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Impending skills shortage in agricultural science puts world food supply at risk

07 April 2009

Low numbers of UK students and researchers working in the agricultural sciences mean that we may not have the resources needed to ensure sufficient food-crop production across the globe in the near future. The warning comes from the Royal Society which is conducting a major study exploring how science can enhance global food-crop production

The issue was highlighted by UK delegates at a two-day workshop on food-crop production at the National Institute for Plant Genome Research in Dehli, India attended by scientists from India, Brazil, South Africa and Mozambique. The Royal Society has today published a report of this meeting outlining the challenges discussed by attendees.

According to the scientists, a decline in students pursuing agricultural sciences as well as a decrease in the number of university departments teaching these subjects has been a consequence of almost two decades of reducing public investment in agricultural research and poor career prospects. The UK faces a potentially serious skills shortage. Areas of research affected include plant breeding, plant pathology, agronomy, crop physiology, agricultural entomology, weed science, post-harvest biology, soil science and agricultural engineering.

Professor Ian Crute, Director of Rothamsted Research and a member of the Royal Society's food-crop production working group said:

"The United Nations has said that food production must increase 50% by 2030 if the demand resulting from population growth and greater prosperity in the developing world is to be met. Advances in agricultural science will be a vital component of our capacity to tackle global food shortages. Unless we address the decline in researchers working in this area now, we may not have enough scientists to train the next generation and provide the necessary innovations to produce the increased yields and improved nutritional quality which will be required to avert severe food shortages 20 years from now. UK scientists are some of the best in the world and a skills shortage here will not only affect our ability to respond to the need for elevated food production at home but globally as well."

The UK has always been at the forefront of development in science and technology applied to agriculture and food production. Jethro Tull invented the seed drill in 1701 and at Rothamsted, during the latter half of the 19th century, the partnership of Sir John Lawes FRS and Sir Henry Gilbert FRS laid the foundation for the application of scientific principles to sustainable arable agriculture with their experiments on crop nutrition.

Advances in plant breeding after the Second World War made the UK self-sufficient in high quality wheat for bread-making. Today researchers such as Professor John Picket FRS are studying the chemical signals given off by organisms that relate to interactions like germination cues or food and host attractants, to potentially provide new chemical tools for managing pests and beneficial organisms in crops.

Commenting on the impending skills shortage, Professor John Beddington, Government Chief Scientific Advisor said:

"We face a major challenge to feed sustainably a global population set to soar beyond 8 billion by 2030, whilst also managing the world's burgeoning demand for energy and water, radically reducing greenhouse gas emissions and coping with those climate changes that we cannot avert. Only with a major contribution from science and engineering can we hope to succeed. The Royal Society's findings on key skills gaps are therefore a cause for concern. It is vital that we attract fresh talent to our universities and to our industries, to develop and apply the solutions that will be critical in the decades to come."

The Royal Society's study, which is due to be published in November, will assess a wide range of biological approaches which have been proposed for improving crop yields and quality and have the potential to enhance nutritional value, minimise waste, increase resource-use efficiency, and reduce reliance on non-renewable inputs. The report will set out the steps which governments should take now, to ensure that, in the coming decades, the farmers of the developed and the developing world are better equipped to feed their growing communities.