Photo: Skånska Matupplevelser/Flickr.

EU’s rules on genetically improved crops a ‘threat’ to developments in agriculture, say MPs

A report out today is calling for the equivalent of Nice – the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence – for developments in crop technologies. The House of Commons Science and Technology Committee also says the government should encourage more public debate around developments in crop technologies

It recommends forming a ‘citizens council’ for considering the social and ethical impacts of new crops. Nice has a similar role producing advice on new medicines, which is used by the NHS to make funding decisions.

In its report, the committee criticises the model used for regulating genetically modified organisms in the European Union. The system “threatens to prevent such products from reaching the market both in the UK, in Europe and, as a result of trade issues, potentially in the developing world,” according to the committee of MPs. Continue reading

Mustard seeds (Dennis Wilkinson/Flickr)

Conserving our crops’ genetic diversity

More than 22 years have passed since the Convention on Biological Diversity was signed. It called for international efforts to conserve the world’s biodiversity, which had long been suffering the effects of human activities. Since then, there has been a lot of debate over what the best way of securing this biodiversity is.

But really, there isn’t a best way. There isn’t a clear consensus, one method to fit all. We can’t choose one way to preserve all the different elements that form what we call biodiversity.

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Eight great technologies

The UK is an important player in academic research worldwide. This includes being one of the world leaders in many emerging scientific fields. The UK government has recognised eight fields as Eight Great Technologies – technologies that, with support, can lead to UK strengths and business capabilities.

In the 2012 autumn statement, £600m was put into these fields, and this week’s Science and Technology Strategy announced continuing support for them, including funding for new research centres.

But what are these eight technologies? Despite working at an institute with clear links to several of the technologies, I admit to only having heard about them recently – and not in my role as a researcher, but through my interest in science policy. So I’ve summarised the eight in this post.

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A global approach to achieving food security

Last month, 13 developing countries received recognition from the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) for their progress towards eradicating hunger and improving food security. At the ceremony, the FAO’s director general, José Graziano da Silva, congratulated them for turning political commitment into actions and demonstrating the will to achieve and surpass the millennium development goals.

Achieving food security – that is, guaranteeing that all people have access to sufficient and nutritious food to lead an active and healthy life – is the ultimate goal of the FAO’s work. The organisation’s activities range from creating indexes of agricultural productivity to supporting collaborations between public and private parties. It is also a neutral forum for international discussions and agreements so that global productivity may be increased through sustainable agriculture.

Improving crop productivity around the world requires actions on a number of fronts: political, social, economic and scientific. Small farmers in developing countries must be supported and their contribution to food security acknowledged. We need to enhance the capacities of breeders, scientists and workers in the seed industry. High-yielding and resistant crop varieties need to be bred. And key traits underlying adaptation to changing environments need to be identified – as is being done here at the John Innes Centre!

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Plant science: a growing field

Traditionally, a UK PhD student spends 3-4 years in the lab, researching their project. However, a recent drive to produce ‘well-rounded’ students has led to the development of internship schemes. This means that I’ve left my PhD mid-research for 3 months, and I’m currently six weeks into a placement working in the Centre for Science and Policy, at the University of Cambridge. This centre works in science and policy issues across all areas, from medicine, to physics, to social sciences. I always knew that plant sciences was an important field, and one that’s been booming recently. However, in the past six weeks I’ve been looking from a policy viewpoint and I’ve realised exactly how important it is, and how valuable plant science research will be for our future.

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Where does our food come from?

Last month I travelled across the county to Peterborough to help run the John Innes Centre stand at the East of England Agricultural Society’s Food and Farming day.

Food and Farming day provides an opportunity for school children to understand agriculture and food production. Organisations were there from all parts of the agricultural industry, right from us scientists at the research level, to farmers, to companies that make produce for supermarket shelves. This event serves a number of purposes, primarily to help young people understand where their food comes from, and encourage them to pursue careers in the agricultural industry.

The more I work at events such as this one, the more I realise how important it is to open up the conversation about food production. We now live in a culture of fast food and supermarkets, which means we don’t ever really have to think about how the food we eat actually gets there. Growing crops and rearing animals becomes a sort of abstract concept. We know it happens, but really it doesn’t seem to affect us. This disconnection between the farmer’s field and the supermarket shelf means that many children (and adults!) don’t know that rice is a plant, that sausages come from animal meat, or that bread is made from wheat.  However, as we become increasingly detached from our food, it is only becoming ever more important to really understand the food production system.

Food security is a bit of a buzz word with the scientists and politicians at the moment, and for good reason. The global population is expected to reach 9 billion by 2050, and all those extra people need to be fed! However, the problem we have is that we already use around 40% of the earth’s land mass for agriculture, and the earth isn’t getting any bigger. In fact, we may have even less space for food production than we do now in 50 years’ time, because of course all those extra people will need somewhere to live, and schools to go to, and hospitals to be treated at.

An additional issue is that this extra food needs to be produced and distributed sustainably. Current agricultural practices are actually pretty bad for the environment. Pollution, pesticides, fertilizers and animal waste can often end up in our water supply, damaging delicate environments, or contributing to greenhouse gases. Animals over-grazing can ruin grasslands. Vast swathes of rainforest and other endangered habitats are being cut down every year to make room for agriculture. Food is transported thousands of miles producing yet more greenhouse gases and pollution.

Ultimately, we need to produce more food, from less land, whilst reducing our impact on the environment. Seems like a bit of an impossible equation!

There are many ideas about how we can increase our food production in a sustainable way. Just some of these ideas include: developing GM crops that contain additional nutrients or don’t need to be sprayed with pesticides, producing food locally to reduce carbon produced in transportation, improving infrastructure and food distribution systems, cutting down on food waste, and selecting for crop varieties that give higher yields per hectare or are able grow on more marginal land, reducing meat consumption.

To decide which of these solutions could be the most helpful, and then implement these changes, scientists, politicians, policy makers and the public need to work together. However, we can’t have a fully open discussion, or expect people to back agricultural and environmental policies, if they don’t understand where the food comes from in the first place. By holding more events such as the Food and Farming Day, and educating children about agriculture, the next generation can grow up to be part of the discussion, and maybe even become the scientists and policy makers of the future to help feed our growing population.

 All photos from @johninnescentre

By Amelia Frizell-Armitage, a second year PhD student in the lab of Christobal Uauy