Food security - Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee Contents

8  Securing food for the future

The research landscape

133. The Government spends £410 million annually on agri-food research. The Global Food Security programme, a partnership of the main funders of research in relation to the provision and use of food, helps to co-ordinate research in this area through themes set out in the Global Food Security Strategy.[172] The Government is also building international multi-disciplinary research links to address food security through a number of EU initiatives. These include the Joint Programming Initiative on Agriculture, Food Security and Climate Change, the European Research Area Networks and Horizon 2020 programme. This latter programme is biggest EU Research and Innovation programme with nearly €80 billion of funding available over 7 years (2014 to 2020).[173] Funding is available for individual research projects as well as collaborative projects with researchers from at least three different member states.[174] The UK also collaborates at the international level through a Sustainable Agricultural Innovation Network with China, and the Global Research Alliance.[175] These are in addition to Agri-Tech Strategy discussed in chapter six.

134. Research Councils UK told us that the Global Food Security programme itself accounted for some £350 million of the total Government research spend, and supported a large portfolio of work which underpins food security, including programmes relating inter alia to plant, animal and microbial biology, biodiversity, ecosystem services, climate modelling, socio-economics and engineering, although not all of these may directly address food security.[176]

135. We were also told that the research councils had collectively recognised the need for a more holistic approach to the science of soils and the services they provide. Whilst investment in soils research is a welcome new initiative, the programmes have relatively small budgets, and, as noted in chapter four, the soil survey information, which enables the monitoring and longer-term changes to soil properties and function is rather fragmented and out-of-date.[177] The Food and Drink Federation commented on the fragmentation of the research landscape and the proliferation of different reports which it viewed as symptomatic of this at the policy level.[178]

136. We recommend that the Government, through its Global Food Security Programme, undertake a themed mapping of the current scientific research programmes, projects and reports that are directed specifically towards enhancing our food security either publicly funded or co-funded, and of those which might exert a potentially important indirect impact on food security. This would provide a first line of co-ordinated communication of research to potential users, and indicate more transparently where current priorities lie.


137. The shortage of whole or sub-farm scale research environments remains a constraint on certain types of agricultural systems research in which livestock and other farming systems could be replicated.[179] The importance of systems and holistic approaches for longer term adaptation to underpin food security was stressed. The RSPB cautioned:

    Currently there is an issue that research is siloed and as such fails to take account of the multifunctional nature of agriculture. Research should focus on sustainable production methods which address both farm, farming system and landscape levels.[180]

The BBSRC told us that it had only one experimental farm-scale research platform, in North Wyke, Devon, and that more were needed to measure the effects of different agricultural regimes in different parts of the country on variables such as GHG emissions, soil and water properties, but that this would impact massively on its budget.[181]

138. In a different context Professor Hartley pointed to the demise of many of the older university departments of agriculture with consequent loss of university farms. There are however, a number of specialist land-based universities and colleges of agriculture with farm facilities which work at the more applied research and technology transfer ends of the spectrum.[182] Waitrose explained that it too was working with a number of partner universities and the Soil Association through the Centre for Excellence in UK Farming,[183] to apply research and new science in the field.[184]

139. UK research councils should encourage the research-intensive universities and institutes which they fund to explore opportunities to extend the scope for farm-level research through greater co-operation with specialist land-based sector universities and colleges, thereby bringing the scientific research closer to application and the farming community, and ensuring best use of scarce and expensive resources. The Government should recognise the contribution made by our universities and research institutes and ensure the long term security of their funding.

Knowledge transfer

140. The NFU said that British farming needed the following from science to respond to the challenge of food security:

    ·  a strong science base engaged in highly-relevant and impactful research

    ·  a clear pipeline to commercialisation

    ·  widespread knowledge-exchange activity

    ·  effective skills and training provision.[185]

141. The Agri-Tech Strategy addresses issues of commercialisation of research into practice. However that is mainly about technology transfer for product development and manufacturing which is only part of the process. There are areas of knowledge transfer which the agricultural and food sectors will require in order to prepare for future challenges to food security.

142. The solution to this is not simply to throw more money at projects which demonstrate particular advances. Rather it is to ensure that advances in research are translated and packaged into actions that can be taken onto the farm. In addition researchers must engage with farmers, to gain knowledge of the farm, the aspirations and motivation of the farmer and therefore the most appropriate way in which changes can be made.[186]

143. At present this does not happen systematically. For example, some of the more critical comments regarding basic research into agriculture highlighted the lack of focus and funding on agro-ecosystems[187] and organic farming. However, the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) has a strong focus on agro-ecosystems and aims to develop viable management systems that optimise the ecosystem functions integral to food production.[188] This highlights that there is a disjuncture and information flow gap between researchers and those who might usefully benefit from it. Indeed, much of the evidence on this topic has underlined the need for improved communication from Government and the research community.[189]

144. The process of effective knowledge transfer is complex and subtle. The Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board told the Committee it spent 45% of its money on research and knowledge transfer to the farm. Tom Taylor, their Chief Executive said the budget was designed that way because "without that knowledge transfer back on to the farm, the research in how you do this is completely wasted."[190] The NFU President Peter Kendall acknowledged the challenge for both the AHDB and NFU was to champion getting the messages across.[191]

145. Whilst it is evident that those organisations funded by farmers should take a proactive and positive role engaging transferring knowledge to their members, we also received evidence suggesting that there was a role for the public sector. Professor Ian Crute told us that most technical advice into farming was done on a commercial basis.[192] Professor Tim Benton went further, explaining:

    I certainly share the view that there is a bit of a valley of death between upstream information and farmers necessarily getting hold of it. It is not helped by the fact that they have to pay. There is lots of scope for new ways of delivering advice, so not reinventing an extension service, but I do not think that we really have the nuances of where exactly the cutting edge of advice is and how it should be delivered, partly because we have not thought enough about it over the last decade or so[193].

146. However, Professor Sir John Beddington highlighted that a Food Research Partnership Study had concluded that there was a need for a publicly funded organisation with responsibility for advising farmers.[194] Dr Little said "there will certainly be a role for Government funding in enabling knowledge transfer, for example between the fundamental research that is done and things that will allow farmers to move ahead."[195]

147. There are gaps in the co-ordination and flow of knowledge from research institutes to the farmers who would use and benefit from it. We recommend that the Government develop an integrated knowledge transfer strategy and action plan, which can be delivered and co-ordinated within the present funding frameworks, to ensure engagement between researchers and the relevant end users.

New Farmers

148. We were told that to ensure a vibrant, forward-looking, agricultural sector for the future, we needed new farmers to enter the profession. The average age of a farmer is currently about 60 years. However Henry Robinson of the CLA told us that age was not the issue but that famers needed to be good at farming:

    Farmers have to work hard and be technologically good, which is what will happen if the market makes them do that. It is a market-based system.[196]

149. Peter Kendall told us young farmers were locating in remoter areas and bringing new techniques and smart technology.[197] He said new farmers were better at embracing technologies and new thinking which was vital to keep the industry competitive.[198] The AHDB agreed that it was vital to get new farmers, not just as managers but also performing necessary technical roles.

150. Mr Eustice told us about some work being carried out as a result of the Future of Farming Review, to encourage new entrants into farming. The Review highlighted the figure that only 8% of family farms were farmed by first-generation farmers.[199] He said we needed to have "alternative business models to make it easier for new entrants to come in, earn a stake in the industry and fulfil their aspirations in the industry."[200] Peter Kendall agreed:

    They are absolutely vital. The most exciting farmers you will ever meet are first-generation farmers. I am not sure you can legislate for it. The most important thing we can do is big up the industry, talk it up and make it an attractive career choice for young people to go into university and study. They will not all be primary operators; they may come in as managers, advisers or specialists in different sectors. It is absolutely, vitally important that we bring fresh thinking.[201]

151. But in its evidence, the Government made no reference to the Pillar 2 Rural Development Programme of the CAP Reform 2014-2020, designed to support young farmers; nor did it say whether the RDPs will themselves make any specific provision or allocate resources for new entrants to farming. Mr Tom Taylor told us about a new AgriSkills Strategy which worked with industry, land-based training organisations and agricultural colleges, Harper Adams and the other universities with agricultural specialist faculties or departments—to get people into the food and farming industry.[202]

152. Our food security depends on a vibrant, innovative and professional UK farming sector. This in turn requires a regular inflow of new entrants to the sector. Farming in the UK does not have this and efforts must be made to encourage new entrants who are willing and able to take advantage of new technologies in order to ensure the sector is modern and competitive. We are pleased that the Government is examining ways to do this in conjunction with the industry which can also help with the costs associated with entry into farming.

153. We recommend that the Government update us on its efforts and on the likely actions that will emerge from the Future of Farming Review. It should also clarify whether any Rural Development Programme funding will be made available to support the implementation of the recommendations arising from the Future of Farming Review.

172   Defra (FSY 0044) Back

173   European Commission, What is Horizon 2020 Back

174   European Commission, Research and Innovation: How to participate Back

175   Defra (FSY 0044) para 57 Back

176   Research Councils UK (FSY 0016) para 9 Back

177   Q247 Back

178   Food and Drink Federation (FSY 0027) paras 10-11 Back

179   Rothamsted Research (FSY 0057) Back

180   RSPB (FSY 0020) para 4.1; Q12 [Professor Benton] Back

181   Q250 Back

182   Q255 Back

183   Now called, Farming Futures Back

184   Q139 Back

185   NFU (FSY 0029) para 18 Back

186   AIC Ltd (FSY 0033) Back

187   Friends of the Earth (FSY 0036) para 36 Back

188   Research Councils UK (FSY 0016), para 16 Back

189   CLA (FSY 0043) para 147; Q95 [Professor Beddington];Q233 [Nick von Westenhoz] Back

190   Q118 Back

191   Q123 Back

192   Q29 Back

193   Q30 Back

194   Q98 Back

195   Q170 Back

196   Q236 Back

197   Q116 Back

198   Q120 Back

199   Defra, Future of Farming Review, 2013, para 2.7 Back

200   Q268 Back

201   Q120 Back

202   Q120  Back

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Prepared 1 July 2014