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Scientists lead drive to head off global food shortages

PUBLISHED: 07:00 21 October 2009 | UPDATED: 14:48 06 July 2010

Norwich scientists are leading calls for £2bn to be pumped into vital research to stave off future food shortages, warning the Government that failure to act now could lead to world famine within 40 years.

Norwich scientists are leading calls for £2bn to be pumped into vital research to stave off future food shortages, warning the Government that failure to act now could lead to world famine within 40 years.

Science academy The Royal Society published a study calling for the UK to be placed at the forefront of international research efforts to increase worldwide food production without harming the environment.

The report, worked on by scientists from Norwich's John Innes Centre (JIC), based at Colney, warned changing consumption patterns, the impacts of climate change and growing scarcity of water and land made the challenge of increasing food production to meet a rising world population even greater.

Norwich scientist Prof Sir David Baulcombe, who chaired the nine-strong group which worked on the study, warned: “We need to take action now to stave off food shortages.

“If we wait even five to 10 years, it may be too late. Biological science has progressed in leaps and bounds in the last decade and UK scientists have been at the head of the pack when it comes to topics related to food crops.

“In the UK we have the potential to come up with viable scientific solutions for feeding a growing population and we have a responsibility to realise this potential.

“There's a very clear need for policy action and publicly-funded science to make sure this happens.'”

The 50-page report which the group, including Prof Jonathan Jones and the late Prof Mike Gale, from the JIC's Sainsbury Laboratory, produced is entitled Reaping the Benefits and calls for Britain to back international research to sustain the environment, preserve natural resources including seeds, and support farmers and rural populations.

The Royal Society said implementing a research programme to direct at least £200m in funding annually for the next 10 years to science that improves crops and sustainable crop management must be a Government priority.

This would see the addition of at least £50m to what is already spent on science for food crops each year.

Calling for the £2bn Grand Challenge research strategy to double global food production by 2050, Prof Baulcombe, formerly of the Sainsbury Laboratory and now based at Cambridge University added: “There is no panacea for ensuring global food security.

“Science-based approaches introduced alongside social science and economic innovations are essential if we're to have a decent chance of feeding the world's population in 40 years' time.

“Technologies that work on a farm in the UK may have little impact for harvests in Africa. Research is going to need to take into account a diverse range of crops, localities, cultures and numerous other circumstances. It's unmistakable that scientific development holds the key to ensuring future food security.”

Prof Jones said the report had not simply opted for a wholly GM (genetic modification) solution and said: “We have strenuously tried to avoid getting hung up on that specific issue. It is not because we don't think it is important but because it is not the only tool in the toolbox that we need to use.”

The report has been dedicated in memory of co-author Prof Mike Gale, of the JIC, who died suddenly following its completion.

Environment secretary Hilary Benn said: “I welcome this report from the Royal Society, and it will make an important contribution to the work we are doing on food security and developing a food strategy for the UK.

“Only last week we announced an extra £75m over the next five years to develop new technology to increase sustainable food production, and today I'm announcing a new task force which will specifically examine ways of increasing production and consumption of fruit and vegetables in this country.

“The twin challenges of climate change and a growing global population mean that all over the world more food needs to be produced, using less natural resources and while being resilient to changing conditions. Science will be crucial to achieving that.”

Norfolk is already spearheading research into ways to improve food production, through the Genome Analysis Centre which opened at Norwich Research Park in April.

The £13.5m centre is exploring how to create new drought resistant crops and ways to protect livestock from exotic diseases.

But the Royal Society report sparked criticism from Friends of the Earth. Kirtana Chandrasekaran, from the campaign group, said: “Science has a key role to play in reducing hunger and poverty, but the report's focus on GM crops ignores mounting evidence that this technology is failing.”

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