Bledisloe Memorial Lecture 2013 on science, technology and agriculture

David Willetts gave the Royal Agricultural University 2013 Bledisloe Lecture on the important role of science and technology in agriculture.

I am delighted to be here today, at the newly named Royal Agricultural University. The name may be new, but the institution goes back to 1845. It has been known for many decades for its excellent teaching, research, and links with the agricultural industry. Previously, it was held back by a pointless rule that institutions with fewer than 4,000 students could not become universities. This government changed that. Now institutions are given university status based on quality rather than size. The new title is recognition of your strong performance, and I know that it means a lot to your students, staff and commercial partners.

I feel privileged to be giving a lecture named after one of your most illustrious alumni, Viscount Bledisloe, the former Governor General of New Zealand. Bledisloe is in good company. The Royal Agricultural University has a rich variety of alumni. Household names include Sir Henry Cecil, the legendary racehorse trainer, and the broadcaster and countryside campaigner Jonathan Dimbleby. But the university has been the launch pad for many interesting careers.

Joe Henson, founder of the Cotswold Farm Park and responsible for saving scores of rare breeds in the early days of the Rare Breeds Survival Trust, studied here. As did Tim Hadaway, who co-ordinated the equestrian side of the Olympics at Greenwich Park. And those brilliant equine events were commentated by another RAU old boy, the BBC’s Mike Tucker.

As one would expect from a university which currently has students from 40 countries, you have impressive alumni overseas too. In Zimbabwe, Ben Freeth, a graduate of the class of 1990, has been inspirational in his campaign for justice for farmers. In Kenya, flowers are now the second biggest export after tea, and RAU graduate Hamish Kerr directs production at Kenya’s largest flower farm. The farm produces 400 million flowers a year, but is entirely self-sufficient when it comes to power, using geothermal energy.

This sort of excitingly innovative practice will be driven forward by the RAU’s new rural centre of excellence on its Cirencester farm. It will enable sharing of knowledge and ideas between those at the front end of agricultural production and applied researchers. This epitomises modern farming as it should be, transferring cutting edge knowledge into the field. And this is exactly the sort of thing we want to embrace with our new agri-tech strategy, and the theme of my lecture today.

Learning from history

Before we look to the future, it is important to learn lessons from the past. In agri-science we can learn 3 important lessons from recent history.

The first key lesson comes from the Rothschild review in 1971, which marked a serious turning point for agricultural R&D. The review was set up to examine the most effective arrangements for organising and supporting pure and applied research. Rothschild was an eminent biologist himself, but he was determined that the Haldane principle should not prevent government from dictating R&D priorities. He said in his report: “The country’s needs are not so trivial as to be left to the mercies of a form of scientific roulette”.

To guard against this he made a clear distinction between how pure and applied research should be treated. “Applied research, that is R&D with a practical application as its objective, must be done on a customer-contractor basis. The customer says what he wants; the contractor does it…and the customer pays.” The government welcomed his recommendation that applied research should be commissioned by the government (the customer) according to this model. And, as in other disciplines, a big chunk of the Agricultural Research Council’s funding was transferred from the Agricultural Research Council to the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, resulting in a loss of funding for translational and applied research.

This was reinforced by the second historical trend. Progressive reductions in the MAFF and Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs budgets and successive cuts to research institutes left us with strong upstream pure research, but drastically weakened at the downstream development end. The argument was that near market work shouldn’t be done in the public sector, and intermediate research institutes should be privatised. Hence in 1987, the Plant Breeding Institute was sold to Unilever. Some key teams were transferred to the John Innes Centre, but nonetheless this resulted in the loss of key public plant breeding facilities and programmes. PBI was later sold by Unilever to Monsanto, which subsequently closed the site.

Meanwhile, students regarded production agriculture as unfashionable, and vice chancellors saw it as expensive, so some universities opted to dispose of research farms and close schools of agriculture in the 70s and 80s, weakening our agri-tech base further.

Of course, those were the days of wine lakes and butter mountains, so it would have been tougher to justify funding for agricultural research politically. But agri-science and food security is a long term investment, and the intellectual choices made then were grievously misjudged in retrospect.

And this leads us to the third vital historical lesson, we invest in R&D now to save later.

Foot and mouth disease is a striking case study of the dangers of taking a short term view on research investment. Money was taken out of FMD in 1976 after the previous outbreak. Yet these outbreaks are never one-offs. We had another, catastrophic outbreak in 2001. It cost the economy a staggering £8.4 billion and even delayed the general election.

However, maintaining funding will ensure research into FMD keeps us at the forefront of technological advances helping to further support the response to future outbreaks both in UK and worldwide.

And R&D on vaccines, diagnostics and molecular epidemiology supporting this has moved on considerably. UK researchers have used the Diamond Light Source to develop a new vaccine which could be used in the UK and elsewhere, preventing costly outbreaks. This uses a synthetic virus rather than live samples, making it much safer and easier to produce. Researchers will also benefit from the substantial BIS capital investment being made at the Pirbright Institute, totalling some £250 million, for new facilities. Construction of the first phase will be completed by early 2014.

Bluetongue is a more positive tale. We kept investing in important research at Pirbright and that, coupled with close collaboration and development by industry and financial support from Defra, meant that when it surfaced in 2007 it didn’t devastate. The costs of uncontrolled disease have been estimated at £485 million. By contrast Dutch losses were estimated at €175 million. It is this partnership between the research base, business and government that I believe to be so important and which I will discuss later in relation to our agri-tech strategy.

Bluetongue defence has now taken another step forward thanks to Professor Polly Roy of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, whose team has assembled the virus in a test tube for the first time. Their new synthetic biology approach could provide scientists with the tools to develop vaccines with useful new properties like markers to distinguish between vaccinated and infected animals. Professor Roy is now testing a new reverse-genetics based vaccine. Early trials suggest that it provides good protection against even the most virulent strains of the virus.

Investment in R&D

This government is acting on all 3 of these historical lessons. We are rebuilding links between upstream research and downstream applications. We are protecting important research institutes. And we are maintaining a crucial long term investment in R&D. I will talk briefly about each of these in turn.

First, we recognise that if we are to drive innovation and grow our economy we need to do more to promote links between research and industry. This government has invested over £200 million so far in Catapults, elite centres bringing industry and researchers together to bring emerging technologies to market in big growth areas. We have leveraged nearly £1.2 billion to date through our new Research Partnership Innovation Fund, which rewards universities for partnering with industry. And we have committed at least £100 million a year more for 2015 to 2016 and 2016 to 2017. We have introduced the Catalyst fund to link up research councils with the Technology Strategy Board. We have invested £250 million in catalysts thus far with more to come. And we have R&D tax credits to encourage business to invest in research.

Secondly, because we have learned from the earlier rush to privatise, this government has established new guidelines for use when reviewing the future business model of public sector research establishments. At a time of great pressure to control spending I was concerned that these decisions should not be made in isolation, nor on the view of the sponsoring body alone. The government has put in place new guidance to be applied when an institute is being reviewed. It is based on expert advice from the Manchester Institute of Innovation Research. Departments must consider:

  • the institute’s policy, regulatory and emergency response roles
  • its special scientific and technical capabilities, facilities and resources
  • its broader economic role regionally, nationally and internationally

Taking into account these factors should lead us to make better long term decisions about the future of organisations that make an important contribution to UK science capability and drive our innovation.

And thirdly, it is because we understand the importance of maintaining investment in basic research that our £4.6 billion ringfenced annual science budget continues to be protected.

Investment in agri-science

Let me now turn to agriculture as an example of this.

Today, we face some massive challenges to our food supply chain. We expect the population to grow from 7 to 9 billion by 2050 and the demand for food to double. Together with climate change and other environmental threats, achieving sufficient yields will be even more challenging. Low productivity is a huge challenge for Britain. Sustainable intensification is the answer. And this is where our agri-tech strategy comes in.

We believe that we have all the right ingredients: excellent farmers, a world class science base in many agricultural disciplines and a thriving food industry through manufacturing supply chain and retail.

Our new agri-tech strategy sets out a vision for the UK to regain its world-leading role in the race for better, more efficient and more sustainable agricultural production.

Again, the first important step is rebuilding the connection between basic research and applied science, so that our farmers can access the best agri-tech expertise and use innovative techniques. On the 9th October we launched a £70 million Agri-Tech Catalyst. This will help new agricultural technologies bridge the so-called valley of death between the lab and the marketplace. Designed to attract co-investment from industry, the catalyst will target SMEs as well as larger companies. It is being run by the TSB, who are now inviting bids for round 1. The TSB also launched new innovation vouchers last year with a special remit to target SMEs in the agriculture.

Secondly, the government has committed to invest £90 million over 5 years to establish a small number of Centres for Agricultural Innovation to support advances in sustainable intensification. These centres will rebuild the applied research capacity and links with industry that was reduced in the past. In the strategy, we announced that the first of these centres would be in Agricultural Informatics and Metrics of Sustainability, to which we have committed up to £10 million. This centre will develop UK expertise and become a global hub of excellence.

And thirdly, we understand the importance of investing in agri-science. In 2011 to 2012 the government invested £450 million in R&D on agriculture and food.


We led the world in both the agricultural revolution and the industrial revolution. Now we are living with the consequences of disengaging in R&D in agri-engineering when farmers import thousands of Romanian labourers rather than using a machine to pick lettuces or cauliflower.

Pulling out of R&D and allowing in cheap labour through the Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme was doing things entirely the wrong way round.

However, there are signs that we are starting to regain our leadership in this area. G’s, one of the UK’s largest producers of salad, led the way when they designed their own in-field packing machinery. Buy a bag of their lettuce in Tescos and it will have been harvested, sealed in its packaging and even given a 2-for-1 sticker in the middle of a field. Many others have now followed suit. Machinery for picking and selecting delicate produce like this is what researchers are working on now. It is easier to do this in a lab or a factory of course; in a field, at the mercy of the British weather, there are a lot of variables to engineer out.

But if we can build a car through robotics, picking strawberries or an iceberg lettuce mechanically should not be beyond the realms of possibility.

At least 70% of all new farm equipment sold today has some sort of precision farming component inside, sat nav for tractors is now an everyday concept, and state of the art combine harvesters have up to 8 computers on board. New technology will continue to improve yields, reduce cost and protect the environment, delivering all-important sustainable intensification.

Former Silsoe researcher Tim Chamen is leading the way on ‘controlled traffic farming’. This uses satellite technology to create permanent tractor wheel marks in a field. Research shows that three-quarters of a typical field is driven over in a year, causing considerable damage. Ensuring all vehicles use the same tracks cuts this down to less than a quarter.

And automatic wind control systems installed on spreaders measure the weather and adjust the angle and speed to stop fertiliser blowing off course. Again this about sustainable intensification. It delivers more cost effective spraying, with better results, at less cost to the environment. Meanwhile new fleet management software means different harvesting machines can talk to each other and farmers can manage harvest with real precision, reducing travel distance and fuel and cutting costs.

But engineering isn’t only important for arable farming. Temperature and ventilation control in pig and poultry farming goes back to the 1950s.

The UK now has companies such as Fullwood and Delaval manufacturing cutting edge robotic milkers, which use novel sensors to milk the cow when it wants to be milked. This is good for welfare as well as increasing yield by at least 10%. The robot unit can identify cows and ensure they have the right amount of food too. Looking to the future, biosensors in particular have huge potential to improve livestock health and wellbeing.


There are numerous exciting examples of how agri-tech can change our world. Rothamsted is pushing the boundaries on how granular records of growth could improve crop production in the future. They are developing predictive phenotyping techniques that will enable farmers to predict exactly how a crop will perform based on its genetic make-up. Researchers will use cutting edge technology to monitor every detail of a plant growing in a field; obtaining an understanding of the complex traits linked to growth, yield, and its use of nutrients and water. Rothamsted researchers are also modifying wheat to take advantage of the ability of cotton to photosynthesise at higher temperatures.

Meanwhile, the National Institute of Agricultural Botany has recreated the original rare cross between an ancient wheat and wild grass species that happened in the Middle East 10,000 years ago. The result is a wheat which, when crossed with modern UK varieties, could offer a 30% improvement in yield, as well as drought tolerance and disease resistance.

And last December, 2 young entrepreneurs came together at a Space Solutions ‘Hackathon’ at our Catapult for satellite applications in Harwell. They developed the WeatherSafe Coffee App; an application that alerts Rwandan coffee farmers via their mobiles when temperature or humidity changes mean they need to watch out for disease or pests, based on satellite weather forecasting.

These are the sort of exciting new technologies that will transform agriculture and put Britain firmly back in the lead in the global race.

Genetic modification

However, in pushing forward these new technologies we face 2 major challenges: the confusion of risk and hazard, and excessive regulation.

GM is a case in point. The extreme difficulty of getting any GM crops through Europe is a failure of the regulatory regime. It ignores the fact that GM could bring the world more food.

One of the reasons that GM caused such public anxiety despite the strong scientific case, was that we did not have public scientific agencies involved. This was a consequence of the agricultural restructuring that followed the Rothschild review. If we had retained the Plant Breeding Institute for instance, and their experts had been involved, GM might not have been seen as purely driven by business interest. We had no trusted counter parties. But with strong public research figures involved we might have won the debate.

In contrast, the scientist-led public engagement on the Rothamsted GM wheat trial protest in May last year was perceived to be sensible and balanced and attracted positive media coverage. The Observer and The Times both ran leaders supporting Rothamsted. This shows the importance of scientific input to inform the GM debate, and to secure public trust.

We still have some way to go. At the Cheltenham Science Fair in March, I watched children taking part in a spot the GM plant competition, run by the John Innes Centre. They were shown 6 pea plants in pots, some healthy and others misshapen and small. When asked to identify the ones that had been genetically modified they chose the latter weedy looking ones; when in fact the former healthy ones were GM. This is a reminder that scientists and the government need to work together to keep building on public understanding of GM.

But the GM story is indicative of a wider point. Science and agriculture are not opposed. Science and good food are not opposed. Science is not the enemy. No-one expects modern cars to be made using the techniques of Lord Nuffield, or doctors to use the practices of the 1950s. And in the same vein we should grow food using the very best of modern science. There is no reason why we should preserve the farming techniques of our grandparents.

If we are to meet the 20:20 challenge laid down by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council and Rothamsted; producing 20 tonnes of wheat per hectare in 20 years’ time (now less than 20 years), we will have to use technology.

Recent studies suggest that organic crop yields can be up to 40% lower than conventionally farmed crops, or worse. Europe is in real danger of failing to feed itself. If 1 of the most affluent continents is forced to import from other poorer countries, because of a fantasy about organic farming, that would be highly irresponsible.

We have learned the lessons from the past. Right now we are focusing hard on rebuilding the link between pure and applied research in agriculture, improving engagement and collaboration with industry, and investing in long term R&D. With the right vision and the right people, the UK can regain its world-leading role in the race for better, more efficient and more sustainable agricultural production.