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Strategic Plan: Strategic research priority 1 – agriculture and food security

Bioscience for sustainable and productive agriculture, supplying not only sufficient, affordable, nutritious and safe food but also non-food products and feedstocks, in a rapidly changing world.

The challenge

Global demand for food is rising, driven by factors such as population growth, increasing affluence and changing diets. At the same time there is increasing competition for land and fresh water, putting added pressure on production, while climate change will reduce the reliability of food supply, for example through altered weather patterns and increased pressure from pests and diseases.

Case study: Vaccines

Scientists at the University of Oxford/Diamond Light Source, University of Reading and The Pirbright Institute have developed a new, safer methodology for producing a vaccine for foot-and-mouth disease virus (FMDV). FMDV is one of the most economically important diseases in livestock worldwide. Image: iStock/Thinkstock

In addition to food production, there is also increasing scope for agriculture to be a major source of sustainable feedstocks for bioenergy and high value chemicals in a wider bioeconomy. Avoiding direct competition with food by better utilising agricultural waste and production from marginal land are key challenges (see also Strategic Plan: Strategic research priority 2 – industrial biotechnology and bioenergy).

In future agriculture must produce more from the same or less land, using less water, energy and other inputs, whilst reducing waste and adverse environmental impacts including greenhouse gas emissions.

Research opportunities

Tackling the different but related food security challenges of the UK and developing countries will require multidisciplinary research. BBSRC will take a systems approach applying the latest bioscience and modelling at a range of scales, up to agricultural landscapes. We will support research to increase the efficiency and sustainability of crop and animal production, reduce waste in the food chain and ensure safe and nutritious diets. This includes minimising negative environmental impacts and preserving biodiversity and other ecosystem services, where partnership with NERC will be particularly important.

To deliver our goals we will boost national capability in research underpinning food security and the bioeconomy through major infrastructure and facilities, and by ensuring that the UK skills base has appropriate critical mass and specialist research expertise. The BBSRC strategically-funded institutes are central in our national capability.

BBSRC will focus the UK's excellent plant science on challenges in sustainable crop production such as enhancing yield and quality, preventing or combating pests, diseases and weeds, and generating crops adapted to the challenges of future environments. Multidisciplinary research to maintain the essential functions of soils, and minimise inputs including energy, fertilisers and water will be important to improve the efficiency and sustainability of crop production, as will research to maintain the health of beneficial invertebrates for pollination and pest control.

UK strength in animal science is crucial to sustainable food production. BBSRC will support research in areas that have profound implications for food security and food safety such as animal health and welfare, and genetics and genomics for improved production and disease resistance. Endemic and exotic diseases including zoonoses will remain key challenges, as will new and emerging infections, increasing resistance to antimicrobials, and maintaining gut health. There is a need to develop new epidemiological approaches to investigate disease spread, and new diagnostic tools. BBSRC will also support the development of next generation vaccines, building on the strengths of the UK research base in immunology and infectious animal diseases, and the opportunities arising from taking a 'One Health' approach, in partnership with the MRC, to the support of multidisciplinary studies that underpin improvements in both human and animal health.

Case study: Combating disease

Scientists at Rothamsted Research have identified two genes in wheat crucial to resisting infection by the disease Septoria leaf blotch, paving the way for the development of molecular approaches to combat the disease in the future. Image: iStock/Thinkstock

As well as livestock and poultry, we will promote research underpinning food production from aquaculture, where there is a need to increase the diversity of species that are used, improve fish health, and develop sustainable sources of feed for farmed fish.

Food security is a complex issue encompassing international trade, aid, transport, economics and social science. BBSRC will continue to play a leading role in the multi-funder, multi-disciplinary Global Food Security research programme drawing together partners across RCUK, the Technology Strategy Board, government departments and devolved Governments for greater coordination of funders around shared strategic objectives. The programme provides leadership, enhances synergy, and acts as a focus for attracting greater private and third sector investment.

As recognised in the UK Strategy for Agricultural Technologies, there is a need to accelerate the translation of research into practice for food and non-food products as a key element of the bioeconomy. We will tackle this working closely with many partners to implement the strategy, particularly the Technology Strategy Board, in establishing the Agri-technology Catalyst and Centres for Agricultural Innovation, which will serve to align academic research more effectively with industry needs, and increase translational skills.

2013/14 update – what's new?

  • Greater recognition that productive, competitive and sustainable agriculture is essential for both food and non-food uses in a wider bioeconomy
  • Reflection of the need to gain a deeper understanding of the concept of 'sustainable intensification' in agriculture
  • Additional emphasis on tackling key challenges for livestock health and welfare, such as understanding antimicrobial resistance and developing next generation vaccines
  • Commitment to BBSRC's role in delivering the UK Strategy for Agricultural Technologies, to ensure that the UK's world-leading agricultural research is translated into practice

Key priorities

  • Work closely with the Technology Strategy Board and Agri-Tech Leadership Council to implement the UK Strategy for Agricultural Technologies, accelerating the translation of research into practice
  • Address skills shortages in areas of specialist research expertise and translational skills, working with industry, learned societies and other stakeholders
  • Continue to build international partnerships and joint funding for agriculture and food security research and to lead key global research programmes in wheat and nitrogen fertiliser use
  • Tackle long-term research challenges that offer a step-change in crop production, such as nitrogen fixation, water and other resource use efficiency, or enhancing photosynthesis
  • Improve understanding of the concept of 'sustainable intensification' in agriculture and the enabling role that BBSRC-funded research, skills and capability must play
  • Coordinate a major programme on veterinary vaccinology to accelerate research into next generation vaccines to combat major diseases of livestock
  • Increase understanding of the drivers and mechanisms of antimicrobial resistance in order to reduce its impact on animal and human health