Professor Chris Pollock – editor of the report Feeding the Future – said: “Unless we carry processors, retailers and consumers with us [in realising the R&D priorities and objectives set out in the report], we are doomed.”
But food manufacturers and retailers were jeopardising progress by failing to pay realistic prices, he continued. “The mart- [market] based system of selling has driven down margins in the industry so some producers have traded away profits and are living off EU subsidies,” he said.
The UK was the only country in Europe which relied on market sales, Pollock added. Throughout Europe, vertical and horizontal businesses – including co-operatives – offered producers a fairer more stable margin for farmers’ produce.
In future, continued spikes in food prices would become routine rather than the exception, he said.
‘Fit for mid-century challenges’
A scientific revolution was needed to make the British agricultural industry “fit for mid-century challenges” of food production and climate change management, said Pollock. “If we don’t achieve that, we will lose out to the rest of the world and that would be a bad outcome.”
The report – commissioned by the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board (AHDB), the National Farmers’ Union, NFU Scotland, the Royal Agricultural Society of England and the Agricultural Industries Confederation – identified eight research priorities and made five recommendations.
The genetic modification of crops and animals
The top two research priorities were developing modern technologies and the genetic modification (GM) of crops and animals.
The top two recommendations were that the agricultural industry work together to attract funding and that producers should have greater influence on research.
Professor Ian Crute, AHDB chief scientist, told FoodManufacture.co.uk that manufacturers and retailers could no longer take the security of their supply chains for granted. While many big companies had turned sustainable sourcing to their commercial advantage, some smaller firms had yet to do so.
“Big organisations are hard-nosed about sourcing food materials from sustainable production systems that are not going to fall over,” said Crute. “They are taking the message about sourcing in ways that do not exploit the environment or people and actively marketing it to consumers.”
But many smaller organisations increases in food raw material prices can simply be passed on to the consumer, he added.
Asked about the wisdom of investing in GM research, Crute said there was no evidence to suggest that the majority of consumers were opposed to food produced by the use of such technology.
“Consumer acceptance of GM is an open question at the moment. 10% are passionately opposed to it and 10% support it. There are an awful lot of people in the middle ground who just don’t know,” said Crute.
“But, I’d be the last person to say that GM was a silver bullet solution – it is just one of a number of solutions.”
Full details about the Feeding the Future report are available here.