Farming needs to do more on science

Farming must work harder on the uptake of scientific innovation, says Government Chief Science Adviser Sir Mark Walport 

 Sir Mark Walport

See more photos from the House of Lords Luncheon here

The Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser, Sir Mark Walport, delivered a powerful address and fielded a wide range of questions at the Farmers Club’s annual House of Lords Luncheon, hosted by His Grace the Duke of Montrose  

His talk was particularly poignant given the Club’s theme throughout 2016 of science and technology transforming farming, noted Club Chairman Richard Butler. 

Sir Mark hoped science would be at the heart of farming, but took issue with claim that farming was a technologically driven powerhouse of rural communities.  

Since the 1840s, when the Farmers Club was being formed, agricultural science had achieved much, he noted. The world famous Broadbalk experiment was established at Rothamsted, growing wheat under different management regimes on the same plot of land ever since.   

In the absence of fertiliser wheat was yielding 1t/ha in the 1840s, which was doubled by adding nutrients. By 2014, thanks to short-strawed varieties, fertiliser, herbicides and fungicides, contemporary variety Crusoe delivered 13t/ha in the same trial.   

Sir Mark commended the industry for its interest in science, noting that the creation of the new Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy created an important time for science, engineering and technology. “They are at the heart of it, because everywhere we look we see them transforming industries.”    

The challenge would be how to strike the right balance. “How are we going to feed our population a healthy and tasty diet, which is affordable and sustainable? How are we going to balance the use of our land for farming, recreation and the built environment? What will we grow – animals, crops for food, or crops for bio-fuel? How will we manage the trade-offs between farming and the maintenance of vital biodiversity – bees versus flea beetles, badgers versus cattle? How will we reduce the carbon footprint and the energy demands of farming? How can we reduce our demands on increasingly precious water resources?”   

Adopting a scientific approach was crucial, and the huge data sets flowing from information technology would help greatly, he said. Indeed, technological advances could deliver the “win-win” of increased production, lower input costs and greater sustainability.   

Plant and animal science was advancing at an extraordinary pace, with genomics and more precise performance monitoring helping greatly. The UK was at the forefront of this technology. But it was not at the global forefront of applying those advances, at scale, in the field, within the UK, he asserted  

“These technologies need applying effectively, which is where farming differs from medicine,” he suggested. Both depended upon the application of the best evidence, to achieve the best outcomes. But the transmission mechanisms around new advances were much stronger in medicine than in farming. “There is in the farming world no equivalent of the National Institute for Clinical Excellence, and no systematic equivalent of what are known as the Cochrane Reviews, the rigorous overviews of new medicine,” he said  

He extolled the virtues of rigorous evidence reviews, noting their potentially valuable role in policy formation, around neonicotinoid insecticides and bovine TB, for example  

The job of the science adviser was easy compared with that of the policy-maker, he added. The latter had to consider the known evidence, in the light of its deliverability, and in the context of human values, be they personal, religious, political or the perceived values of the electorate. “Science is an integral part of the story, but it is very rarely the whole story.”   

That helped explain why policy-makers had such a hard time in farming, where there were so many competing interests. Land use, in a relatively small island, is keenly contested. Sit is not surprising that neonicotinoid use at a time of global bee and insect decline is strongly contested. Similarly, it is no surprise that badger culling at a time of environmental awareness excited by extraordinary images from Planet Earth 2 and live images from Autumn Watch becomes an emotive issue.   

What really frustrates me is the conflation of discussions about science, with discussions about human values in respect to the application of that science. It is completely ridiculous to consider GM organisms, for example, as a generic good or a generic evil,” he noted.   

The framing of the discussion was crucial. He felt it appropriate to frame such discussions around the big global challenges of providing food and clean water to 7 billion people; global warming CO2 gas levels up from 280ppm to over 400ppm; water increasingly in the wrong places; waste minimisation; and maximisation of resource productivity. That provides a very different framing compared to a more bucolic vision of small villages and towns  

“My take home message is clear – science, technology, engineering and the social sciences are crucial for the present and future of farming. But we will only gain the maximum benefits of these if they are effectively applied.  

“The statement about farming being the technological powerhouse of rural communities is there for the taking. But it isn’t there quite yet. Science tells us what can be done, but it doesn’t tell us what should be done. That is a discussion for all of us, and ultimately it is for Government and Parliament to decide on these issues. But I think we will only make the best decisions if we have the best evidence and the best discussions.”   

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