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Agriculture and research

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IT would be hard to disagree with the sentiments expressed in a campaign launched by the National Farmers' Union (nfu) last week, or fail to be impressed by the timing of its initiative. The nfu's ‘Why science matters for farming’ campaign comes at a time when concern about food security and how to meet future world food demands is undergoing a resurgence, and when concern about climate change and protecting the environment dictates that production will have to be increased in a sustainable way. As the nfu states, ‘In the 21st century farmers and growers will need to produce more food efficiently and safely, meet market demands, optimise the use of inputs, minimise environmental impact and provide positive environmental goods and services — all at the same time.’ Science, potentially, can provide solutions — but to do so it needs to be undertaken in the first place and then applied appropriately and translated into practice on the ground. The main thrust of its campaign is that funding for agricultural research and development (r&d) in the uk has declined significantly in recent decades, and this must be reversed. ‘It is dangerous to allow the current trend of funding cuts to continue and not to address the impact it is already having on the number of scientists in this sector,’ the nfu says. ‘Research cannot simply be switched on again once it has fallen below critical capacity.’

A report published as part of its campaign paints a depressing picture of how funding for agricultural r&d in the uk has declined over the years, noting that while government funding for science overall has increased over the past decade, ‘the trend in funding for strategic and applied agricultural research has been moving in precisely the opposite direction’. It notes that some research institutes have vanished and others have merged and that ‘In real terms, government science investment via maff (now defra) fell by 45 per cent between 1986 and 1998.’ Applied science and the research and resources necessary to translate science into practice have, it says, been ‘particularly badly hit’.

The problem has arisen as successive governments have taken the view that the level and efficiency of uk food production was no longer a prime national concern, although in the light of a recent defra discussion paper on food security, there are signs that this might be changing (see VR, September 27, 2008, vol 163, p 373). The nfu points out that, as well as its contribution to food security, the farming sector delivers many other ‘public goods’, including management of the countryside and the quality of the rural environment, so there is a clear logic to investing in its scientific base.

‘Public good’ considerations are relevant to the current debate on responsibility and cost sharing which, as defra juggles with shrinking budgets, has worrying implications for research. The dangers were illustrated in a report earlier this year on funding, governance and risk management at the Institute for Animal Health (iah) following the escape of foot-and-mouth disease virus from the research site at Pirbright which led to last year's fmd outbreak. Like other reports on the outbreak, the report, undertaken by a group chaired by Professor Sir John Beringer, indicated how long-term underinvestment at Pirbright may have contributed to the escape of the virus. However, it also drew attention to the disturbing possibility that, as the Government pursues its agenda on responsibility and cost sharing, a funding vacuum could develop in which investment in animal disease research at Pirbright and other institutes could be reduced even further (see VR, May 24, 2008, vol 162, p 665). There can be no sense in letting this happen, and it remains vitally important that the public interest in animal disease research is recognised and that relevant work and the facilities that are needed to undertake it are funded accordingly.

The nfu describes a number of instances where animal disease research has been of benefit or where more work is needed, discussing footrot in sheep, bluetongue, bovine tuberculosis, and mastitis and milk production in dairy cows, among other examples. Key aims of its campaign are to address ‘the balance of government policies for agriculture and research between environment and productivity’, and ‘the level and focus of funding for research’. It believes it is time for ‘a genuine policy shift in agricultural science funding away from the sole focus on the environment, and towards recognising that production efficiency is a justified and essential endpoint for research’. With the world's population expected to grow from seven billion to nine billion by 2050, and demand for animal protein expected to rise by 50 per cent by 2020, improving production efficiency will undoubtedly be necessary, but it needs to be done in a sustainable way. Research aimed at making agriculture more efficient, not least by reducing the impact of animal diseases, will be vital, but it needs to be seen as an essential part of, and not as an alternative to, measures aimed at protecting the environment.

Although the nfu's campaign is primarily concerned with the situation in the uk, the international dimension cannot be ignored. In a keynote address at an fao ceremony to mark World Food Day on October 16, Egypt's First Lady, Suzanne Mubarak, noted how world governments had just raised billions of dollars in record time to salvage the financial markets and suggested that the world food crisis merited a similar response. At a time when the Government is prepared to spend billions of pounds on propping up the banking system, it might usefully look just a little further into the future and consider increasing its investment in agricultural research.

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