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Towards a progressive food and farming research agenda

Dan Crossley

Our research agenda needs a radical overhaul. Here's how...

Towards a progressive food and farming research agenda

There are enough ‘hockey stick’ graphs – of climate change, biodiversity loss, obesity and other negative products of the current industrial food system – that by now there should have been proper investment in long-term solutions and an appropriate, inclusive, ethical food and farming research agenda. There has not been.

A lot is known about our food and farming systems and their impact on people, animals and the planet. And there is a lot not yet known about them. There is much to celebrate. There is greater concern for farm animal welfare in many parts of the world, there is greater understanding of genetics of both crops and livestock, and better understanding and awareness of the interaction of farming and the environment. There is also much to be deeply concerned about – the endemic exploitation, wastefulness, unsustainability, unfairness, self-interest and short-termism.

Much food and farming research is arguably supporting the current industrial food and farming systems quite satisfactorily. However, flaws in the current systems mean they are too often asking for research that delivers for private gain, rather than public good. The scientific quality of UK food and farming research is recognised to be high, but the issue is what is researched and how the use of its products are regulated.

The ‘status quo’ industrial research paradigm suffers from too often having a narrow agenda, undue corporate influence, opaqueness and too much emphasis on immediacy, rather than supporting long-term approaches. It is also often based on questionable underlying assumptions, such as ‘food production has to increase by 70% by 2050’ and similar statements that are often recited without question. Those driving the research and industrial innovation agendas are too often operating without addressing fundamental ethical questions about the wider purpose of the research and what its social and environmental implications are.

It is of course easy to criticise the ‘status quo’, in whatever walk of life. Perhaps more useful is to set out what is needed. To pick out a few from a long list, a progressive research agenda needs:

·       Serious investment in transformational research that benefits the world’s main food producers (particularly smallholders), citizens, animals, the environment and future generations – in the UK’s international research footprint and at home.

·       Radical transparency – including from the UKRI on funding sources, potential conflicts of interest, agenda setting processes and underlying assumptions behind any research.

·       A genuinely inclusive approach – including farmer-led and community-led research, not simply that imposed from industrial food systems.

·       The products and intellectual content, and their derivatives, of (especially) publicly-funded food and agricultural research to be kept in the public domain. We need publicly-funded research to support smaller scale agriculture, otherwise it is always going to be the industrial food system that benefits.

·       Proper application of the precautionary principle – a post-Brexit UK needs effective and appropriate levels of regulation in place, especially for technologies used in food and farming, including new biotechnologies such as synthetic biology and gene editing.

April 2018 is the start date for the UK Research and Innovation (‘UKRI’). It is also ten years since the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development’s (‘IAASTD’) published its findings. What happens in the next decade is critical. The Brexit context provides a new opportunity to transform the way UK food and farming research is done for the public good at home and overseas. It is time to take questions of food and farming research seriously.

Dan Crossley is Executive Director of the Food Ethics Council. This is an edited extract from 'For Whom? Questioning the food and farming research agenda'