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Egenis · News

Reaping the Benefits



Egenis co-director Professor Steve Hughes examines the report on food security from the Royal Society.


Reaping the benefits: Science and the sustainable intensification of global agriculture, the new report from the Royal Society (RS), which examines the contribution of biology to food crop production makes itself a slightly slippery target by moving uncritically between UK science research capacity and the stage of global agriculture and food macro-security. This is unproblematic until we come to the point of linking these diverse domains in order prioritise research goals and to install practical solutions.

The report makes a powerful and earnest case for the role of science in addressing the issues of food security and the increasing demands placed on agricultural productivity by Malthusian pressure, land resource limitation and climatic and economic instabilities. In the context of hunger, poverty and sustainability it presents a noble aspiration for concerted interdisciplinary action, recognising that food security is a problem for all, for the developed and developing world alike.

The case for the relevance and promise of science research and for increased UK seeding, to the tune of £2bn over 10 years, and for an urgent re-equilibration of its component disciplines, is so well argued that it can almost be put to one side as a given. The nature of the benefit and its nurturing are secure and onboard. What is less convincing is the strategy for its realisation across the diverse fields, farms and food markets of the world. However, if we dig quite hard we can find elements in the report from which a strategy for goal prioritisation, translation and local adoption might be constructed and practical reaping initiatives taken. A particularly impressive example is presented of farmer field schools and the implementation of IPM strategies in Africa. Surely there are some instructive nuggets to be gleaned from this experience.

The call for a specific allocation of research funds will come as welcome support to the BBSRC’s strategy in its role as coordinator of the cross council initiative for food security. Nevertheless, previous reports of studies, in particular in the UK (see: ‘Genomics and crop plant science in Europe’, Steve Hughes, Plant Biotechnology Journal 2006: 4 pp.3-5), notably that conducted on behalf of the BBSRC by Prof Gilligan have recognised a systemic gulf between science, research and agricultural productivity (some have gone so far as to point to a market failure for agricultural research). This translational gap remains a challenge to the research funding agencies to judge by the words of DEFRA’s science advisor, Professor Robert Watson, in his presentation to the All Party Parliamentary Group on Science and Technology for Agriculture, just 12 months ago:

“DEFRA’s focus in agricultural R&D will continue to be on research aimed at delivering global public goods – eg climate proofing traits in crops, developments to support sustainable water and land use.”

According to the minutes of the meeting, "There was an ongoing debate over who should fund applied or translational research in agriculture following a meeting with stakeholders earlier in the year. This was not necessarily viewed as a role for DEFRA but a dialogue was continuing with BBSRC, Technology Strategy Board and the research institutes on this issue. Prof Watson pointed out, however, that the UK levy boards – whose R&D budget was the same size as DEFRA’s - had not stepped up to the plate on funding translational or applied research."

It is to be expected that the RS argument will lend weight to moves to redress this deficit and put timely pressure on well-resourced agencies identified by Prof Watson.

Within the report, under the headings of translation and extension, reliance is placed on DEFRA, DFID and links with the CGIR institutes. It is to be hoped that the emergent experience of these institutions in planning and governing public private partnerships (PPPs) will provide a stimulus for new ways of working and addressing problems within a translational framework rather than trying to apply translation as a downstream event. (The CGIAR centres have recently undertaken a systematic review of their engagement in PPPs, at which they heard a .) In this regard the RS are to be congratulated on recognizing that standard linear innovation models are not appropriate to the solutions they hope to support, but alarmingly their language does tend to slip back into that old mould of top-down, technology-transfer instincts. Perhaps further familiarity with the work of Andy Hall at the Innovation Unit of the UN University or Paul Richards at Wageningen could broaden the vision for co-innovation with the farming community itself, both in establishing priorities and in shaping for adoption.

In close synchrony with the RS report comes the announcement from the US Department of Agriculture of the formation of a National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), a research funding body specifically set up to redress the shortfall in research relevant to food security, food safety and climate change. NIFA is resourced initially at the level of $1bn, (still but the skin on a banker’s bonus), and is charged with upping the game of competitive research funding which has long languished under the parochial patronised Land Grant University system and with levelling the playing field with respect to the innovative capacities of a property-rights inspired private sector. The natural continuity between Land Grant and Extension seems to have lost its compelling flavour and NIFA’s core problem is similar to the RS and UK public research sector’s; how will the outputs of a reinvigorated agricultural research base feed through to security at the levels of fields and plates? Cooperation with other sectors including the powerful private agrochemical/seed sector is inevitable, but how are public-private partnerships to be negotiated without surrendering to demands of exclusivity in knowledge sharing. The appointed NIFA director Roger Beachy is aware of the challenge, while agreeing that private sector involvement in publicly funded research consortia will not be easy: "I know that there's a degree of trust that can be built while still maintaining intellectual property and the segregation necessary."

Despite this apparent willingness to back off from the necessities of innovations in practice there is a strong case for the RS-led initiatives at research council level to join forces with NIFA and marshal their muscle to negotiate strategies for cooperation with the private sector for broader takes on technology and food security. They should work with the acceptance that PPPs are inevitable channels of delivery but that their own sector is critical for the generation of fresh ideas and the training of future cadres of inspired agricultural innovators.

Europe should not be dismissed out of hand as a partner, despite the regional Luddite behaviours it often portrays. Given the framing of the RS recommendations as “knowledge intensive” we should perhaps align with EU aspirations for the knowledge economy and cooperation in optimizing innovation against this ambition. Let’s look to the outcomes of SciTech Europe 09 later this month to see whether the EU has the stomach to follow the RS lead.

Broadly drawn European Technology Platforms, (ETPs) including Plants for the Future and Food for Life, in which the private sector of the agricultural production and supply chains are well represented, might constitute effective partners with a shared ambition for food security. The technology platforms are viewed by the Commission as outstanding opportunities for the negotiation of public-private partnerships.

Finally, I share the optimism of the Royal Society Report and wish its authors well in their quest for a major augmentation of resources for cognate research. It is significant that the molecular hegemony now recognizes the need to avoid sawing off the branches of crop science and agronomy on which it must sit if scientific excellence is to reach through to sustainable food production and consumption in the global community. I’m confident that we will witness a reassertion of the spirit and shared objectivity of the former Agricultural Systems Directorate of the BBSRC in a locally inspired but internationally and collaboratively framed agenda for crop research.


Plant Field