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Our Plant Sciences Champion experience in the Oxford Farming 2018 conference

last modified Jan 22, 2018 12:43 PM

My take, as a plant scientist, on the Oxford Farming Conference 2018

I attended the Oxford Farming Conference last week for the first time, a trip sponsored by Bayer for Crop Science who are keen to link scientists with farmers (the programme is available here and presentations here). The conference, held each year since 1946, is a gathering for farmers and influential practitioners in the farming industry, and it is often reported in the press and on Twitter, #OFC18. This year’s theme was ‘Embracing change’ from new technologies to BREXIT. Sessions were very diverse and focused on politics, digital revolution, economics, challenges faced by farmers, consumer trends, and underpinning science.

As a plant scientist attending this conference I came away with three key messages: (1) there is a need for diversification in the plant species currently studied for improvement; (2) the development of gene editing methods is likely to be accepted by the general public if we handle it well; (3) we need to engage more with the farming community so that trust is not an issue.

Increasing diversity in crop species

The debate at the Oxford Union on the topic: “This House believes that by 2100 meat eating will be a thing of the past”, projected us far into the future when our diets will be even more reliant on plants. George Monbiot argued that meat production is not environmentally sustainable and that eating animal-derived protein is a very inefficient way to convert energy. This was opposed by Gareth Wyn Jones, seconded by Emily Norton, a Norfolk dairy farmer, who compared meat eating with using a candle. Her argument was that the invention of the electric lightbulb did not totally eradicate the production and use of candles. In her opinion, even if plant-based proteins or lab-grown meat is more available, farm produced meat will still be eaten but may become a luxury. Though the majority rejected the notion that meat eating will be a thing of the past, many agreed that meat consumption will decrease severely and that our diets will include more plant products. This message was reiterated by James Wong and Eve Turow Paul. James Wong reminded us that 60% of our calories come from three crops: wheat, maize and rice. Furthermore there has been a 75% decrease in agrobiodiversity in the crops grown in the 20th century (FAO, Khoury et al. 2014, PNAS, 111:4001). This is where opportunities arise as a wider diversity of crops could be more attractive to current customers. With BREXIT looming, farmers in the UK will need to differentiate themselves from the rest of the world and demonstrate the quality of their products (a red tractor logo is not sufficient). A good example was this quinoa farmer based in the UK. Changes in crop species grown in the UK will open new opportunities for plant scientists as well. Thus far, a lot of the research in the UK has focused on wheat where yields have now stagnated for a few years and improvements seem slow. If we can apply what we have learned thus far to other species (“orphan crops”) that have been less focused on- we may be able to have higher impact, more rapidly.

Using all the tools, including gene editing

James Wong also suggested that we need all the available tools to increase food productivity (see also David Baulcombe’s Royal Society Report “Reaping the benefits”) and this brings me to the second key point from the conference. It is highly likely that we should be able to use gene editing technology for crop development in the future, if we handle it well. The first mention of gene editing at this conference came from The Secretary of State for Environment and Rural Affairs, Michael Gove (you can read his speech in full) who was encouraging in stating that ‘Gene editing technology could help us to remove vulnerabilities to illness, develop higher yielding crops or more valuable livestock, indeed potentially even allow mankind to conquer the diseases to which we are vulnerable’. His proposal has already been discussed in the press (here and here), suggesting that this is not going to be plain sailing. And this is where a seven-point peace treaty was proposed, allowing activists and scientists to work together in achieving our common vision to feed an increasing world population in a safe and sustainable manner, providing a very useful road-map. This proposal and the strongest endorsement for the new technology came from Mark Lynas, a former Greenpeace activist, who apologized for his anti-GMO activities at the same conference 5 years ago. He stated that ‘if genetic engineering had been launched primarily as a way to reduce pesticides, we in the environmental movement would not have opposed it in the way we did.’

Engaging with the farming communities

 Mark Lynas was, I think, the first one to mention organic farming, and parallel to the OFC, another conference was being held. The Oxford Real Farming Conference is a more recent event that has grown significantly in recent years, and is more likely to appeal to organic farmers. While scientists need to engage more with both farming communities, some organic farming practices need to become more science-based, and with more input from scientists they can make an impact. The need to engage with farmers became obvious on the last day of the conference when the live polling revealed that the least favorite part of the conference was the science session sponsored by BBSRC, even though Prof. Chris Elliot (Queen’s University Belfast) gave an excellent and engaging presentation on the 6 principles for food integrity: safety, authenticity, nutrition, sustainability, ethics and environmentally friendly. One of the questions from the audience was related to the trust in scientists, though this issue may not be representative of the whole community as Paul Temple (@PaulWoldfarm), a tenant farmer from Yorkshire and Chairman of the AHDB Cereals & Oilseeds committee, demonstrated during the Birds and Bees Debate. Science is at the heart of farming, yet farmers don’t necessarily realise that they do actually trust science since they use varieties developed based on our knowledge in genetics, use herbicides and pesticides that have been developed by chemists and tested by biologists. For many, farming is a family business. Many people asked me that specific question: ‘Are you from a farming background?’ I don’t think it should matter, but I get the feeling that if I could say I am a farmer and, also a scientist, my message would be listened to much better. CambPlants organizes many events that can help scientists engage with the farming community, so this is our chance to participate in the debate.

Finally, it is an exciting time to work in plant sciences with increased technological advances allowing us to answer questions more rapidly and for our work to have a clear impact on agriculture. There are clearly challenges and opportunities ahead for plant scientists, and engaging with the food production community will be key to our success. It would be great if a plant scientist could present their work as part of the science session at next year’s OFC conference - Any volunteers?

Written by Dr. Stephanie Swarbreck