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25 September 2013
Food security

Food security

As the task of feeding a growing world population becomes ever more challenging, the impact and translation of scientific research has never been more important.

Agricultural technology and research underpins all of the most recognisable products on supermarkets shelves, whether it is to produce our staple foods, ensure the best possible quality produce or achieve maximum yields from crops and livestock.

Earlier this year the Westminster Government launched its UK Strategy for Agricultural Technologies, which aims to make the UK a hub for world-class research and innovation across the agri-food and drink supply chain comprising agriculture, processing, production and retail.

A co-operation between the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and the Department for Environment and Rural Affairs, the strategy is underpinned by £160m to accelerate innovation by UK food and farming businesses, with the intention of bringing in further investment from the private sector, and ultimately driving UK growth through established and emerging global markets.

This strategy was constructed by a leadership council populated with industry leaders and co-chaired by Judith Batchelar, Sainsbury’s Director of Brand and Industry, as well as key representatives from the Government, BIS and the agricultural sector.

Although a UK-wide vision, it identifies much for the Scottish sector to contribute to and benefit from since it has a large and vibrant rural economy, as well as world-leading agri-tech research.

The James Hutton Institute is one of those organisations hoping to play a vital part in delivering the strategy’s aims. Professor Derek Stewart, Leader of Enhancing Crop Productivity and Utilization Theme at the institute, said the UK strategy came at a “vibrant time” for the agri-food and drink sector.

“Science focused on agriculture, food and drink has, for too long, been viewed as a lesser area. However, it’s economic and societal value has been brought into sharp focus over the concerns with regard to the crisis that is the combination of food security, climate change and a global population predicted to reach nine billion in 2050.

“The growing population needs food and drink and the industries satisfying this need land, energy and water to deliver. This makes for a complex situation and one in which a quick fix will simply not work sustainably, especially if we have aspirations of economic growth.”

He added: “All of this creates the environment within which the agri-tech strategy has been constructed and the identification of the need for innovation in the sector in partnership with industry to deliver practical solutions.”

For the James Hutton Institute, the main focus will be on crops, their design for future markets, climates, environments and pest and disease threats. In addition, it is developing innovative agronomic solutions to ensure that the crops we have and develop, or the land on which they are grown, will be significantly more productive, will have a reduced reliance on non-renewable fossil fuel resources and are sustainable.

Stewart added: “I think the agri-tech strategy aspires to deliver on all of those.”

One of the key points to the strategy, as set out by UK Science Minister David Willetts, Defra minister Lord de Mauley and International Development Secretary Justine Greening, is to be “at the forefront of the global race to sustainable intensification”.

Although that phrase may sound like an oxymoron, Stewart said it should be possible but not necessarily easy. “We actually have a large experimental innovation platform to directly compare conventional, i.e., what’s going on in agriculture at the moment, with methods we think may be sustainable,” he said.

“Sustainability means different things to different people. To my mind, sustainable intensification means growing more, on the same land, without any detrimental consequences on environment or society. It is achievable, but you can’t just switch to that overnight.

“We are looking at sustainable intensification in the round, so the economic case has to been front and centre as well. This is where the engagement with industry at all times has been pretty important for us because they are the ultimate arbitrator – a wonderful agri-system that’s great for ecology and the environment but is not economically viable means the farmers just won’t do it and the associated downstream industries will not support it.”

As the strategy was launched earlier this year, Scottish Environment Secretary Richard Lochhead highlighted what was already being done in Scotland to help scientific research into agriculture. Of £30m annual support, funding has included £4m on potato disease research, worth £68m in 2012, and research to help eradiate Bovine Viral Diarrhoea, saving an estimated £50-£80m over ten years.

Support to the James Hutton Institute to elucidate the genomes of potato and barley will underpin these associated Scottish industries well into the future – an example of Scotland’s historical investment in agricultural research when the rest of the UK massively reduced its funding.

At the time, Lochhead said: “Science and innovation are key to sustainable economic growth, and Scotland is, in many ways, leading the rest of the UK with regard to agricultural technology and innovation.
“Scotland already offers so much on this front and I encourage Scottish organisations to co-operate to make the most of any opportunities for additional funding to ensure they remain at the forefront of agricultural innovation.”

In Scotland, where the farming sector is worth millions to the economy and the food and drink sector had a turnover of more than £13bn in 2011, major research is being carried out into our key crops – potato, soft fruit and barley – the results of which are relied upon across the world.

Stewart said: “Clearly if you’ve got world-leading research groups that are heavily engaged with the agricultural food and drink sectors, it would seem eminently sensible to have them involved in, and where appropriate, leading on, the delivery the agri-tech strategy and its development, going forward.

“The James Hutton Institute is seeking various routes for engagement into this strategy in partnership with others.”
The institute has proposed a Centre for Arable and Horticultural Supply Chain Innovation be set up to meet industry needs and enable delivery of the strategy. Other industry groups and research centres will be making their own suggestions.

Dr Nigel Kerby, managing director of Mylnefield Research Services, a commercial subsidiary of the James Hutton Institute, said: “Translation of science through innovation into better products and services is key for the strategy, wealth creation and environmental improvement.

“Scotland’s agricultural research institutes have been leading the UK in the translation of science and economic impact for the last 20 years. This has been achieved through enduring partnerships with many industry leaders.”
Through the strategy, following commitments made when the G8 convened in London earlier this year, it is hoped research and innovation can help lift other parts of the world out of poverty and conditions such as malnutrition.

Stewart said: “Any country needs to be assured that it can itself grow and sell a fair proportion of at least the staple foods. The outputs of the strategy should go a long way to providing that.
“The longer-term strategy is that the innovations that will be developed, whether it’s modern breeding technologies, new processes for growing crops, or using renewable and sustainable input systems, can be transferred to countries where they can make a substantial impact.

“For example, if we develop new technologies for controlling pests and diseases that may destroy occasionally 20 to 30 per cent of the crop in a bad year here, in an extremely bad year, their impact in the less developed countries experiencing up to 70 per cent crop losses or more would be a game changer for them.

“The potential for a significant change in the quality of life for these countries in terms of their own food security could be massive and all through transferable technologies and solutions.
“This means that the food security agenda can be supported on a global level rather than on a national level.”

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