
Callum Murray of the Technology Strategy Board reported that the
first call under the catalyst innovation competition was six-fold
The Minister told us this was inevitable: "whenever you have
funds of this sort, you are going to get a lot of applications
coming forward. The key thing is that you prioritise the ones
that are going to add most value."
98. Nevertheless demand for funding
may well continue to exceed supply, with the concomitant risk
that many worthy projects may not be brought to fruition. Professor
Sue Hartley cautioned that we were starting from a low base of
collaboration between academia and industry, and that since many
of the key industry players were global, it would remain challenging
to encourage the major UK agri-businesses to engage and co-fund.
GM Freeze, an alliance of non-profit organisations, expressed
concern that agro-ecological technologies might not be included
in the range of projects.
99. We support the Agri-Tech Strategy
as a bold and innovative response to the need to ensure our agricultural
production methods are modern and sustainable. The Government
must ensure that it creates new partnerships between academia
and those involved in developing technology. It should identify
alternative funding mechanisms with the Technology Strategy Board
in case adequate industry co-funding is not forthcoming, particularly
where technology can deliver significant public benefit. We also
recommend that the Government monitor the early competitive rounds
of catalyst funding to assess whether there could be justification
for expanding the funding base.
New and emerging technologies
100. Germains Seed Technology told us
about its improved seed priming which had brought about a 12%
increase in in sugar beet yields over the past 18 years. Coupled
with improved varieties and targeted crop protection techniques
this had contributed to a 40% increase in yields over the past
30 years whilst reducing costs and GHG emissions.
The company also highlighted the role that biological substances
can play in stimulating natural plant defence mechanisms when
attacked by pests and diseases.
101. Professor Sue Hartley of the University
of York presented evidence about the combination of new DNA technologies,
improved bioinformatics and advanced analytical methods which
were revolutionising approaches to crop improvement and crop protection
and increasing the understanding of crop-soil relationships as
well as the development of bio-fumigation techniques to combat
crop pests by co-cultivating plants naturally inimical to specific
PRECISION FARMING TECHNOLOGY
102. We were particularly impressed
by the opportunities presented by precision farming technology
to greatly enhance our food security. Professor Simon Blackmore,
from Harper Adams University, explained that precision farming
was not new technology per se, but a holistic management
technique bringing together a range of technologies. Some were
still under development such as robotics in seeding, weeding,
harvesting, and the use of controlled traffic farming to reduce
soil compaction. Other techniques involved satellite field mapping
and GPS controlled farm machinery to deliver selective application
of herbicides, pesticides, fungicides and fertilisers, and for
recording crop yield variation within fields.
103. Some farmers were already using
these techniques and we were told there were opportunities to
extend the take-up.
The National Farmers' Union commented that:
With better information and application,
further [productivity] gains can be achieved through a blend of
precision farming, access to data to help with agronomic decisions
and the use of crops bred for their performance in terms of yield
and resource efficiency e.g. improving irrigation efficiency and
installing rainwater harvesting; fertiliser application
Research Councils UK and the Biotechnology
and Biological Research Council endorsed the value of precision
farming techniques with particular emphasis on future research
into sensor technologies.
The box below has some examples of the potential of precision
farming technologies to increase the efficiency and effectiveness
of agriculture, reduce costs of production, facilitate compliance
with environmental legislation and reduce or eliminate the need
|Machine vision, micro droplets and laser weeding.
GM technologies allow blanket spraying to remove all weeds without damage to the crop plant. However the longer term effect can be the emergence of herbicide-tolerance and resistance and non-target weed species are also be affected. Machine vision systems (cameras and computer software) can identify up to 26 different weed species automatically, and measure leaf area, biomass and growing point of the weed. This information is used to apply tiny micro-droplets of herbicide directly to the leaf of the weed thus reducing the volume of herbicide applied by 99%. This system is operated by light weight robotic vehicles which can work 24/7.
Controlled traffic farming
Controlled traffic farming methodsin which the machinery/robot is guided by GPS and restricted to relatively few "tramline" paths across a fieldcan reduce soil compaction, quadruple rainfall in-filtration into the soil, and reduce the area of crop damaged under conventional machine cultivation. This can result in yield increases of up to 18% and fuel savings of 50% compared with conventional cultivation techniques.
Up to 60% of a salad crop, such as lettuce, is thrown away after harvest because it does not meet retailer quality criteria. By developing smart scanning systems to assess the quality of the crop before harvest, selective harvesting can pick only those crops of marketable quality, and allow the (smaller) plants to be harvested later in the year.
104. Dr Burrows, from the BBSRC, said
precision technology was "low-hanging fruit. [
we can use agricultural machinery in real time, going across fields,
to map yields, nutrient content and so on, and be very sparing
in the amount of pesticides or fertilisers we are putting on."
Professor Ian Crute informed the Committee that:
We have not yet seen, in any sense,
the benefits that are going to accrue to engineering in general
terms: sensor technology, remote sensing, precision approaches
in terms of disease and pest forecasting, as well as all of the
mechanisation that comes in livestock-production systems, sensors
that will be able to detect animal performance, health and welfare.
We are at the beginning of seeing many of these technologies having
a major impact on management: soil management as well as the management
of systems in general.
Professor Blackmore argued that it was
proving difficult to commercialise some of the technology here
because the relevant UK companies were risk-averse. In contrast,
many of these technologies were being adopted in China.
105. We were impressed by some of
the possibilities provided by precision technology to make farming
easier and more efficient. There are, for example, already sensor
technologies which have the potential for development in a range
of engineering and other precision farming applications where
quick-wins could be achieved for UK farming.
106. As the Government's new Agri-Tech
Strategy addresses technological developments that are close to
being brought to commercial reality, research funding bodies should
place additional emphasis on pre-commercial and multidisciplinary
applied research into precision farming technologies.
EU regulation of technological
107. We discussed the EU regulatory
framework for the approval of new science and technology. We were
told that it took an overly cautious approach to new technologies
basing its assessment on potential hazards and the precautionary
principle rather than on actually assessed risk and scientific
108. At Rothamsted we were told that
the EU process had three components. The first was the legal structure,
which Professor Huw Jones said was outdated; the second was the
European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) risk assessment process,
and the third was the management of risk process which took place
within the European Commission, led by DG Sanco. Professor Jones
said that this was where delays often occurred after a product
had been approved by the EFSA.
109. The Crop Protection Association
called for a more inclusive model for scientific evidence in risk
management which would rely on full use of scientific evidence
and expertise in risk evaluation.
AIC Ltd observed that "at a more fundamental level the impact
of the hazard to risk issue, meant that industry was not able
to retain existing technology".
The CLA underlined this point citing that there was now restricted
use of Asulam for bracken control on upland hill sheep grazing
land and Warfarin for invasive grey squirrel control.
110. The upshot of the EU's approach
to many modern farming methods and technologies has led to a significant
decline in the research and development share of global crop protection
investment for the European market over the past decade, and may
reduce both the international competitiveness of EU agriculture,
and the ability of EU farmers to respond to the opportunities
of increasing global food demand.
Nick Van Westenholtz commented that, in relation to the plateauing
of UK cereal yields over the last fifteen years, "the European
regulatory and policy environments do not appear to encourage
any way of breaking out of that stalling."
111. UK agriculture must embrace
new technologies which are consistent with the principles of evidence
and balanced risk-based assessment whilst meeting criteria of
both economic and environmental sustainability, if it is to meet
the challenges to food security in the future.
112. Given the evident concern about
the way in which the EU regulatory framework operates and its
potential implications for the future productivity and competitiveness
of our agricultural sector, the Government should tell us what
conclusions it has drawn regarding its scope for unilateral action
on the EU regulatory regime for crop protection and GM crop approval
as part of its wider review of the Balance of Competences between
the UK and EU.
116 BRC (FSY 0018) para 5.1 Back
FDF (FSY 0027) para 19 Back
Defra (FSY 0044) Back
Defra (FSY 0044) para 55; Q332 Back
Defra (FSY 0044) para 56 Back
GM Freeze (FSY 0032) para 14 Back
Germains Seed Technology (FSY 0008) Back
Germains Seed Technology (FSY 0008) Back
University of York (FSY 0024) para 1.2 Back
NFU (FSY 0029) para 11 Back
The precautionary principle states that if an action or policy
has a suspected risk of causing harm to the public or to the environment,
in the absence of scientific consensus that the action or policy
is harmful, the burden of proof that it is not harmful falls on
those taking an action. Back
CLA (FSY 0043) para 23 Back
AIC Ltd (FSY 0033) Back
CLA (FSY 0043) para 20-21 Back