Agriculture and Food: Research Funding — Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:27 pm on 20th January 2009.

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Photo of The Earl of Selborne The Earl of Selborne Conservative 7:27 pm, 20th January 2009

My Lords, agricultural and food research has been in decline for a quarter of a century. We need to take stock of whether this is in the national interest. I hope that this short debate tonight will give us an opportunity to do just that. I start by declaring my interest as a farmer and my commitment to agricultural and food research as a past chairman of the Agricultural and Food Research Council, now subsumed into the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council.

In the 20th century, agricultural and food research and development was a key contributor to the great achievements of agricultural production, particularly after the Second World War. To meet the needs of food security, production increased massively and productivity increased even more. By the mid-1980s, priorities had changed. Agriculture was seen as no longer such a key sector and, in my time as chairman of the Agricultural and Food Research Council in the 1980s, the Government of the day started on a round of closures of agricultural research institutes and experimental husbandry stations, a process that does not seem to have ended 25 years later. In the past five years, we have lost Long Ashton Research Station, Silsoe Research Institute, the Hannah Research Institute and much of the Horticultural Research Institute. There is currently a great deal of uncertainty about the future of the farming and food science LINK programmes.

The challenges of the 21st century are different from those of the 20th century, but in many ways they are equally urgent. Global food security, the impact of climate change on agricultural production, the need to reduce water used for irrigation and the spread of animal diseases are all pressing issues of global importance to which agricultural research based in this country can and does make a significant contribution. There is a need to ensure that increased agricultural production—which is, after all, essential to meet the needs of a larger, more prosperous world population—does not lead to further adverse environmental impacts. Most people believe that, by 2050, if you take into account increased world population and consumption, global food production will have to double.

The research needs of the UK agricultural sector are not identical to the global priorities, but they are compelling. The case for appropriate publicly funded research and development to support this sector is overdue for reappraisal. Many of the products of agriculture are public goods, which justify public investment in research. Although the industry is highly competitive, it is largely made up of micro-businesses that cannot individually fund and receive the benefit of private research.

The key challenge for the farming and food sectors is to ensure that improved crop productivity can be achieved efficiently without adverse environmental impacts. We need to focus on where production gains are most readily and sustainably achieved. We need to ensure that we retain a competitive agricultural industry. We need to support those ancillary industries that support agriculture, such as crop protection, animal health, animal and plant breeding, agricultural machinery and many others. There are great opportunities for the agri-food technology industry in this country to sell more of its expertise and products overseas, based not least on the products of our publicly funded research.

We need to ensure that our consumers benefit from competitively priced, high-quality food grown in our own country. While food security may not be the critical issue for us that it is in many other countries around the world, too heavy a dependence on food imports is surely unwise. Most of us recognise the very obvious benefits of regional production.

Our national science base, our biological sciences and the environmental research programmes funded by the research councils, higher education funding councils and government departments are among the best in the world. However, when it comes to exploiting this underpinning science to meet the needs of the UK agricultural sector, we are missing out. Without adequate applied research focused specifically on the needs of UK producers or the infrastructure to support field research, we will miss the opportunities that this excellent basic and strategic research offers.

I pay tribute to the National Farmers' Union for recognising in its campaign "Why Science Matters" just how great the contribution from publicly funded agricultural research and development has been and how critical it is to recruit a new generation of applied agricultural scientists. The Commercial Farmers Group has called for a new vision for UK agricultural research and development. I agree that the time is right to explore what that new vision should be.

We need to get all interested bodies and funders of agricultural research and development, whether in the public or private sector, charities and levy boards, to come together to share their ideas on just what are the national objectives for agricultural research and then to agree how each can contribute to co-ordinated programmes. The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council has given considerable attention to the contribution that research can make to sustainable agricultural production, but it is essential that Defra and the BBSRC work closely together to determine what resources will be needed to deliver the national research needs. This has to be agreed before we lose yet more of our research infrastructure.

Producers recognise the key role that research has played in the past, and could play in the future, for their economic survival and prosperity. Therefore, it is reasonable to ask the producers themselves—represented, I suggest, through the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board—to take a leading role on behalf of the industry in developing such a new vision. Obviously, many other contributors need to be part of that debate—for example, the research councils, particularly BBSRC and NERC, agricultural departments, in which I, of course, include the devolved Administrations, universities, including the vet schools, the Food Standards Agency, the Science and Innovation Network within DIUS, the Technology Strategy Board and the agri-technology team within UK Trade & Investment, which is charged with helping us to export the expertise to which I referred. No doubt many other agencies would have a role in this discussion. Since the future of LINK has been in some doubt, there has been talk about establishing an agri-food technology platform. When the Minister responds to the Question, I should be interested to hear what progress, if any, can be reported on this agri-technology platform initiative.

I understand that on 1 April Defra will merge its science agencies into the Food and Environment Research Agency, which I am sure will help the department to play its part in reassessing where our priorities lie for ensuring a thriving, sustainable farming sector. However, perhaps the best way for Defra to demonstrate that agricultural research will be taken seriously after 25 years of cuts would be to put the word "agriculture" back into the name of its research agency. Can we please have an Agriculture, Food and Environment Research Agency?