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25 May 2022 - for immediate release

Sustainable food and farming policies must be rooted in science, says new policy group

Ahead of the expected publication of the UK’s first National Food Strategy for 70 years, a high-level group of political, scientific and industry leaders is urging the Government to do much more to put scientific rigour and evidence at the heart of Britain’s food and farming policies, warning that a failure to do so could risk sleepwalking the nation into its own food crisis.


In its launch prospectus, Science for Sustainable Agriculture applauds early action by the UK Government to diverge from restrictive EU rules on precision breeding technologies, but cautions that without a matching commitment to follow the science on key policy issues such as future farm support, R&D funding and sustainability metrics, Britain’s food system could face a perilous food future.


With its good soils, temperate climate, highly skilled farming sector, and world-leading science base, the report says Britain can use science and innovation to increase its food production capacity in the face of heightened food security concerns, while at the same time mitigating and adapting to climate change, protecting biodiversity and conserving precious natural resources.


But it can also go further – freed from the restrictive influence of over-precautionary EU regulations, Britain has the opportunity to establish itself as an international hub for agri-science excellence and innovation: exporting technological solutions, attracting inward investment and fostering international research collaboration.


However, the Science for Sustainable Agriculture report warns of a policy drift towards lower-yielding farming systems, and even ‘re-wilding’ of productive farmland, as the Government ignores the outputs of its own four-year research programme into sustainable intensification, while policy development – including the widely criticised Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS) – is overly reliant on campaigning and voluntary NGOs.


Noting that the recommendations of Professor Sir John Beddington’s Foresight report on The Future of Food and Farming remain as urgent and relevant today as when issued more than 11 years ago, the report calls on Ministers to:


  • Restore the strategic policy focus on sustainable intensification in UK agriculture - using scientific knowledge and innovation to help optimise the balance between food production, resource use and environmental impact, and re-focusing on the outputs of the four year, Defra-funded Sustainable Intensification Research Programme (SIP);


  • Confirm the UK as a signatory to the global Coalition on Sustainable Productivity Growth for Food Security and Resource Conservation (SPG), signalling a recognition that science and innovation can help farmers adopt environmentally friendly and climate-smart farming practices without sacrificing productivity;


  • Recognise the importance of genetic innovation as the single main driver of productivity gains in agriculture, and establish a long-term, strategic Crop Genetic Innovation Research Fund in response to UKRI’s 2021 review of UK plant science, which warned that major opportunities to translate early-stage genetic discoveries from lab to field are being lost;


  • Move further and faster to make UK regulation of new genetic technologies in agriculture more proportionate and enabling;


  • Adopt meaningful, science-based metrics for sustainable agriculture as a critical evidence-base to drive best practice at farm level and frame the policy, R&D and regulatory agenda, focused on measuring resource use and environmental impact per functional unit of output, and building on the metrics and sustainability indicator work already funded by Defra as part of the SIP programme.          


The report also points to peer-reviewed research conducted over 10 years across a range of farming systems, led by UK conservation scientist Professor Andrew Balmford, which concluded that the most effective way to keep pace with increasing human demands for food while protecting habitats and preventing further biodiversity loss is through high-tech, high-yield production on land that is already farmed, mirrored by explicit policy measures to make sure other land is set-aside for nature and carbon sequestration.


Drawing on this work in a UK context, the report endorses Professor Balmford’s creative vision of a three-compartment model for land use — allowing room for a combination of natural habitat, low-intensity farming and high-yield, high-tech farming — as an evidence-based approach to sustainable intensification which, if properly implemented, could deliver a more sustainable balance in terms of food production, environmental protection and climate impact.


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