Farming News - Industry sets out future research priorities

Industry sets out future research priorities

22 Nov 2012
Frontdesk / Machinery

A group of farming industry bodies has launched its vision for agricultural research and development up to 2030. The group, which includes the Agricultural Industries Confederation, NFU and AHDB called for greater involvement of agricultural producers in research.


Debate continues over the direction agricultural R&D should take in the UK

Amongst other things, including more applied research and better integration between government and the private sector and long-term research aimed at boosting production; rolling out use of genetically modified crops also featured prominently in the group's recommendations.


The industry groups claim "The future of farming in the UK needs a united approach from government, researchers and industry to develop new knowledge and technologies, if it is to meet the challenges of the next two decades."


Professor Chris Pollock CBE, who led the industry study and launched the Feeding the Future report on Wednesday (21st November), said "Ever since Malthus, concern has been expressed regarding the capacity of agriculture to feed an ever-increasing population. In the first half of this century we will be part of a global food network that has to produce 50 per cent more food with less available land. This work has been about what the industry said it needed, and how it could play its part in this global challenge."


Pollock recommended using modern technologies to improve precision and efficiency of agricultural management practices, including genetic and breeding programmes to increase productivity, as well as more work between government and industry and different government departments, which he said should work together on issues which affect land use.


The professor added, "We need to fund programmes for longer-term, applied research that links different sectors of industry. Food producers have tended in recent years to deal with today's problems. If we want to shift the research agenda to deliver for 2030, we need to make sure that primary producers work together and with the funders of more basic research."


Speaking at the report's launch in London, Pollock spoke of current advances in industrial agriculture. He said yields of cereal crops are increasing by an average of 2 percent per year and that, if this trend continues, current agriculture systems will be able to deliver enough food. However, he acknowledged that "maintaining [yield increases] and reducing impact is going to be a real challenge."


Many sustainable farming advocates, including national food policy experts from research institutions such as City University's Centre for Food Policy and UN rapporteurs, have said fundamental changes will be necessary to ensure agriculture remains viable in the long term. These include addressing issues of waste, over consumption, reliance on resource-intensive foods such as animal products, unjust distribution of food and effective responses to climate change, the effects of which will undoubtedly impact on yields. 

Controversy over GM continues


Also speaking at the report’s launch on Wednesday, Lord de Mauley, newly appointed undersecretary of state for environment at Defra, said the slow EU approval process for GM crops is holding back the UK, by preventing farmers and researchers from embracing GM technology. He said "Ongoing investment by industry and government in agri-science will be key to inspiring [the] next generation," claiming research into precision machinery and crops is the direction research must take.


Dr Helen Wallace, director of GeneWatch, a UK-based policy and research organisation, objected to Lord de mauley’s reasoning. Commenting after the launch of Feeding the Future, she said, "Too narrow a range of interests means important issues have been missed [in the report], such as how to sustain healthier diets and get more fruit and vegetables to low income families. The proposed increased role of the Levy Boards in setting the research agenda will raise questions for farmers about how well a narrow circle of individuals will represent their interests and improve market access for high-quality British produce here and abroad."


Dr Wallace did acknowledge that "The report is a step forward from the long obsession of research funders with GM crops, as it outlines many other areas such as soil science, where research skills have been lost," though she went on to say "It's a pity that the workshops on research and development priorities did not include the wider public, who are important as consumers and also as taxpayers who fund most of the research."


Compounding Dr Wallace's concerns that the scope of the Feeding the Future report and its backers is too narrow, campaign group GM Freeze announced last month that transnational agriculture giants may be "setting the agenda for UK agricultural research with a view to bringing GM crops into the UK and exporting overseas."


The group said that, in a high-level meeting, MPs, representatives of agribusinesses and academics from research institutes had discussed research and commercial potential for GM crops in the UK and, in a pre-echo of Lord de Mauley, stated "regulatory barriers and political divisions at national and EU level" are hindering progress. This may be an implicit reference to bans on GM crops in six EU countries and opposition to GM from the Scottish Government and Welsh Assembly Government.


Recommended action by those present in the meeting included government working with industry to provide an "improved" regulatory framework and more investment, while academics counter criticism from anti-GM groups and build "better on the ground presence in Africa, perhaps by working with universities". These recommendations fly in the face of calls from elsewhere in Europe for more transparent testing of GM crops, which remain unpopular with the European public.


Commenting on the groups setting the UK's research agenda, Pete Riley, Campaign Director of GM Freeze, said, "There is no evidence that expensive GM tinkering with our food is needed. What is required is a political and economic process to ensure everyone has access to a balanced and affordable diet as quickly as possible from the food already available, and a clear vision of how that access to food will be maintained."