By Prof. Mario Caccamo, CEO, NIAB
Agriculture is hugely important for our region. The East of England, the bread-basket of the country, is a well-deserved moniker. It has embraced larger scale, sustainable and efficient food and farming production and the widespread take-up of technology and new farming methods. The region is also renowned for its strong agri-tech research base; the corridor stretching from Cambridge to Norwich incorporates many of the UK’s leading agricultural science organisations and research universities, plant breeders, and agri-tech companies.
We live in unprecedented times: food production must undergo a transformation in which we need to grow enough nutritious crops for an increasing population while reducing use of synthetic fertilisers and pesticides, increasing the land available for green infrastructure and biodiversity, gradually reducing greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture, and adapting to climate change. All these goals must be achieved without offshoring the associated climate and environmental impacts to other territories. The impact of the current events in Eastern Europe also demonstrates the risks of increasing our dependency on external sources of energy and food.
Evidence-based decisions will need to play a central role to ensure the necessary transformation supports a viable and innovative farming sector. It is right for the East of England to take the lead in addressing these challenges and, in this way, contribute to a better health for our population and a more sustainable future. As explained by Henry Dimbleby in the National Food Strategy, our food systems have taken their current forms over many years, and it will take time and effort to reshape them to protect both our health and our planet.
At NIAB we have developed a scientific strategy that puts these challenges at the centre of what we do. This covers all aspects of farming as well as the introduction of novel varieties, for instance, by growing our capabilities in areas such as legume genetics and biotechnology in particular gene editing and advanced breeding.
Prospects for the future of plant genetic research and innovation in England received a boost recently when, following a public consultation in 2021, Defra announced plans to free up field trial research on gene edited plants, and to bring forward legislation to take most gene edited crops out of the scope of GMO controls.
NIAB has been at the forefront of efforts to persuade Ministers to move away from the EU’s restrictive regulatory approach. In 2020, NIAB brought together a group of leading scientists, many from across this region, to urge the Government to support an amendment to the Agriculture Bill designed to bring our rules into line with other countries around the world. This call from the scientific community was supported by cross-party politicians, farmers, plant breeders, food processors and other agri-food organisations. Experience from the countries that have embraced gene-editing is that, compared to GMOs, the products generated by these technologies follow a much faster rate from laboratory to market, involve a greater diversity of crops and traits, and include a broader range of developers, from public sector research institutes to SMEs and multinationals. This could be a game-changer for the agri-tech industry in the East of England.
NIAB leads the way in the translation of science into practice to benefit growers and supply chains in the UK arable and horticulture sectors. We also have the scientific breadth and track record to respond rapidly to the challenges imposed by climate change. Our core values are shaped by our commitment to independence and integrity. This emphasises NIAB’s leadership role, particularly within the Eastern region, as the ‘go-to’ place for agriculture and horticulture innovation.
There are exciting times ahead for our region!