The National Institute of Agricultural Botany (NIAB) has welcomed the Government’s Food 2030 strategy, launched by Environment Secretary Hilary Benn at this year’s Oxford Farming Conference, as a clear signal that the Government recognises the strategic importance of food security, and the role of a competitive and productive UK farming industry in meeting future food needs.
Central to the Government’s 20-year strategy is the need to increase food production with less environmental impact. A key role is envisaged for advances in science and technology as outlined in a new cross-departmental science strategy announced in parallel by Government Chief Scientist Professor John Beddington.
“Both strategies offer a welcome indication that food security is now firmly embedded as a strategic priority across all Government departments, including measures to increase domestic agricultural production,” said Dr Tina Barsby, NIAB chief executive.
But Dr Barsby warned that constraints on recession-hit public sector expenditure meant that careful prioritisation and allocation of R&D budgets would be critical if the objectives set out in the Government’s strategy were to be realised. With crop genetic improvement now recognised as the single most important factor in boosting food production sustainably, she highlighted the lack of public sector investment in essential translation and pre-competitive breeding activities as a major block to the delivery of step-change innovation and yield increases in the key UK arable crops.
“While the UK’s research institutes and universities are recognised as world leaders in basic plant science, much of that work takes place in model species without being transferred to crop plants. There is a general failure to recognise the significant research effort and particularly the resource required to translate important discoveries in simple plant species like cress and mustard into more complex, commercially relevant genetic backgrounds, such as wheat, barley and oilseed rape,” she said.
“Currently there is no established or consistent mechanism within the public sector to ensure that important research discoveries in basic plant science are taken through to practical application at the farm level. This hiatus in research activity must be addressed as a matter of urgency if UK farmers and consumers are to exploit the benefits of a functioning R&D chain and current taxpayer expenditure on basic scientific research,” concluded Dr Barsby.