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Is food security in danger unless our attitudes to technology and innovation change?

Providing a plentiful supply of safe and affordable food

The world’s population is expected to exceed nine billion by 2050 – and that creates a number of challenges. Surely key among them is how we feed everyone. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation has warned that food production must be increased by 70 per cent if it is to meet this demand. While measures such as reducing waste and changing diets must play their part, they won’t provide the solution alone. If we are to tackle this food security challenge, it is vital we improve agricultural productivity so we can keep pace with rising demand.

In response, all the way from the farm to our shop shelves, we need to harness technological innovation so that we continue to provide a plentiful supply of safe and affordable food. We need to recognise that such innovation comes with responsibilities: to ensure we don’t harm the environment we fundamentally rely on to produce our food, to protect public health, and to ensure transparency along the food chain gives proper choice to consumers. However, we also need to ensure innovation is stimulated and rewarded, and that through effective risk management approaches, we strike the proper balance that means we can increase production and supply sustainably.

All of this should provide ample opportunity for the UK’s science and engineering sectors to work with food producers and the food industry to strengthen our position as a world-leading research base, and to contribute to the future security and sustainability of our food supply.

However, I sense the reality is somewhat different.

There appears to be an aversion, if not outright hostility, amongst the public towards the role of some aspects of technology and innovation in food production, particularly in the UK and Europe. While adherents promote the benefits of new technologies – from the introduction of GMOs in producing new beneficial traits in seeds, through to the use of increasingly targeted pesticides that enhance crop yields with minimal environmental or health impact – the public are reluctant to accept their arguments and instead are more easily convinced by the concept of a “natural” food system that harks back to a bygone (if not indeed mythical) era.

Crop production provides a good case in point. Modern crop protection products, techniques and technologies all have a central role to play in safeguarding our food supply. Pesticides, for example, keep weed, pest and disease pressures in check. Without them crop yields would fall by a third.

Yet, there remains heated debate about their use by farmers. Despite an extremely rigorous regulatory system, there is still a poor level of understanding amongst the public about the safety of these products and how they are used. While it is a complex and sometimes technical subject, much of the public debate around the use of pesticides (for instance the recent controversy with bee health and neonicotinoids) is conducted in misleadingly simple terms, and rarely with reference to their utility to farmers and food production.

We should be encouraging researchers to continue to innovate and produce ever more targeted and effective products that both minimise any adverse impact and improve at controlling pests and diseases. Instead, we are creating a hostile policy environment that stifles innovation while farmers increasingly struggle to produce food. In the UK, the great strides made after the war in increasing yields of barley and cereals have stalled for well over a decade, while threats such as blackgrass and flee-beetle become ever more difficult for farmers to manage.

I fear that negative attitudes to technology and innovation in food production are leading to a policy and regulatory environment that prevents proper assessment and uptake of those technologies, ultimately putting domestic food security at risk, and global food security too. At a time when Europe needs to play a greater role in producing food, we’re reducing our own productivity and putting the emphasis on developing countries to feed us instead, even though we know many parts of the world struggle to feed themselves and will continue to do so in the face of climate change. Its time our policy-makers recognised the challenge and rose to it. All of us - industry, the public and policy makers - need to embrace the solutions technology and innovation can provide in response to the food security challenge.

Nick von Westenholz is the CEO of the Crop Protection Association.

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Part II: Is the Government fulfilling its role in the fight against cancer?

In the second in her series of interviews with leading politicians, Larushka Mellor, asks Iain Wright MP, “Is the government fulfilling its role in the fight against cancer?”

The independent cancer taskforce published its 5-year strategy for cancer with a number of recommendations, in July 2015.  What should the government do to ensure the biggest challenges contained within it are attainable?

The scale of the challenge is apparent. I think we should be as bold and ambitious as possible: scientists, clinicians, patients, the general public and politicians all working together for a single goal: to eliminate cancer within a generation, and Britain at the forefront of this.

The taskforce’s recommendations are achievable and the Government needs to act upon them. Patient experience has to be prioritised and this is difficult when NHS cancer services are under unprecedented pressure and the Government far too often provides contradictory messages. The Department of Health must provide the NHS with the resources and the long-term, holistic stability to allow Trusts to invest in state-of-the-art equipment.  The NHS needs to emphasise prevention and early detection too, but the risk is that under greater financial and workforce pressure, cancer services will be forced to firefight.

The Office of Life Sciences, headed up by George Freeman MP was created as the government’s bridge linking science and innovation with the work of the health service. You have recently taken on the role of Chair of the BIS Select Committee, why is the connection between R&D investment, industry, life sciences and the NHS important for fighting cancer?

This is a health and moral agenda, but I think we shouldn’t shy away from it being an economic and industrial one too. Britain is very strong in life sciences: our unique blend of excellent science and research institutions, world class pharmaceutical and med tech companies and the amazing NHS provides us with an unmatched ecosystem to develop the treatments of the future.

I want our country to be able to be supreme in every aspect of the fight against cancer: inventing the technology and drugs to treat it successfully, manufacturing those things here in the UK and giving NHS patients early access to the most innovative and effective treatments. That means maintaining and expanding the science budget, encouraging life sciences companies to locate here, and giving certainty to NHS funding to allow it to invest in more effective treatments for the long term.

The Office of Life Sciences (OLS) is an important part of that institutional architecture. It can provide the long-term certainty to allow treatments to be devised, researched and then brought to market. Research, development and application of treatments for cancer take longer than any single parliament, and the OLS should be able to provide that confidence over several decades. I’m pleased that George Freeman is leading this: his knowledge, experience and passion for life sciences makes him the best possible Minister in this field – if we have to have a Tory Government, at least some comfort can be derived from this.

However, there remain big concerns. The Innovation, Health and Wealth agenda designed to accelerate adoption of new treatments and technology in the NHS, now seems forgotten, and is an example of a long-standing weakness of this Government: a flurry of announcements and initiatives at the expense of successful implementation and delivery. George Freeman needs to tackle this and we on the Select Committee will scrutinise this.   

NICE and NHS England are working on a sustainable solution to the cancer drug fund (CDF) after it is due to end in April 2016; what confidence do you have in the progress they are making towards this and what role can you and your colleagues play to ensure there is continuity of access to oncology medicines after April?

This is a disturbing example of Government failing to provide the coherence and stability needed in this vital field, sending out the message that cancer drugs policy and provision is ad hoc and devoid of any sort of certainty. The recent delisting of several drugs from the CDF reinforces that sense of chaos, incoherence and inconsistency and undermines confidence for life sciences companies, research institutions and – most worryingly – those patients undergoing treatment. This needs to be tackled as quickly as possible to give reassurance. Parliament can obviously play a role in this but I hope we can go further. I want to see us widen provision to improve access to radiotherapy and surgery too.

 Your constituency of Hartlepool has one of the highest incidences of cancer in the country; what do you see as the biggest challenge to improve cancer outcomes over the next few years?

Our high incidence of cancer is both because of our industrial legacy and our lifestyles that increases the risk of developing cancer, particularly smoking. Smoking cessation clinics have been very successful in Hartlepool and this approach needs to continue. I urge the Government to implement policies that would help my constituents and others across the country, such as a one-week cancer test guarantee, improved screening programmes, and better access to and encouragement for people to see their GP.

Iain Wright is the Labour MP for Hartlepool and the Chair of the Business, Innovation and Skills Select Committee.

Larushka Mellor is the Head of Public Affairs and Policy Manager at Merck Serono​.