25 May 2022 - for immediate release
Science for Sustainable Agriculture – new platform launched to promote science-based debate, challenge misinformation
Launched in Parliament today, Science for Sustainable Agriculture (SSA) is a new policy and communications platform, offering a focal point for information and debate around modern, sustainable agriculture and food production.
The platform has been inspired by, and will work closely with, the influential All-Party Parliamentary Group on Science and Technology in Agriculture, which first led calls for the Government’s UK Agri-Tech Strategy under former chair (now science minister) George Freeman MP and, more recently, persuaded Ministers to ditch restrictive EU rules on gene editing technologies under current chair Julian Sturdy MP.
Supported by an independent advisory group of political, scientific and industry leaders from a range of sectors and backgrounds, SSA’s aim is to promote a conversation rooted in scientific evidence, rather than ideology.
Science for Sustainable Agriculture will provide a platform for like-minded individuals and organisations to champion and explain the vital role of science and technology in safeguarding our food supply, tackling climate change and protecting the natural environment.
SSA also stands ready to expose, comment on and challenge unscientific positions or policy decisions in relation to sustainable agriculture.
Today, Science for Sustainable Agriculture has issued a new report – presented to Defra Minister Victoria Prentis MP at Westminster - urging the Government to do much more to put scientific rigour and evidence at the heart of Britain’s food and farming policies, and warning that a failure to do so could risk sleepwalking the nation into its own food crisis.
The report welcomes early action by the UK Government to introduce a new Precision Breeding Bill to free up genetic technologies in crops and livestock, but calls for a matching commitment to follow the science on key policy issues such as future farm support, R&D funding and sustainability metrics. It warns of a policy drift towards lower-yielding farming systems, and even ‘re-wilding’ of productive farmland, and accuses the Government of ignoring the outputs of its own research programme into sustainable intensification, while allowing post-Brexit policy development to become overly reliant on campaigning and voluntary NGOs.
Six key themes will frame the work programme of Science for Sustainable Agriculture in seeking to ensure the positive contribution of science in agriculture and food production is recognised in public life and policy making.
Science based regulation
Ensuring the regulation of agricultural innovation is proportionate, non-discriminatory, and based on the best available scientific evidence. Highlighting opportunities for the UK to become a global leader in agri-science through a more enabling approach to regulation – and identifying areas where a failure to follow the science is driving research and investment elsewhere.
Importance of genetic innovation
Highlighting the critical role of genetic improvement as the foundation of high yielding, resource-efficient and climate resilient agriculture. Independent research has shown that genetic innovation is the main driver of productivity gains in agriculture - policy development and allocation of research funding must reflect that.
Sustainable intensification and metrics
Highlighting the urgent need to restore the policy focus on 'sustainable intensification' in agriculture, and to develop science-based sustainability metrics capable of objectively and consistently monitoring the balance between resource use and environmental impact per unit of production. Robust farm-level metrics will provide the basis to define 'sustainable intensification' in practice, to set targets, measure progress and frame the policy and R&D agenda, especially in the context of debates such as land-sparing vs. land-sharing.
‘Naturalness’ in food and farming
Encouraging informed debate around the use of potentially misleading terms such as 'natural' in relation to food and agriculture. Farming itself is not, and never has been 'natural', in fact farmers spend much of their time trying to sustain production in the face of 'natural' intrusion, e.g. in the form of weeds, diseases and other pests. Scientific innovation increasingly offers better ways to protect harvests while minimising impacts on unfarmed habitats and environments.
Ethics of sustainable agriculture
Working to ensure all ethical aspects of new technology and innovation in agriculture are considered, ie not just the implications of permitting new technologies, but also the ethical considerations of blocking or restricting the potential of innovation to produce more food with less impact on the environment.
Working to recognise and showcase the potential of other technologies and innovations - alongside genetic improvement - to enhance the efficiency and reduce the environmental footprint of productive agriculture (digital, AI, precision engineering, automation, robotics, biologicals, renewable energy etc).
Science for Sustainable Agriculture will provide a web-based platform for commentaries, news items, reports and presentations which reflect these six key themes. It will also send out regular e-mailings, and provide informed comment on relevant topics of the day. The platform will commission research and organise events on an ad hoc basis.
Six members of the 17-strong advisory group explain why they see the need for a more science-based conversation about sustainable agriculture:
Graham Brookes, agricultural economist
“I strongly the support the establishment and goals of Science for Sustainable Agriculture. Through many years’ experience of collecting and analysing data around the world, I see a considerable and growing body of consistent evidence that quantifies the positive economic and environmental impacts of using new technology in agriculture. UK farmers and wider society have to date largely missed out on many of these benefits. Given the current urgent requirement to address both global food insecurity and climate change, UK post-Brexit agricultural policies and regulation need to embrace, not shun these important and evolving science-based technologies.”
Professor Helen Sang, livestock scientist
“Genetic improvement has made very significant contributions to improving productivity, health and welfare in farmed animals, but given the urgent need to tackle the major challenges of meeting the world’s food needs while decreasing the climate impacts of food production, we must ensure that future developments are supported by evidence-based policy-making to harness all the opportunities available.”
Matt Ridley, science writer and farmer
“The evidence is overwhelming that the spectacular increase in recent decades in agricultural productivity through science has not only saved humanity from starvation and largely extinguished famine, but has also enabled the preservation of biodiversity. If productivity of farmland globally was the same as in 1960, we would need to farm 80% of the land area of the planet to feed today's more than seven billion people, instead of 35%.”
Julian Sturdy MP, politician and farmer
“We can only hope to feed a swelling world population sustainably by fully exploiting the potential of agri-science and technology. New innovations give us the opportunity to ensure global food security while mitigating the impact of climate change and using finite resources as efficiently as possible. Following the scientific evidence on this is therefore a vital humanitarian mission, with the welfare of future generations at stake. Cutting-edge agri-science is the friend, not the enemy, of conservation and the environment, with a resilient, prosperous farming sector the best guardian of our natural heritage.”
Dr Helen Ferrier, scientific and regulatory affairs adviser
“It is vital that policy making for UK agriculture is based on robust scientific evidence. Decision makers need to be able to use the knowledge generated through rigorous research and not be distracted by false claims or emotive and disingenuous messages. Tackling climate change, ensuring the resilience and sustainability of British farms, and maintaining the security of our food supply relies on excellent policy making in Government and the adoption of innovative solutions and technologies throughout the agri-food sector. Science for Sustainable Agriculture will help provide the collective, informative and challenging voice that is needed to deliver great policy and the best innovation for a more secure future.”
Nigel Moore, plant breeder
“The public understanding of the real dilemmas of sustainable food production is swamped with conflicting arguments with insufficient trustful sources behind them. This subject is so important that independent evidence, robust measurement, and rational consideration of the complex interdependencies of food and agriculture are essential for politicians, regulators, and farmers to make the best decisions for a sustainable future. I believe Science for Sustainable Agriculture can become a widely respected source of accessible, truthful and reliable information and provide inspiration for all who genuinely wish to address the challenges of sustainable food production.”