Farming technologies: challenges and opportunities

Presentation by Sir Mark Walport at the National Farmers Union (NFU) annual conference.

Professor Sir Mark Walport

Thank you very much indeed. It is a pleasure and an honour to be here.

The bottom line of my talk is I think that 21st century farming both deserves and demands 21st century science. I was struck, in the introductory video, that almost all of the topics that were covered are topics that I am going to briefly talk about during my speech, and all of these require the best science, engineering, technology and social science.

If you want to see the importance of science for farming today, then you need go no further than Rothamsted to see the Broadbalk experiment, a unique experiment that has been running continuously since 1843, looking at, for example, the improvement in wheat yields (which have moved from about 1 tonne per hectare to about just under 9 tonnes now). The goal of Rothamsted is to get that to 20 tonnes in 20 years. But it is a fantastic experiment and anyone who doubts the importance of science really needs to go and see that experiment.

My job is to advise the government on all aspects of science, engineering, technology and social science with respect to all areas of government policy. So it is a sort of narrow job in its scope! The question, then, is how to approach that? One way to approach it is through thinking about the things that government cares about. Government broadly cares about 2 things: it cares about the health - the wellbeing, the resilience and the security - of its population, and it cares about the economy. I would submit that farming is extremely important to both of those areas.

When you think about health, wellbeing, resilience and security, a lot of that is about the infrastructure that we take for granted, and we only really recognise the importance of it when it goes wrong. You can divide that infrastructure into the human-built, engineered, technological infrastructure and the natural infrastructure. So human, animal, plant health, the natural environment, climate, weather. Of course, all of that involves science, engineering and technology.

So you can translate that and say the 5 areas that I work in are: how can we translate our knowledge for economic advantage? We have already heard of the enormous importance of farming to the UK economy. Secondly, it is about all those issues of infrastructure resilience, and I will come on to some of the specific areas in relation to land and in relation to plant and animal health. It is about underpinning the best government policy with the best evidence. My job is to provide the evidence. It is the politicians that we all elect who have to turn that into policy. There is an important role for science emergencies, and then there is a role in terms of advocacy and leadership for science.

Now, you might well say there is a lot of stuff that I have to cover that I didn’t learn at medical school, and that, I think, is perfectly true, although what medical school does train you to do is, firstly, to know the importance of evidence in practice. I think that is as equally important for farming as it is for medicine. It also teaches you that you have to make decisions based on the best evidence that you have available, but that often that evidence is incomplete. Of course, the extrapolation from human to animal and plant health is a relatively straightforward one, and indeed, of course, many of the most serious infectious diseases of humans are zoonotic infections, and increasingly we need to look at animal and human (and indeed plant) health all as being part of the same nexus of problems. And, of course, human health is vitally dependent on our food and on our water. So everything you do is absolutely crucial to our health, wellbeing, security and resilience.

But part of my job is to find the right experts. So, faced with challenges, what I do is I find the best scientific advice and I look across the network of chief scientists and across governments. Of course Ian Boyd is the Chief Scientist at Defra, and between us we have a broad array of scientific skills. Then I look to the learned academies, the Royal Societies, the Royal Academy of Engineering, the British Academy and the Academy of Medical Sciences. Then I look to scientists, engineers and technologists outside government in both academia and industry. The great privilege of being able to provide advice to government is that people are generous in both their time and their expertise, and, forgive the pun, but my job is to encourage cross-silo thinking. It is actually to bring together experts from different domains, to bring the connections between different areas of science and to challenge existing ideas. Some of the illustrations at the bottom show the topics I will cover over the next few minutes.

Now, the UK is unique in its depth of scientific advice in government. I think only America comes close to the depth and extent of scientific advice across government. This is very powerful when emergencies arise. I sometimes somewhat meaningfully refer to my predecessor’s enormous impact, actually. He had to deal with ‘ashes to ashes’, the emergency of ash emerging from a volcano in Iceland and what that meant in terms of whether planes could fly through or near the ash cloud. Towards the end of his time he had to deal with another ash, ash dieback, and the problem of the fungus chalara fraxinea.

I thought my role might therefore be ‘dust to dust’, but of course it turned out to be somewhat watery in the beginning and we have already seen the tragic consequences of what, frankly, is extremes of weather. We have seen more rain in the last 3 months, particularly in the south, than has been recorded in records in the UK. It is an enormous amount of rain that has fallen.

The first of my substantive scientific points that I want to make - and I want to make it in respect of this and also in respect of bovine tuberculosis - is that complicated problems have complicated solutions. There isn’t a single magic bullet that will deal with the issue of flooding, and nor is there a single magic bullet that will deal with the issue of bovine tuberculosis.

So, of course, there has been a lot of focus on dredging. Dredging is an important part of managing rivers, but one also has to look at the whole hydrological cycle from the rain that comes down through to the catchment area, through to the rivers, the issues of groundwater, of surface water, all the way down. In the Somerset levels, of course, the tidal in-reach is enormously long. These are very, very, very shallow drops. The Parrett drops only a few centimetres in every mile.

So the scientific solutions require systems-wide analysis and there is not a single policy solution for any of them. The 1 thing I would say, and I am still relatively new in my job (I have been doing it for just about a year), is that I have been extraordinarily impressed by the hard work, the dedication of officials working in the Met Office (the forecasting has been remarkably accurate, actually), in the Environment Agency (who have been working unbelievably hard throughout all of this), in Defra, and COBR has been meeting regularly. One of my jobs is to chair a committee called SAGE. It is one of the better acronyms in government, I think. It stands for Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, and I think there has been a very coordinated response to very extreme weather events. However powerful we are, Canute learnt that there are limits to what humans can do against the forces of nature.

So picking up some of the challenges that face UK farming, there is the whole issue of the confidence in food supply and the issue of food security, which I will come back to. I will say more about this in a minute: there is the challenge of bovine tuberculosis. There is the challenge of crop protection, the challenge of withdrawal of pesticides, a lot of important issues, and science is crucial to all of them.

One of the things that we are seeing, and this is some work that is being done at FERA outside York at the moment, is increased work on the provenance of food. This is work very much at the research stage, it is a little way from application, but increasingly we are going to be able to do much better scientific work to identify the provenance of foodstuffs. So by looking at the different stable isotopes, so deuterium in water, looking at carbon 13, looking at 15 nitrogen, one can look at the composition of foodstuffs, and the staple isotopes that they inject in different parts of the world in different proportions will start telling you potentially where that food has come from, where the animal lived, the sort of food it had, the environment it was in. So there is an enormous amount of work on food provenance. Indeed, of course, in terms of food contamination, the ability to detect very small amounts of species that shouldn’t be there, for example, in beef products, is because of the power of DNA technology, which means that it is now possible to identify contamination at very, very high levels but also at extremely low levels. So the tools that we have to identify where food has come from and learn much more about it are very powerful, and I think we can expect to see an explosion in this technology over the next few years.

We come to bovine tuberculosis. I am familiar with tuberculosis from my clinical practice. It is a difficult organism. It is difficult to diagnose in humans and we don’t have perfect vaccines for humans. The same applies, of course, in animal populations as well. But the challenge is, again, that there is not a single policy measure that is going to sort out bovine tuberculosis. The principles, I think, are very straightforward. We need to reduce its transmission. We need to reduce its transmission from one cow to another cow. We need to reduce its transmission from one species to another species, so from cows to badgers or from badgers to cows. We need to reduce its transmission within badgers, but we don’t have all of the tools to do that.

So there is a research agenda, but also we are all going to have to work together. The strategy document that came out from Defra in the middle of last year sets out that range of measures, and there is not a single answer. We have to use all of the measures that are available if we are going to turn around and control this important disease. The truth is that we don’t, as I say, have perfect vaccines for humans, and we are quite a long way off perfect vaccines in animals as well. So the idea would be to have an oral vaccine in badgers, one that is therefore much easier to administer than an injected vaccine. Vaccines for cattle population: again, we are using largely variants of the human vaccines.

So my first scientific message I think is that complex problems do demand complex solutions and they also demand ongoing research, and we are going to have to adapt our control measures as we learn more.

My second scientific message is that I think it is important that in conversations about hazardous substances we distinguish between ‘hazard’ and ‘risk’. That is 1 of the issues that has bedevilled the discussion about pesticides, and in particular insecticides. I think everyone here is familiar with the fact that we live in a world surrounded by hazards. Farms are full of hazardous things: tractors, sharp instruments. Kitchens are full of hazardous things: knives, bleach, all sorts of toxic things. We manage those hazards by reducing the exposure. Risk is not the same as hazard. Risk is the product of hazard x exposure. I think that is where we have a challenge with regulation, because sometimes things are regulated as to whether they are hazardous rather than whether they are risky.

The real challenge in terms of pesticides is whether the risk to the species that you do not want to kill is where there is sufficient exposure that it causes a risk. So the question with the neonicotinoid pesticides is not whether they are hazardous to insects other than the insect pests that you want to control, because of course they are as they are designed as insecticides. The question is whether, under the field conditions in which you use them, according to the manufacturer’s instructions and the regulated environment, the exposure of the insects that you don’t want to harm is excessive and therefore causes injury to them. The truth is that we don’t know the answers fully, but the evidence, as it were, in 2013 for neonicotinoids, introduced in 1993, in the view of the UK government was not sufficient in order to justify the moratorium that has been introduced. So I think it is very important that we distinguish between risk and hazard.

Looking at future challenges to UK farming, George [Freeman] has already set out some of these. There is the whole challenge of increasing population and reducing land. That is not just a UK phenomenon; it is a global phenomenon. There is the challenge of price volatility, and I will say a bit more about insecurity in a moment. There is always the challenge of climate change and some of the extremes of weather that will be associated with climate change. There is the challenge of balancing that natural environment, our biodiversity, our ecosystems, together with our need for food production. Then there is the UK and European competitive environment, and I have already raised that around the issue of, for example, pesticides.

Now, social science is important in all of this as well. I think there is a challenge with public dialogue a round food security because all of us go into shops around the UK and we see shelves brimming with food from almost every continent on the planet. It is not well recognised that there are issues with food security - George has discussed this - and the challenge is an expanding global population with a reduction in the amount of arable land per capita of the world’s population. So we do need to sustainably intensify our agriculture.

Climate change: there is a lot of discussion about that at the moment. It is absolutely clear that as the climate changes around the world (and the impact will be different in different parts of the world at different times) the long-term effect will be that the crops as we know them will become increasingly hard to grow and we will need to develop new and more effective strains, as well as doing everything that we can to limit, to mitigate and to adapt to climate change, because otherwise we will all suffer.

The science itself: I am not going to say a lot about that now because George has introduced the agri-tech strategy. I am very struck, coming from the world of the life sciences, that there has been an industry strategy for UK life sciences for quite a long time. Inevitably, in a way, there has been an enormous amount of investment in R&D and human health, and in fact the organisation I came from, the Wellcome Trust, actually invested in research in both animal and human health so there is an enormous amount of activity. We have to take advantage, in the world of agriculture, in the big data revolution, which is why the Informatics Institute is so important. There’s the 100,000 Genome Project and the Dementia Challenge from the Prime Minister. We now have to make the most of the UK’s first ever agri-tech strategy.

To deal with another non-contentious issue, which is genetically modified organisms, my point here - and this is the third of my substantive scientific points, really - is that we must stop talking about technologies generically. The question is not actually whether GMOs are a good thing or a bad thing; the question actually is what gene, what organism, for what purpose? With all technologies, it is not whether a technology is intrinsically a good thing or a bad thing, because most technologies can be used for good or for evil. What we have to do is to capture the benefits of the technologies. I am very struck that if you take most of the agricultural products that you produce now, they have been enormously genetically modified by humans over many thousands of years in, frankly, almost an uncontrolled way. If you look at corn, for example, and if you look at teosinte, which it came from, then you will find that the genome has been duplicated and there are thousands if not millions of genetic changes, and we then say that is fine and that is safe, and indeed it is safe. Then we think, well, okay, we changed 1 gene in 1 place in a controlled way and that is somehow unsafe.

We have to have, I think, a much more sophisticated discussion and recognise that the issue for genetically modified organisms is not whether they are universally a good thing, but whether modifying a specific plant in a specific way for a specific purpose, doing it in a controlled way and monitoring it, is a sensible thing to do. Again, I don’t think this is an audience that will need a lot of persuasion of the benefits potentially to agriculture of blight-resistant potatoes which have been developed recently by scientists in the UK.

One of the challenges - and I will finish in just a moment - is that we all look at issues through different lenses. Sometimes we are actually talking at cross-purposes with each other. So here is an example of an issue looked at through different lenses, and these are different sources of the evidence. So in a questionnaire from a public attitudes tracker, about 25% of respondents were concerned about the use of pesticides in growing food. But on the other hand, if you look at it through the lens of crop production, then the use of crop protection products is important and increases crop productivity by anything from 20% to 50%, or even more.

If you look at it solely as are pesticides potentially harmful, you get a different answer from if you are worrying about crop productivity. Then, of course, there are major issues with pollinating insects and we should not neglect those. These are important. Your livelihoods, our lives in general, are enriched by the pollinators that our plants need, and there are significant colony losses, but I think everyone would agree that the reason for pollinating losses is, again, very complicated. There are many factors involved and there is not a single magic bullet that will actually solve the problem of pollinating insects. We have to do lots of different things. We need much more integrated strategies.

So really to finish off, looking at the importance of science, I hope I have persuaded you, and in fact I hope you needed no persuasion, of the importance of science, engineering, technology and social science in farming, but we need to use all those tools. We need to achieve the technology transfer, get products that have potential from the laboratory into the farm, into food. We need to have that public dialogue. We need to work globally, because many of these challenges are global challenges and I am afraid diseases do not care about national boundaries. They may be impeded by geographical boundaries but they are not interested in anything else.

So, in conclusion, my job is to try and analyse the evidence base, get the best advice, bring it into government. The economic importance of the agricultural industry is obvious and very important. We really have to move to looking at health issues in a much more integrated way, and we do need to work together between industry, farming and research in general.

Thank you for your attention.

Published 13 March 2014