Research intelligence - Matters of loaf and death

Ensuring the UK's food supply in an uncertain future has become a priority for the BBSRC. Zoe Corbyn reports

January 22, 2009

Extra funding is to be ploughed into research on food security by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council in response to mounting concerns about the global supply of food.

Times Higher Education has learnt that the BBSRC will lead a closed meeting next month at which major players in the field will outline a list of research priorities.

Janet Allen, the new director of research at the BBSRC, declined to reveal how much extra money could be released as a result of the exercise, but she stressed that the meeting was being called to identify funding gaps - including those in "skills and capability".

"The intention (of the meeting) is to produce a road map (to) address the issues about where we are and where we need to be in ten and 20 years' time from the point of view of food security on a national and an international basis," she said.

Food security - a country's ability to ensure an adequate food supply amid a growing world population, climate change and unsustainable agricultural methods - reached the top of the political agenda last summer when food prices in the UK rose sharply. The increases were read by many as a wake-up call.

"If you ask people if (food security in the UK) is a problem now, (they will say) it is not. (But) it will be a problem in ten years' time, and the message is very strong that we need to invest now in the basic and the applied science to ensure that we do not have a major problem," Professor Allen said.

The BBSRC estimated that its total spending on research relating to food was about £185 million last year - comprising about 48 per cent of its research budget. The cash was spread over ten areas, including plant and crop science, aquaculture and animal health.

Food security was one of ten new research priorities for the coming years on a list unveiled by the research council last October.

The plan is for a "renewed emphasis" on the whole area, Professor Allen said.

She explained that the meeting, scheduled for 19 February, would unite funding bodies, policymakers and academics - along with end-users of research including the food industry, farmers and supermarkets - to deliver a "holistic" outline for the future based on "practical outcomes". The road map would be released for public consultation in the spring, she said.

"The whole point is to see not just what the BBSRC is doing but what other people are doing ... we need to (act) in a joined-up way as opposed to the sort of piece-by-piece way (seen) previously."

The emphasis of the meeting will be on identifying "synergies" between research already taking place, as well as on examining ways to better translate the results of BBSRC research into clear social and economic benefits, she said. "There is a big issue around mechanisms for translating research (in) a very fragmented industry."

The new emphasis on the field as a research priority was welcomed by David Rice, chair in structural biology and biophysics at the University of Sheffield.

He is co-leading a project funded jointly by the BBSRC and the agribusiness company Syngenta to develop a herbicide suitable for so-called no-till agriculture, in which farmers abandon the practice of clearing weeds from fields by ploughing after the growing season, thus reducing soil erosion.

"It is estimated that if the world's population increases at the rate it is going, by 2050 our production of cereals and grain will have to double," he said.

Professor Rice suggested that crop yields could be improved by more research in three areas: the search for new herbicides; the development of genetic-modification technology; and the improvement of land-management techniques.

"With limited land, you have got to get crop yields up whether you like it or not," he said.

But he cautioned that because of the "big moral issues" surrounding food security, it was vital that the public be informed and engaged.

"(They have) an aversion to chemical intervention and genetic- modification technologies ... We need to be proactive in communicating the message to society that there is a problem with food security in the world and we do need to harness technology if we are to provide the world with the food it needs."

zoe.corbyn@tsleducation.com.

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