Defra and the Department for International Development last week pledged to "continue to develop innovative approaches to tackle existing bottlenecks that stop research getting into the hands of those who need it, whether by finding better ways to communicate findings to rural farmers or by working to make new technology more accessible and affordable".
The pledge was an immediate reaction to the newly-published Foresight Global Food & Farming Futures report, which was commissioned by the Government's chief scientific adviser Professor John Beddington.
The report, which consulted with hundreds of world-renowned scientists, stated what the UK and the rest of the world should do to adequately feed the rising global population over the next two to three decades. It concluded that food production and the food system must be given a much higher priority in political agendas.
It also stressed the need for urgent investment in agricultural research to boost yields, increase input efficiency and improve sustainability - not only through the development of new farming technologies but also through more effective deployment of existing knowledge and practices.
These recommendations echoed the views made in several recent reports published by the horticulture industry - including Defra's 2010 Fruit & Vegetable Task Force Report, the NFU-commissioned Grow EM (East Midlands) report and the 2009 National Horticultural Forum report. Each claimed that the production horticulture industry had a continuing need for a programme of applied, crop-specific research and development.
The Foresight report also recommended that no technological approach should be ruled out and access to innovation should be determined according to scientific and evidence-based criteria.
Fresh Produce Consortium (FPC) chief executive Nigel Jenney, who was part of the Defra Fruit & Vegetable Task Force, said: "UK growers have a significant opportunity to increase the sustainable production of indigenous crops that are suited to our climate. The FPC believes that Defra should identify those indigenous crops with greater production potential than is achieved currently and ensure that the sector has the necessary tools to maximise this potential."
East Malling Research (EMR) chief executive Dr Mike Solomon added: "EMR welcomes the recommendation to invest in new knowledge and technology, particularly the opportunity to develop new science to improve efficiency of food production systems. Professor Beddington calls for investment in new science and with secretary of state Caroline Spelman indicating her commitment to the findings we see a major role for EMR."
NFU chief science adviser Dr Helen Ferrier said: "There are high expectations on our farmers so we need forward-thinking policies, effective supply chains and investment in R&D to be able to produce more while impacting less on the environment."
Crop Protection Association chief executive Dominic Dyer said: "The report is right to emphasise that access to scientific and technological innovation will be essential to help food production keep pace with population growth. But as I stressed to Caroline Spelman at the launch, that message must be conveyed to EU politicians as a matter of urgency.
"There is no point having one group of policy makers advocating the use of new agricultural technology when another group appears hell-bent on blocking progress in areas such as GM crops."
National Institute of Agricultural Biodiversity chief executive Dr Tina Barsby, whose organisation carries out annual trials on fresh produce varieties, said: "The Foresight report calls for a major rethink in our attitudes towards the funding and application of new technologies and practices."
Scottish Crop Research Institute (SCRI) director and chief executive Professor Peter Gregory, who worked on the Foresight study, added: "This report contributes to the emerging agenda for research on food security. The SCRI will continue to make major contributions to this through its work on breeding new crop varieties."
Soil Association director of campaigns and communications Molly Consibee said: "Contrary to the pro-GM advance publicity, the Foresight report contains much that supports agro-ecological methods, such as organic. In particular, it highlights the need for research in agronomy, agro-ecology, soil science and other areas that have been neglected in recent years."
The Foresight report states that investment in research and development is critical to:
- Producing more food efficiently and sustainably.
- Keeping pace with evolving threats such as the emergence of new and more virulent pests and diseases.
- Addressing new challenges, such as the development of crop varieties resistant to increased drought, flooding and salinity.
- Meeting the needs of the world's poorest communities.