Oxford scientist wants bold action on crop genetic research

Faced with an urgent need to drive improvements in the productivity, resilience and climate impact of British agriculture, leading plant scientist, Professor Jane Langdale, from the University of Oxford, has called on the government to prioritize investment in crop genetic research as a primary driver of productivity in agriculture.

Writing on the Science for Sustainable Agriculture website, Professor Langdale – who led and authored a major review of UK plant science last year – asked why, in its plans for R and D funding, the UK Government was spending 20 times more on digital and precision farming projects, such as robotic harvesters, AI and sensor technology than it planned to invest in long-term, strategic crop genetic research.

“These agri-tech innovations are incredibly important in driving efficiency improvements at the individual farm level, but they will prove to be relatively worthless without supporting corresponding gains in genetic potential,” she argued.

“There can be no justification for taxpayer investment in research on digital and precision farming applications to exceed the equivalent spend on crop genetic innovation more than 20-fold,” she insists.

Professor Langdale applauds commitments in the Government’s recent Food Strategy to maintain current levels of domestic food production, to create a separate Horticulture Strategy, and to develop a land use strategy by 2023.

However, she expresses disappointment that plans for a £270 million Farming Innovation Program between now and 2029, focused on improving farm-level productivity, sustainability and resilience, make no mention of any long-term vision for targeted R&D investment, and include no commitment to a strategic Crop Genetic Innovation Research Fund, as many in the plant breeding and plant science community have advocated.

“My review last year found that the lack of long-term strategic funding, from either public or private sector, to transfer early-stage genetic discoveries from lab to field to farm remains one of the most significant barriers to future productivity gains,” says Professor Langdale.

“It is a simple case of market failure. The modest and relatively inelastic income from seed royalties limits plant breeders’ ability to invest in more speculative or long-term targets. Because of this, and the lengthy timescales involved, the current system for financing near-market and translational R and D is not working, and opportunities to exploit major advances in our understanding of plant science are being lost.”

She also points out that this is not a new issue. The same gap in the research funding landscape, often termed the ‘Valley of Death’, was identified in a similar review of UK plant science led by Professor Chris Gilligan for BBSRC more than 17 years ago.

“There is little evidence that the Government really grasps the significance or urgency of this issue. For example, Defra have suggested that the UK’s primary vehicle for bridging the long-recognized gap between early-stage discovery research and its translation into relevant crop backgrounds for use in commercial breeding programs are the four Genetic Improvement Networks (GINs) covering wheat, oilseed rape, pulses and vegetables,” Professor Langdale observed.

“While valuable as a mechanism for networking between key players along the crop improvement pipeline, the GINs are woefully under-resourced. Defra currently funds the four GINs to the tune of £5.5m over five years from 2018 to 2023.

“In other words, £275,000 per GIN per year. To put that in context, the Government’s flagship Transforming Food Production R and D program is investing £90m over four years in digital and precision farming projects.”

Professor Langdale’s report on the UK plant science landscape also called for a critical review of the Government’s Agri-Tech Strategy, to investigate whether the multi-million pound investments in the four Innovation Centers have provided value for money, or delivered the kind of step- change gains in agricultural productivity, efficiency and sustainability originally envisaged. None of the centers focused specifically on genetic innovation.

“I strongly endorse calls for a more coherent R and D strategy for crop genetic improvement which ensures promising new scientific discoveries have a clear translational pathway into crops and products of value to UK farmers and consumers.

“Independent studies have shown that genetic improvement accounts for more than two-thirds of crop productivity gains. Future allocation of research funding must reflect that, and a new, long-term Crop Genetic Innovation Research Fund (CGIRF) is urgently needed to bridge this long-recognized gap in R and D investment,” concluded Professor Langdale.

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