Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Further threats to Britain's food security

Written in July for the Landworker magazine of Unite, lack of space meant it was not used.

Soil scientist and Unite rural committee member Charlie Clutterbuck fears the threat to Britain’s future food security is being ignored after cuts were recently announced at two leading  plant research institutes. Britain currently imports 40% of its food, worth around £20 billion annually.  

Kew Gardens has lost £1.5 million of its budget from Defra. 125 jobs will go, mostly in scientific areas including possibly at the seed bank project. Kew is internationally recognised for its biodiversity, conservation and crop improvement research. 

The cuts occur despite a Defra report four years that revealed that Kew’s work suffered from a funding shortage. This latest announcement has raised public concern and over 100,000 people have signed a petition calling for the cuts to be reversed. 

Meantime, 70 jobs, around 10% of the staff, will go at the James Hutton Institute, based in Invergowrie and Aberdeen. The institute operates farms undertaking research into crops including barley and potatoes. The cost cutting exercise comes after the institute lost £2.5million of government funding over the last three years.

Now retired, Clutterbuck can recall when agricultural and horticultural research was run seriously by the state. Big research stations did the practical research whilst University departments examined the more academic aspects. All were linked in providing advice to farmers on which crop varieties were suited to particular conditions.  “This was a sea of knowledge permitting farmers to take whatever they could use, according to their capital and abilities. This ended in the late 80s when Thatcherism said ‘leave it to the markets,’ – especially the supermarkets. Food processors and retailers altered agricultural policy. Investment in research and development began its long downward spiral whilst food imports rocketed.”  

There are just ten agricultural research stations today. In 1990 there were 31. Some were swallowed up by universities and later closed. 

As a special advisor under the last Labour Government to the parliamentary committee on food security, Charlie was left staggered that Tesco hadn’t considered how they might source food in 20 years time. The Global Food Security organisation was subsequently established when UK research councils, government departments and other public bodies agreed to combine to utilise science to ensure the security of the UK’s food. 

Yet agricultural research cuts have continued. Wellesbourne Horticultural Research International Station shut in 2010. Imperial College, London closed its plant science department two years ago. Now Kew and the Hutton Institute are being hit. 

“Research at Kew and Hutton needs protecting as there is increasing competition for food caused by the rise of countries such as China and India. We can expand the amount of food we grow in the UK but only if invest in research that can help solve practical problems. The Government should look at the long term picture and reverse these cuts,” said Charlie. 

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