Food has been hitting the headlines in the past week or so warning us of shortages in various vegetables – particularly courgettes, iceberg lettuce and peppers – with subsequent jumps in the price of such produce and even rationing by some supermarkets. This example, albeit modest in my book, highlights the fragility of our food supply chains by providing yet another demonstration of how extreme weather events – in this case snow in southern Spain – can impact the supply of food stuffs we take for granted.
While, personally, I embrace the wealth British-grown seasonal vegetables at this time of year (much preferring kale and celeriac over iceberg lettuce) – the fact that we have such a wide choice of food available to us is a privilege. Potentially much more serious are the recent reports from the Global Rust Reference Centre that a highly virulent variant of wheat stem rust, that emerged in Sicily last year, could spread to the rest of Europe, threatening both durum and bread wheat. I have previously written about the danger that fungal pathogens pose to our food supplies and this example further highlights these vulnerabilities and the importance of research to help combat these threats – such as that being carried out by the Norwich Rust Group.
In relation to this, and related to my forward look at the year ahead for BBSRC, colleagues and I have been actively involved in the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund engagement workshops, organised by the Knowledge Transfer Network on behalf of all seven research councils and Innovate UK. I welcomed attendees to the Cardiff workshop and listened with great interest to the roundtable discussions on topics as diverse as manufacturing, materials, healthcare, robotics and transformative digital technologies. Of course I was a particularly interested observer of the discussion of the ‘Bioscience and Biotechnology’ challenge theme. The attendees considering this challenge were drawn from businesses across the sector and so it was illuminating that the two key challenges this group identified were, first, to develop a sustainable and resilient food system and, second, to be the world leader in the Bioeconomy by 2030 – both of which resonate strongly with BBSRC strategic priorities. Obviously this was only one workshop out of eight and there is much work now to be done to synthesise all of the outputs from this consultation to inform initial investments.
Last week brought the very welcome announcement of the appointment of Professor Sir Mark Walport as the first Chief Executive of UK Research and Innovation. Sir Mark is well known to many of us in his role as Government Chief Scientific Adviser and prior to that as Director of the Wellcome Trust. BBSRC colleagues and I worked closely with Sir Mark during the initial phases the UK Animal and Plant Health project, which led to publication of both a capability review (PDF) and high level science strategy (PDF) and which resulted in establishing the UK Animal and Plant Health Partnership. We look forward to working with Sir Mark in the coming weeks and months to ensure we capture the opportunities that formation of UKRI offers research and innovation in the UK.