AFCP Trustee Ian Munnery gives a personal reflection on our latest seminar in Cambridge.

Needs, wants and vision?

Where is the vision?

Listening to the excellent presentations and talking with attendees at the recent AFCP seminar on Research in Action; Need, Funding and Outcomes it was reassuring to see the breadth of activity on soil structure and health that has been supported by agricultural charities including AFCP.

However, whilst it is often cited that you should invest in land because we’re not making any more of it, we need to think a little more holistically if we want to sustain UK agriculture and address the ‘elephant in the room’ – food security?

Food security hit the headlines in 2021 during Covid-19 but was swiftly forgotten. Sadly, the over-riding memory of lockdown will be toilet rolls, Matt Hancock and parties at No 10.  Similarly, on 24th February 2021 the war in Ukraine highlighted the precarious state of worldwide food supplies, not just oilseeds and grains but the collateral impact on gas and subsequently fertiliser prices.

 Roll forward to February 2023 and the rationing of tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers led to many news bulletins; but the urgency and importance of defining a longer term vision for sustaining UK food production seems consistently overlooked.

On a positive note, next month the House of Lords Committee inquiry starts into the Horticulture Sector including a topic on funding for science, research and development - whilst also addressing labour shortages, production costs and the loss of extensions of authorisation for minor use of crop protection products that underpins production.

Needs and wants

Climate change is making production more precarious, as witnessed by record UK temperatures in 2022, but so too is a realisation in some areas of Government that food production is politically and economically critical.  What is surprising is why the level of investment to mitigate such risks has barely changed whilst the urgency, extent and severity of threats has been amplified?  Yields for many crops are claimed to have flatlined, despite all the effort to improve productivity.

I tried to explain this to non-farming friends whose knowledge has progressed a little after watching Clarkson’s Farm. Growers, plant breeders and agronomists are madly treading water to keep many crops afloat against a rising tide of pest, weed and disease threats which have historically been kept in check by crop protection products.

Availability of crop protection products is dwindling as the European Union policy aims to halve use of all pesticide by 50% by 2030, an approach which appears to be mirrored within the UK.  Such an approach needs to consider three things;

 1 – will the environment be kind?  Recent evidence of extreme climate events shows that stability will not be on the agenda for weeds, pests and diseases.

2 – breeding/engineering/technology will adapt to fill the void? This was the vision of Agri-Tech initiative launched a decade ago in 2013, yet research, development and introduction remains slow. Even the promise of the precision breeding bill in England will need to see many smaller, fragmented crops or markets sustained in the interim.

3 – will these issues be compounded and amplified when we reduce choice of cropping, variety or chemistry across a whole rotation?  Effectively making the transition even more challenging.

Historically the interaction between Genetics, Environment and Management or G x E x M was used to define output. This was relatively predictable; but as all three vary more frequently and to a greater extreme then we need a step change in research investment if we are to cope.

AFCP seminar

AFCP Event 1 adj.jpg
AFCP Seminar

This was one of the core reasons for the AFCP seminar hosted at NIAB. 

When you look at how soils function; how they interact with crops and their environment it is likely that the challenges will be more numerous and frequent.  The presentation by George Crane of Yara Growth Ventures on cover cropping, soil structure and arbuscular mycorrhizal symbiosis pointed to the need for long term responses assessed over decades, not one or two seasons. 

The presentation from Ana Prada Barrio of Harper Adams on controlled traffic, tyre pressure and tillage systems sponsored by the Douglas Bomford Trust, The Morley Agricultural Foundation and Harper Adams University built on this. It showed the complexity of cover crops interacting with soil structure and farm practice including controlled traffic over time. Even though in its 9th season, the initial conclusion that there was no significant difference in crop yield between treatments highlighted the likelihood that we need to be looking at a much longer perspective to draw conclusions. 

When the Broadbalk trial was established in 1843 at Rothamsted the founding fathers understood that Agricultural Research is a vital investment for the future. The need to optimise use of fertilisers or resources to sustain production and a growing population remains unchanged, 180 years later.

Similarly, Edwin Jarratt Barnham’s of the Cambridge Crop Science Centre presentation on nutrient regulation in arbuscular mycorrhizal symbiosis started with a reminder from Sri Lanka about the flawed attempt to ban fertiliser use in 2021 – hobbling their food industry with a 50% yield reduction.  Excessive fertiliser use will gain more pressure for regulation globally due to environmental impacts, and because it is economically beyond the reach of many farmers and supply depends on a limited number of manufacturers.  Phosphate sources are likely to be the most urgent, as it is widely predicted supply will peak in the coming decades.

So, in conclusion, the challenge as ever is to reconcile the needs and wants of the United Kingdom with a vision to deliver food security whilst addressing the risk of displacing food production and with it the UK industry’s high standards overseas.