Agriculture and Food: Research Funding — Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:40 pm on 20th January 2009.

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Photo of Lord Cameron of Dillington Lord Cameron of Dillington Crossbench 7:40 pm, 20th January 2009

My Lords, first, I declare an interest as a farmer and landowner, and as a trustee of the Lawes Agricultural Trust.

The Government Chief Scientific Adviser, John Beddington, has summed up the challenge for world agriculture by saying that by 2030, the world has to produce 50 per cent more food than it did in 2000, using less water, less energy, emitting fewer greenhouse gases and not despoiling the environment.

That is a pretty tall order. But what is more important is that Britain has a key part to play in the delivery of this tall order. According to the IPCC, northern Europe is one of the few places in the world where global warming will actually enhance food production, so it is really important that Britain is properly engaged in playing its part. The UK must grasp the economic opportunity that this gives us, as well as our social and environmental obligations, and we must ensure that we do everything in our power to maximise our responsible production of food.

The prime message that I—and I suspect everyone in this debate—wish to give the Government is that we must build back the expertise in our agricultural research capability. As the noble Earl indicated, over the past 25 years, 16 out of 20 research institutes have been closed or merged into a university. We must now support and exploit the world-leading capability and facilities that we have remaining.

Certain vital scientific expertise is now in short supply—agronomy, plant pathology, entomology and soil science, to name but a few. We must build back a new generation of scientific competence while we still have those who can train it. We must motivate our scientists to engage with this major challenge of how to provide food for another 50 per cent more mouths.

We also need to build back our agricultural extension capability—scientists formulating research of direct relevance to production problems encountered on farms on the land, and translating research findings, including near market research, into improved practices on the land. This involves scientists honing their communication and motivational skills, both here and across the world. This agenda and debate involves Defra, DIUS and particularly DfID. Scientists should be rewarded for improved outcomes on the land, rather than necessarily just for plaudits from their peers.

We need a national strategy for where our investment in science and technology should be directed in the coming decades, and strategies for the protection of our soil and for the genetic improvement of our key crops—cereals, oilseeds, grasses and horticultural crops. That must surely involve the adoption of all available technologies, including GM. This is not the time for the GM debate, but I support the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Livsey, that we must distinguish between what one might call the Monsanto debate, where multinational corporations seem to be driving this agenda for profit, and the Government easily giving free access to drought-resistant maize in Africa, or nitrogen-fixing wheat across the world.

There is also the need for a national strategy for our interactions with the developing world. It is not enough just to allocate funds to other organisations overseas and hope that this will deliver the required outcomes. This agenda used to be a real strength of the UK, and I believe that we can play this part again in the future.

Above all, and in conclusion, we need a research strategy that provides the necessary leadership and resources to enable Britain to grasp this opportunity and play its part in overcoming the potential for massive world food shortages, if we and others do nothing.