Science holds the key to food security - Kendall

NFU president Peter Kendall has criticised the ‘run-down’ in Government spending on applied agricultural research over the past two decades.

Mr Kendall told the recent Centre of Excellence for UK Farming (CEUKF) conference that science held the key to meeting the challenges that lie ahead for food production and the environment.

He said: “There is no shortage of world-class agricultural research in the UK, but the pipeline which should carry the results of that research from laboratory to field is fractured, because of the run-down in Defra core funding of applied research over the past 20 years.

“If the aim is to feed 9 billion by 2050 there is a sense of urgency to start dealing with this issue now.”

Mr Kendall listed challenges he believed could be addressed by ongoing scientific projects, including:

  • Boosting wheat yields, based on ongoing work at Rothamsted.
  • Breeding crops less reliant on irrigation and with greater drought resistance in response to water shortages and drought.
  • Min-till cultivation systems, allied with crop varieties bred to need less fertilisers and sprays, to address scarcer and more expensive fossil fuel.
  • Using genomic technologies to help control livestock diseases like bovine TB.
  • Improving testing for foot-and-mouth - scientists at IAH have found it is possible to identify infected cattle before they become infectious and/or show signs of disease.

He said the NFU’s mantra of ‘produce more, impact less’ would be ‘meaningless and unachievable unless we have access to the best science’.

He urged Government and the scientific community to focus us on the ‘produce more’ part of the equation and called for a new approach to new technologies like GM crops ‘based on science rather than prejudice’.

Professor Tim Benton, the UK Champion for Global Food Security, representing a partnership of Government Departments and research funding bodies, called for a ‘more holistic approach’ to food security research. 

“We do tend to get hung up about production. We need innovation in many, many different areas, not just production,” he said, citing issues like soil management, the interaction between farmers and farmers’ relationship with the environment as other key issues.

He said plant biotechnology could be ‘part of the answer’ but said there were ‘so many other things that are important across science as well’.

He stressed that the food industry operates on a global scale, meaning importing more food could simply ‘transfer intensification and create environmental problems elsewhere’.

He said plant biotechnology could be ‘part of the answer’ but that there were ‘so many other things that are important across social, engineering, agricultural and environmental and science as well’.

“We cannot just think about the UK and about the farm scale. We need to understand the whole food system and how different things trade off against each other,” he said.

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