13 July 2022 – for immediate release
Farming MP calls for ‘much better conversation’ about the use of science in food and farming, urges Science Museum to revisit plans for a new agriculture exhibit
After recent consumer research revealed a surprising lack of knowledge about where our food comes from and how much science has gone into its development, farmer and politician Julian Sturdy MP has called for a ‘much better conversation’ about science and technology in agriculture, and urged the Science Museum to revisit plans for a new agriculture exhibit.
Writing on the Science for Sustainable Agriculture website, Mr Sturdy said meeting humankind’s burgeoning food and energy requirements sustainably was an urgent priority for policymakers around the world.
“The combined challenges of global food and nutrition security, climate change and protection of the world’s natural resources and biodiversity will not be achieved by turning back the clock, as some would have us believe. Farmers will need access to the most advanced scientific and technological innovations, for example in crop and livestock genetics, data science, biologicals, precision engineering and digital technology.
“But farmers will also need the social licence to use those tools, because consumer interest in the provenance, sustainability, ethics and environmental footprint of our food has never been greater,” he said.
However, while in every other walk of life scientific innovation and new technology are readily accepted because they make our lives easier, better, healthier and more efficient, the use of science in food and agriculture is often viewed with suspicion and mistrust, suggested Mr Sturdy, who also chairs the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Science and Technology in Agriculture at Westminster.
“When former science minister David (now Lord) Willetts addressed the All-Party Group some years ago, he insisted that feeding the world sustainably would be achieved through empiricism and rationality, not by campaigns intent on recreating some fake nostalgic past.”
“He compared the Apple computer with the humble tomato and contended that the modern tomato was as much an achievement of scientific research and innovation over decades as Apple products, yet the food industry seemed intent on pretending otherwise, instead presenting our food as a benevolent gift from Mother Nature. Lord Willetts laid down a challenge to the agri-food industry to do more to advertise and celebrate the fact that modern agriculture is a high-tech, scientific endeavour,” Mr Sturdy recalled, noting that recent consumer research has underlined the urgent need for such action.
The research, conducted by specialist agency England Marketing Ltd, found that, even among self-identified ‘foodies’, there is a disturbing lack of awareness of where our familiar food crops come from, and how much scientific innovation has gone into their development.
Most respondents were reportedly shocked to discover that the ‘natural’ versions of everyday foods such as sweetcorn, carrots and bananas are almost unrecognisable (and inedible) compared to their modern equivalents, and that scientific intervention has underpinned these transformations.
Similarly, very few consumers were aware that none of the familiar food crops grown on British farms are native to this country. With the exception of bananas and oranges, most respondents assumed that crops such as wheat, barley, oats, sugar beet and potatoes are all native to Britain, when in fact all the food crops grown on British farms originated in other parts of the world and have been adapted to our growing conditions and markets by scientific intervention and human ingenuity. Many of the food crops grown today bear only a passing resemblance to their ‘wild’ or ‘natural’ versions.
“This consumer research raises serious questions about the validity of current public discussions around issues such as precision breeding, when most consumers appear unaware of the level of scientific intervention which has already gone into the development of our everyday foods,” wrote Mr Sturdy.
“War in Ukraine and the cost-of-living crisis have brought a renewed urgency to the food security issue, and this research has highlighted the need to redouble efforts to improve public understanding of the importance of agricultural science and innovation in safeguarding our future food supply.”
Mr Sturdy noted that, several years previously, members and stakeholders of the All-Party Group had highlighted concerns that the Science Museum’s existing agriculture exhibit – comprising vintage farm machinery and a series of dioramas of traditional agricultural landscapes – did not provide a cutting-edge experience and had not changed significantly since the 1960s. The Science Museum agreed, and in 2017 the museum outlined plans to replace the exhibit with a ‘contemporary agriculture’ gallery reflecting the renewed policy focus and wider public interest in agricultural science and innovation. The old exhibit has since been removed, but the new gallery is not yet in place.
“Agri-science, described by Lord Willetts as ‘one of the eight great technologies’, and an area in which Britain’s research institutes and universities are world-leading, surely merits the attention afforded by the museum to other scientific disciplines,” said Mr Sturdy. “And with over 3 million visitors a year to the Science Museum, many of them schoolchildren, such an exhibit could be transformative in opening the eyes of this and future generations to the enormous contribution of science and innovation to farming past, present and future.”
Notes to Editors
Julian Sturdy’s commentary first appeared on the Science for Sustainable Agriculture website here.
Science for Sustainable Agriculture (SSA) is a new policy and communications platform, offering a focal point for information, comment and debate around modern, sustainable agriculture and food production. Supported by an independent advisory group of political, scientific and industry leaders from a range of sectors and backgrounds (listed below), 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.
Further information about Science for Sustainable Agriculture is available here.
Advisory Group members
Matt Ridley – science writer and farmer
Professor Tina Barsby – plant scientist
Dr Julian Little – science communicator
Graham Brookes – agricultural economist
Lord Rooker - politician
Professor Helen Sang – livestock scientist
Helen Munday – food industry scientist
Dr Helen Ferrier – scientific and regulatory affairs adviser
Dr Craig Lewis – livestock breeder
David Hill – arable farmer
Paul Temple – mixed farmer
Professor Johnathan Napier – plant scientist
Julian Sturdy MP – politician and farmer
Alex Waugh – primary food processing
Dr Alastair Leake – agronomist and conservation scientist
Karen Holt – regulatory consultant
Nigel Moore – plant breeding
Daniel Pearsall – co-ordinator
Daniel Pearsall, co-ordinator
M: 07770 875455