Britain will breed crops that don't need much water for food security, says George Eustice

·3 min read
Britain crops food security - DANIEL LEAL
Britain crops food security - DANIEL LEAL

Britain will breed crops that can grow with minimal water to ensure food security, the Environment Secretary has said.

Surging energy prices have led to increased costs for farmers across the country, meaning novel solutions are required to maintain food production, according to George Eustice.

This includes using gene-editing technology to create crops that can cope with changes to the climate such as less rainfall.

Writing in The Telegraph, he said: “Global gas prices have led to increased input costs for farmers across the UK and indeed the wider world, particularly for manufactured fertilisers, livestock feed, energy and fuel.

“We need to look at the full range of solutions that are available to us, and we must work alongside our world-leading agricultural research institutes to do so.”

He cited cutting edge research on climate resilient crops, vertical farming, grassland management, as well as genetic technologies.

George Eustice, the Environment Secretary, will on Monday deliver a speech on food security at the James Hutton Institute in Scotland - Finnbarr Webster
George Eustice, the Environment Secretary, will on Monday deliver a speech on food security at the James Hutton Institute in Scotland - Finnbarr Webster

“Through these technologies, we will have the power to develop crops that are more resistant to pests and diseases, less reliant on fertilisers and pesticides – which will cut costs to farmers – and more resilient to climate change,” he said.

“With water scarcity likely to become an increasing issue around the world, the ability to develop plants that cope better with water stress will be vital for global food security.”

Government officials are planning to speed up the production of gene-edited crops to help guarantee British food supplies in the wake of the conflict in Ukraine.

Russian blockades are preventing the export of key goods such as wheat from the country, leading to rising food prices and shortages globally.

Amid concern over the UK’s food self-sufficiency, the Government has introduced a Bill which will allow farms to grow more crops by planting variants that have been edited to be more resistant to disease or need less water or fertiliser.

Although plans for the Bill have been in place since Brexit, a government source said it had taken on added importance in the wake of Ukraine.

On Monday, Mr Eustice will deliver a speech on food security at the James Hutton Institute in Scotland to delegates of the UK Agricultural Partnership which includes farmers, businesses, researchers and policy makers.

Although agricultural policy is a devolved matter, the summit is aimed at sharing best practices and discussing the ways in which farmers can collaborate on addressing food security.

Gene-edited foods could be in supermarkets next year

Mr Eustice has previously discussed the benefits of using gene-editing technology to improve the resilience of the UK’s crops.

He promoted the ability to “harness the genetic resources that mother nature has provided to tackle the challenges of our age”, such as genes that enable plants to synthesise natural hormones that deter certain insect pests and genes that enable plants to cope better with water stress.

The Genetic Technology (Precision Breeding) Bill has been presented to Parliament and it is hoped that it will be made law later this year with the first gene-edited foods on supermarket shelves by next year.

The Bill was outlined in the Queen’s Speech and is designed to “remove unnecessary barriers inherited from the EU” as well as boosting food production in the UK.

The use of the technology was initially scuppered by a 2018 ruling from the European Court of Justice that determined it should be regulated in the same way as genetic modification (GM).