Food security - Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee Contents

6  Harnessing technology

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."[116]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. [117]

The Government has recognised this in its new Agri-Tech Strategy launched earlier this year.

The Agri-Tech Strategy and technological innovation

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 with industry.[118] 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.[119]

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).[120]

97. The Agri-Tech Strategy has been described as a bold and innovative response to the challenges of food security.[121] Paul Mullan told us that it was stimulating enormous interest and excitement in the industry.[122] The Research Councils were pleased that it provided new types of funding, hitherto unavailable.[123] Callum Murray of the Technology Strategy Board reported that the first call under the catalyst innovation competition was six-fold oversubscribed.[124] 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."[125]

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.[126] GM Freeze, an alliance of non-profit organisations, expressed concern that agro-ecological technologies might not be included in the range of projects.[127]

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

Protecting and improving crops

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.[128] The company also highlighted the role that biological substances can play in stimulating natural plant defence mechanisms when attacked by pests and diseases.[129]

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 pests.[130]


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.[131] 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[132]

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.[133] 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 for herbicides.
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 methods—in which the machinery/robot is guided by GPS and restricted to relatively few "tramline" paths across a field—can 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.

Selective harvesting

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. […] because 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."[134] 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.[135]

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 innovation

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 evidence.[136]

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.[137] 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".[138] 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.[139]

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.[140] 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."[141]

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

117   FDF (FSY 0027) para 19 Back

118   Defra (FSY 0044) Back

119   Defra (FSY 0044) para 55; Q332 Back

120   Defra (FSY 0044) para 56 Back

121   Q177 Back

122   Q177 Back

123   Q246 Back

124   Q17 Back

125   Q334 Back

126   Q240 Back

127   GM Freeze (FSY 0032) para 14 Back

128   Germains Seed Technology (FSY 0008) Back

129   Germains Seed Technology (FSY 0008) Back

130   University of York (FSY 0024) para 1.2 Back

131   Qq314-5 Back

132   NFU (FSY 0029) para 11 Back

133   Q242 Back

134   Q242 Back

135   Q49 Back

136   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

137   CLA (FSY 0043) para 23 Back

138   AIC Ltd (FSY 0033) Back

139   Q228 Back

140   CLA (FSY 0043) para 20-21 Back

141   Q221 Back

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Prepared 1 July 2014