Promoting Science for Sustainable Agriculture
There remains no greater challenge for humanity today than living sustainably. That means mitigating and adapting to climate change and protecting our natural environment. To achieve that whilst maintaining safe, healthy, and plentiful food which is accessible by the poorest requires fast, responsible improvement of our agriculture and food system.
Farming is part of a dynamic system where biology, environment and economics interact in highly complex ways. Unfortunately, the topic is also subject to huge misinformation, and 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, farmers, and consumers to make the best decisions for a sustainable future.
That’s why I am pleased to be involved in Science for Sustainable Agriculture (SSA), a new policy and communications platform in the UK bringing together a broad range of like-minded individuals and organisations to champion and explain the vital role of agricultural science and technology in safeguarding our food supply, tackling climate change and protecting the natural environment, and to expose and challenge unscientific and potentially misleading positions.
In its launch prospectus, Science for Sustainable Agriculture applauds early action by the UK Government to align with scientific assessment and remove precision breeding technologies from GMO rules inherited from the EU, but cautions that without a matching commitment to also follow the science on key policy issues such as future farm support, R&D funding and sustainability metrics, Britain’s food system could fail to deliver sufficient food with the lowest environmental impact.
Confronted with a cost-of-living crunch and heightened food security concerns, the report warns that UK policy development:
• ignores crucial scientific advice, including from the Government’s own research;
• is risking food production in a policy drift towards lower-yield farming systems and misdirecting ‘re-wilding’ to productive farmland;
• fails to ‘fact check’ information from campaigning groups;
• risks sleepwalking us into a less sustainable food system than we have today.
The SSA report calls for a renewed policy focus on sustainable intensification in agriculture, alongside more pro-innovation policies, and the adoption of consistent, science-based sustainability metrics to frame the policy and R&D agenda.
Importantly, the report also calls for long-term investment in crop genetic innovation as the main driver of agricultural productivity gains, citing the May 2021 study by HFFA Research GmbH which concluded that, since 2000, progress in plant breeding has accounted for two-thirds of the productivity gains in UK arable crops. This followed an earlier peer-reviewed study, led by NIAB scientists in 2011, which found that for the UK’s main cereal crops (wheat and barley), the contribution of genetic improvement to yield gain was closer to 90 per cent.
Indeed, without the contribution of improved varieties over the past 20 years, the HFFA study found that UK crop yields would be 19 per cent lower, and 1.8 million hectares of additional land would be needed in other parts of the world to meet our food needs, placing additional pressure on scarce global resources and causing more than 300 million tonnes of additional GHG emissions.
And yet the SSA report points out that a lack of long-term strategic funding to transfer early-stage genetic discoveries from lab to field to farm remains the one of the most significant barriers to future productivity gains, and that opportunities to exploit major advances in our understanding of plant science are being lost.
It seems a strange policy that prioritizes taxpayer R&D investment in precision farming projects such as robotic harvesters, vertical farms and AI by more than 20 times the funding equivalent to be spent on crop genetic innovation. While these agri-tech innovations are vitally important in driving efficiency improvements at the individual farm level, those efficiency gains appear to be very small compared to the productivity gap that is shown to appear if we fail to support speeding up gains in genetic potential.
That is why the SSA report explicitly calls for a new, long-term Crop Genetic Innovation Research Fund (CGIRF) to bridge this long-recognised gap in R&D investment.
Consumer research commissioned by Science for Sustainable Agriculture has also revealed a surprising lack of awareness among British shoppers about where their food comes from, and how much scientific innovation goes into its development and production.
For example, consumers were very surprised 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 human intervention enhanced by science-based innovation has underpinned these transformations.
Similarly, very few 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 food crops such as wheat, barley, oats, sugar beet and potatoes are all native to Britain.
In fact, all the food crops grown on British farms originated in other parts of the world, e.g., wheat, barley and oats from the Middle East, potatoes from South America, and sugar beet from central Europe. All have been adapted to our growing conditions and markets by the most amazing scientific intervention and human ingenuity, and many of the food crops grown today bear only a passing resemblance to their ‘wild’ or ‘natural’ versions.
Research such as this raises questions about how to interpret current public discussions around issues such as precision breeding, when most consumers appear unaware of the level of scientific intervention and genetic change which has already gone into the development of our everyday foods.
Above all, it highlights the need for a better conversation about the role of science in food and agriculture. More effective communication, delivered by trusted sources, using the right language and terminology, will be absolutely critical.
The future for sustainable agriculture does not lie in turning back the clock, as some would have us believe, but in embracing innovative solutions, applying scientific data and evidence, and combining innovation with established best practice and knowledge from a range of farming systems.
Science for Sustainable Agriculture is keen to promote a conversation rooted in scientific evidence. We all have to open our minds to questions that can be uncomfortable and challenge our ideas and beliefs but when guided by measurable evidence provided by independent scientists, we have the best chance of feeding an increasingly hungry, warming planet in the most sustainable way.
Nigel Moore is a member of the Science for Sustainable Agriculture advisory group. He is a plant scientist with formal education in plant physiology, genetics, and agronomy. He has worked in private sector plant breeding research and seeds for over 35 years. Nigel is employed by the seed company KWS heading their global food ingredients activity . He is a former chair of the British Society of Plant Breeders (BSPB) and past President of Euroseeds, the European plant breeding and seeds organisation.
This article first appeared in European Seed magazine.