Global food demand is rising, driven by population growth, increasing affluence and changing diets. The United Nations forecasts that by 2050 global food production will need to increase by 70%.
But crop production is under pressure. Farmers face increasing competition for land and fresh water, while climate change will alter weather patterns and increase pressure from pests and diseases – food supplies may become unreliable.
Agriculture contributes £9 billion to the UK economy. It underpins the UK’s £26 billion food and drink sector which is critical to Yorkshire’s economy: we boast the nation’s largest concentration of food and drinks businesses. In the future our agricultural industry must produce more crops from less land, using less water and energy, all whilst reducing waste and greenhouse gas emissions.
Tackling such food security issues requires a multidisciplinary approach. Leading scientists and business across Yorkshire are collaborating to address the challenge. Indeed, the region’s unusually high concentration of agricultural businesses and intellectual assets fits perfectly with the ‘Smart Specialisation’ approach highlighted in Sir Andrew Witty’s review, “Encouraging a British Invention Revolution”. Government funding is prioritised in line with Witty’s recommendations – Yorkshire is already reaping the benefits.
The BioVale initiative is helping to develop a local burgeoning bio-economy. Led by The University of York, this consortium plans to stimulate interaction between public, private and academic sectors, offering advice, training and purpose-built business facilities for agri-tech R&D.
Building on BioVale’s development, the Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) of Leeds City Region York, North Yorkshire and East Riding recently submitted strategic investment plans to Government which feature BioVale as a key component. Both LEPs expect to receive significant funding to boost innovation in local agricultural business and create jobs.
The White Rose Universities of Leeds, Sheffield and York are advancing agriculture through research and development initiatives in ‘Agri-Science’ – one of the ‘Great Eight Technologies’ in which Britain is a world leader.
Professor Tim Benton from the University of Leeds is the UK Champion for Global Food Security. He leads a programme involving all of the UK’s Research Councils, government departments and public agencies – including the York-based Food and Environment Research Agency – to drive strategically important food security research.
Leeds hosts the Food Security, Nutrition and Sustainable Agriculture Hub. Here scientists work closely with industry to exchange knowledge and drive innovation, especially building on Leeds’ expertise in GM science.
One Leeds based project to improve plant resistance to nematode worms could reduce annual crop losses by a staggering £74 billion globally each year. Leeds researchers have sequenced the genome of a potato nematode and found ways to suppress the worm’s ability to feed, invade and develop. A nematode resistant pineapple in Hawaii and rice and aubergines plants in India are some of the applications of the technology.
Boosting yields is the overarching goal, but there are many approaches. Project Sunshine at the University ofin Sheffield sees world-leading scientists unite to carry out cutting edge research in food and energy sustainability, focusing on six core themes: land resources; crop production and protection; consumer practices; sustainable, healthy diets; agri-food supply chains; and the ethical, legal and political tensions in agri-food ecosystems. As an example, work with the company RAGT Seeds Ltd is developing disease-resistant varieties of wheat. The work will reduce the need for pesticides, saving British farmers £30 million worth of wheat fungicide spray annually.
Meanwhile the Biorenewables Development Centre at York develops novel processes to convert plants and biowaste into commercial products. The Centre offers agricultural businesses funded support and open access facilities. Current projects include a collaboration with Citration Technology Ltd to develop fungi that turn industrial waste into valuable chemicals on a commercial scale. A further collaboration with water and waste treatment company Aqua Enviro Ltd is testing a novel technology for the treatment of waste biomass. Initial results were promising and the company is now looking to Yorkshire scientists for assistance in developing the work further.
These few examples show the diversity of agri-tech research taking place across Yorkshire. However collaboration across our region enhances our scope to develop ground breaking projects. For example, the White Rose University Consortium brought together experts from all three universities to study biodiversity in wheat fields. The idea is to boost agricultural yields whilst preserving local ecosystems. Early results reveal surprising differences between ecosystems even within different areas of the same field.
Within this region world-leading scientists rub shoulders with innovative small businesses and multinational agricultural giants. We have the perfect conditions for germinating a generation of new technologies – modified crops and innovative farming practices that will fuel commercial growth and feed our families. And who knows, perhaps Yorkshire could play a key role in eradicating global hunger too?
UK Agricultural Technologies Strategy
The UK Agricultural Technologies Strategy outlines how agricultural innovation will stimulate commercial opportunities, economic growth and employment. The recently established Agri-Tech Leadership Council will provide a cohesive voice between government, researchers and industry and will oversee the allocation of £160 million to Centres for Agricultural Innovation and Agri-Tech Catalyst projects. The centres and projects will support industry to develop and exploit new technologies. As a global leader in agricultural solutions the UK hopes to increase agricultural and agri-tech exports and attract international investment.