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Minding the gap: Where is the vision for UK food production?

Ian Munnery

April 2023

Science for Sustainable Agriculture

With food price inflation outstripping other rising costs, the realities for UK farmers and agribusinesses in satisfying market demands are challenging. With no sign of transition or continuity planning for domestic crop production, we need to think more holistically if we are to sustain a competitive UK agriculture sector and address the ‘elephant in the room’ - food security - writes plant breeder Ian Munnery.


Food security hit the headlines in 2021 during the Covid-19 pandemic but was swiftly forgotten. Sadly, the overriding memory of lockdown will be toilet rolls, Matt Hancock and parties at No 10. 


The outbreak of war in Ukraine in February 2022 also underlined the precarious state of worldwide food supplies, not just oilseeds and grains but also the collateral impact on gas and subsequently fertiliser prices.


Roll forward to February 2023, and the rationing of tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers in British supermarkets led to news bulletins highlighting climate change concerns for drought-hit growers in Spain, as well as the challenges of rising production costs and labour shortages at home.


Despite these repeated warning signals, however, the urgency and importance of defining a longer-term vision to sustain UK food production seems to be consistently overlooked.


This is particularly true in relation to the fruit and veg sector.


It is timely that the House of Lords recently opened a Committee inquiry into the Horticulture Sector, chaired by Lord Redesdale.


Issues of labour shortages, rising energy and input costs, post-Brexit trade deals and retail contracts will no doubt feature prominently, as well as the perennial concerns that horticulture does not attract a fair share of R&D funding relative to the sector’s economic contribution. 


From a plant breeding perspective, I would also urge Lord Redesdale and his Committee to take a wider, more holistic look at the challenges heading down the tracks for UK growers, in particular their future access to improved genetics and effective crop protection tools. 


Brexit has of course brought new regulatory freedoms for the UK to diverge from Europe’s restrictive GMO rules and make technologies like gene editing more accessible.


The Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Act is certainly a positive and historic step forward for the regulation of genetic innovation in England. 


But for this legislation to deliver on Ministers’ aspirations for us to lead a new agricultural revolution, the Government must attend to the immediate business challenges facing our plant breeding and seeds sector.


With increased variety registration costs and delays, extra bureaucracy, new restrictions on the movement of seed in and out of the EU, and the loss of seed treatment products, many plant breeders will be seriously reviewing their business and investment plans for the UK.


Alongside these looming challenges, climate change is already making its presence felt, with crop and seed production more precarious, as witnessed by record temperatures in 2022.


When yields for many crops appear to have flatlined, despite all the effort to improve productivity, why has the level of investment to mitigate such risks barely changed whilst the urgency, extent and severity of threats have been amplified? There appears to be little recognition in key areas of Government that food production is politically and economically critical. 


I tried to explain this to non-farming friends whose knowledge has progressed a little after watching Clarkson’s Farm. Growers, plant breeders and agronomists are madly treading water to keep many crops afloat against a rising tide of pest, weed and disease threats which have historically been kept in check by crop protection products.


Breeding innovations such as gene editing may offer medium to long-term solutions in the form of more durable pest and disease resistance, but the immediate focus needs to be on a continuity plan to keep domestic production afloat.  


Availability of crop protection products is dwindling as EU policy aims to halve use of all pesticides by 50% by 2030, an approach which appears to be mirrored by the production-limiting focus of UK farm policies. 


But such an approach needs to consider three things;


  1.  Will the environment be kind?  Recent evidence of extreme climate events shows that stability will not be on the agenda for weeds, pests and diseases.


  1. Can breeding and technology adapt to fill the void? This was the vision of the Agri-Tech Strategy launched a decade ago, yet there has been little tangible impact. Even the promise of precision breeding is several years away, and will need to see many smaller, fragmented crops or markets sustained in the interim.


  1. Will these issues be compounded and amplified when we reduce choice of cropping, variety or chemistry across a whole rotation? 


Historically, the interaction between Genetics, Environment and Management or G x E x M was used to define output. This was relatively predictable; but as all three vary more frequently and to a greater extreme then a step change in research investment will be needed.


When the Broadbalk Experiment was established at Rothamsted in 1843, the founding fathers understood that Agricultural Research is a vital investment for the future. The need to optimise use of resources to sustain production and a growing population remains unchanged, 180 years later.


Furthermore, the recent experience of Sri Lanka’s flawed attempt to ban fertiliser use in 2021 – hobbling their food industry with a 50% yield reduction – serves as a reminder that transitioning to new agricultural policies cannot happen overnight, must be backed by sound science, and managed with continuity of food supply in mind.    


The challenge as ever is to reconcile the needs and wants of the United Kingdom with a vision to deliver food security, whilst mitigating the risk of displacing food production (and our high standards) to countries even more vulnerable to the worsening effects of climate change.


Ian Munnery is UK General Manager at plant breeding company SESVanderHave. He has been involved in the UK breeding, seeds and agribusiness sectors throughout his professional career, having studied for a BSc in Botany and Microbiology at Royal Holloway, University of London, and a post-graduate diploma in Crop Protection at Harper Adams University. He has served on numerous industry advisory groups, and is also a Board Trustee of the Agri-Food Charities Partnership (ACFP).

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