Research intelligence: Feeding of the nine billion needs science, not miracles

A collaborative strategy will prioritise research into how to feed an expanding population. Neha Popat reports

January 28, 2010

Securing food supplies for the world's growing population is likely to be one of the most pressing global concerns of the 21st century.

As scientists grapple with how best to address the problem, food security has been made a research priority by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council.

A strategic plan launched this week sets out the BBSRC's key aims for the next five years.

It commits to supporting projects that "increase the efficiency and sustainability of crop and animal production" and "reduce waste in the food chain".

Douglas Kell, chief executive of the BBSRC, said the diminishing availability of land and water supplies could have "enormous implications" for a global population that is expected to hit nine billion by 2050.

"To meet these requirements, agriculture will need to produce more food from the same or even less land," he explained.

Climate change will need to be taken into consideration, he added.

"Variable weather conditions will lead to increased burdens from pests and diseases that reduce the reliability of food production in its current form," Professor Kell said.

The BBSRC will focus funding on projects that enhance the yield and quality of crops, prevent or combat pests, diseases and weeds, and generate crops that are adapted to "future environments".

The strategy's publication closely follows the UK Cross-Government Strategy for Food Research and Innovation, launched earlier this month by John Beddington, the Chief Scientific Adviser. This is part of a wider government initiative, Food 2030, which sets out plans for creating a sustainable and secure food system.

The Cross-Government Strategy provides a framework for greater collaboration between public sector organisations involved in funding, commissioning and delivering food research, the private sector and other bodies.

A key part of the strategy is the establishment of a food security research programme. This will be led by the BBSRC and delivered in partnership with other research councils, the Technology Strategy Board and government departments.

It will seek to strengthen research co-ordination in the field and build a community of researchers, funders and users to improve the chances that the global population will be able to feed itself in the future.

Professor Kell said this close engagement with industry and others would be to the advantage of researchers in the biosciences.

He explained it would improve their understanding of the needs of industry, as well as accelerating the transition of research from the laboratory to the marketplace.

Coupled with technological developments in the biological sciences, he said it gave him confidence that food research would advance swiftly.

"Rapid developments in the internet have allowed greater availability of online data and text," he explained.

"Having such large amounts of data at their fingertips will allow researchers to be able to make much more sensible use of data-driven methods of science."

Wider remit

The BBSRC's strategic plan, published on 28 January, also emphasises two other priority areas for the next five years.

In the bioenergy and industrial biotechnology sectors, the research council says it will award funding to projects that support the development of low-carbon sources of energy and fuel, and chemicals that reduce society's dependence on dwindling oil reserves.

In healthcare, it will seek to drive advances in fundamental bioscience to improve people's health and quality of life, reducing the need for medical and social intervention.

Sir David Baulcombe, professor of botany at the University of Cambridge, recently chaired a Royal Society analysis of the contribution made by the biological sciences to food crop production.

He said the BBSRC's priorities were timely, particularly in the area of food security.

"Over the past 20 years, food research has not been given the priority it should have had ... there is now a need and opportunity for this to be addressed."

He said the strategy would give a renewed focus to work funded by the BBSRC and assist in the cross-fertilisation of ideas from a range of specialisms.

He added that science was better placed than ever to address the challenges of a growing population and dwindling food production.

The BBSRC has invested more than £800 million in the plant and animal sciences since 2003, making it the largest funder of food research in the UK.

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