January 31 2015 Latest news:
Michael Pollitt, Agricultural editor
Wednesday, January 29, 2014
Norfolk’s key role at the heart of leading plant science research has been underscored by figures showing it has generated about £350m for the national economy.
Scientists are calling for investment to be doubled after figures showed the John Innes Centre (JIC), based at the Norwich Research Park, delivers a tenfold return to UK plc over and beyond its annual £30.4m budget.
Norwich research successes include:
A new healthier broccoli, Beneforté, was developed by scientists on Norwich Research Park at the JIC and Institute of Food Research. It was launched in 2011 in Marks & Spencer stores. Asda has also stocked it since 2012.
Harvesting nitrogen - Researchers have uncovered genes to enable some plants to utilise nitrogen from the air. Such a technology could reduce or even eliminate the need for fertilisers, and improve crop yields for farmers in the developing world by as much as 50pc.
Better fertilisers - In wet weather between 15 and 20pc of nitrogen fertiliser is washed from agricultural soils by rain water. Researchers have patented a process by which biodiesel co-products can be applied to soils, nitrogen fertilisers or soil amendments, preventing up to 99pc of nitrogen loss to aquatic systems. This could significantly improve nitrogen fertiliser delivery to crops and reduce nitrate pollution from farming.
The UK Plant Sciences Federation’s 36-page report, which has just been published, said that Britain was internationally recognised for excellence but there was potential to “unlock the commercial and economic impact of current research.”
Based on interviews with more than 300 scientists, it calls for a doubling of the public plant science budget from just £125m or four percent of the total UK research spending.
In six years, the annual value of the JIC’s research had been estimated to have almost doubled from £170m since 2008, said Jonathan Clarke, JIC’s head of business development.
He said: “Because government has continued to make strategic investment in fundamental research at the JIC over a long period of time, we’ve been made to make a really big impact, running at about £350m per annum – that’s giving about ten-times uplift on the annual investment,” he added.
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The federation, part of the Society of Biology and a voice for plant scientists, said that the launch of the government’s £160m Agri-Tech Strategy last year had identified the growth potential for science. It has also highlighted the need to inspire, educate and recruit a new generation of plant scientists.
Mr Clarke said the JIC had also made a big impact on the production of better and new antibiotics, which has had a global impact on health.
Dr Richard Summers, chairman of the British Society of Plant Breeders, said: “This report recognises the critical role of the commercial plant breeding and seeds sector as the route to market for much of the plant science research taking place in UK research institutes and universities.
“It provides a policy blueprint to unlock the potential of the UK plant science sector by accelerating the transfer of research into practical application and building stronger links between the science base and industry,” he added.
In the past 25 years, Britain’s farm productivity has slowed markedly compared with international competitors and there has been no overall increase in UK agricultural output since 1986. At the same time, new crop protection products have saved UK consumers an estimated £70bn in annual food costs. But as only 62pc of the country’s food is home-grown, Britain imports an annual £37.6bn of food, feed and drink.
JIC scientists have led the field in breeding resistance to a disease of the country’s most valuable food crop, wheat, worth £2.2bn at the farm gate. Since 2006, resistance to leaf blotch, which cuts yields by 30 to 40pc and cost £35m a year in crop losses, has been bred into varieties.
Other successes include breeding healthier “purple” tomatoes and the commercial launch of ‘superbroccoli’ which may help protect the body against age-related illnesses such as cancer, diabetes and heart disease.
With an estimated 40pc of global crop yields lost to plant disease and pests, other far-reaching research including harvesting nitrogen from the air to fertilise plants could transform farming techniques.eb link - The UKPSF report ‘UK Plant Science: Current status and future challenges’ on-line -