Agriculture: Research

Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs written question – answered on 23rd June 2022.

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Photo of Rachael Maskell Rachael Maskell Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport)

To ask the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, what steps he is taking to accelerate agricultural research into improving food productivity and yields to help address global food shortages.

Photo of Victoria Prentis Victoria Prentis The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Research, innovation and its take-up into practice are integral to supporting a thriving productive and sustainable food and farming sector, and to helping address the global challenges we face on food security. Defra engages with other Government departments, including the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO), through the UK Research and Innovation-led Global Food Security Programme, which coordinates research and innovation activity of public funders to address food security challenges.

The recently published Government Food Strategy is a once in a generation opportunity to create a food system that feeds our nation today and protects it for tomorrow. It builds on existing work across Government and identifies new opportunities to make the food system more sustainable, resilient, and accessible for those across the UK. In the Food Strategy, Defra detailed plans to invest £270 million in industry-led research and development (R&D) through the Farming Innovation Programme, which will drive innovation in agriculture and horticulture to boost domestic productivity, including by helping to improve crop yield sustainability in the UK, and by driving the take up of new technologies, processes and practices by farmers and growers.

Defra's Genetic Improvement Networks (GINs) on Wheat, Oilseed Rape, Pulses and Vegetable crops aim to improve the main UK crops by identifying genetic traits to improve their productivity, sustainability, resilience and nutritional quality. Across the GINs we have already successfully identified genetic traits that have improved resilience to climate change and common pests and diseases, and we are working with breeders to incorporate these traits into elite UK crop varieties. Ongoing work is also investigating the capacity for nutritional improvement of our crops, such as improved pulse protein quality and nutritionally fortified rapeseed oil.

The Government is also taking steps to unlock the innovation potential of genetic technologies such as gene editing which can help increase crop yield more efficiently, and increase resilience to pests and disease which will benefit developing countries.

Further funding to support R&D for improved agricultural productivity in developing countries is administered by FCDO as part of the UK's overall Overseas Development Assistance (ODA). The UK's ODA R&D spend supports climate-resilient and nature positive food systems, combining 'upstream' science, technology and innovation with 'downstream' delivery, through partnerships with public sector, agribusinesses, and impact investors.

This includes support to the CGIAR, the world's leading agricultural science and innovation organisation (formerly the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research). The CGIAR has a strong track record in delivering tangible climate and development impacts in countries which are a priority for FCDO.

  • In Sudan, heat tolerant wheat led to a doubling of wheat production levels in just five years.
  • In Southern Africa, we partner with the CGIAR to develop over 200 new maize varieties that can withstand droughts and give farmers 30% greater yields under climate change.
  • In Ethiopia, in 2017, higher-yielding, disease-resistant varieties of wheat have been adopted at scale, covering more than 60% of the farming area.
  • Between 4.1 and 11.0 million Ethiopian households have been reached by agricultural innovations linked to CGIAR research (i.e. between 35% and 80% of rural households) - including drought resilient crops, improved soil and water conservation practices., with substantial adoption amongst poor households, young and female farmers.

FCDO's Agriculture Research programmes include our major joint research initiatives with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, including work in Cambridge which uses biological nitrogen fixation to sustainably increase yields for small-holder farmers in Africa, and Edinburgh-based research on livestock health.

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