Agriculture and food security in various forms were the main areas of focus during the past week. The agri-food chain (i.e. from farm to fork) contributes about £96Bn to the UK economy and is equivalent to 7% GVA (gross value added). It also provides over 3M jobs.
The UK government recently recognised the importance of the agri-tech sector and published a strategy earlier in the year for the industry. The aim is to ensure that the UK becomes a world leader in agricultural technology, innovation and sustainability both in the UK and globally. I attended my first meeting of the leadership council for the Agri-Tech Strategy whose chair is Judith Batchelar from Sainsbury’s. It will be important going forward that all the key stakeholders work together, including industry, to drive the strategy forward. BBSRC has been very active in this area in the past and the Diet and Health Research Industry Club has been particularly successful and we will continue to play a very active role.
On Tuesday evening there was a reception in the House of Lords for the Global Food Security (GFS) Programme. GFS is led by its Champion Professor Tim Benton, on behalf of the programme partners. GFS brings together the UK’s main funders of food-related research and training, including BBSRC, to address the challenge of feeding the world’s growing population, securing a supply of good quality food from less land and with lower inputs. The event was to launch the refreshed GFS strategy and to engage parliamentarians and policy makers with the Programme. Defra Farming Minister George Eustice used the occasion to announce a £1.87M new funding call, ‘understanding the challenges of the food system’, funded by the ESRC and the FSA.
I had never attended the Times Higher Education Awards before and was amazed to find that over 1,100 people were present. In terms of food, the logistics of getting over a 1,000 dishes all out at the same time, at the same temperature, must be pretty demanding, but every table seemed to be well catered for. David Willets couldn’t attend in person but sent a video (he was in Kazakhstan). Sandy Toksvig gave a very amusing talk before she hosted the awards in a very professional and unpretentious manner. I was incredibly pleased for the IBERS team who won the Outstanding Contribution to Innovation and Technology award for their work on the breeding and development of high sugar grasses.
Of course production of many foods would cease without pollinators and I read this week about a particularly lethal disease of bees called American foulbrood (AFB), which is caused by Paenibacillus larvae. The paper by Mill et al (2013) mined past records to look at the incidence and spread of the disease. It suggests that both the behaviour of bees themselves, moving between colonies to steal honey, and bee-keeping practices could contribute to disease spread. This work is part of the Insect Pollinators Initiative that BBSRC co-funds with Defra, NERC and others. The good news for the bees though is that practices to eradicate the disease once it is present do seem to work!