From better nutrition to improved farming, Institute research is at forefront of ‘future-proofed food’

  • 15
  • JUL
  • 2021

The independent review for the National Food Strategy has been welcomed by a range of Rothamsted experts, who have praised its attempts to set innovation at the heart of the solutions for our ‘broken’ food system.

The report, which was written by restauranteur Henry Dimbleby, has made national headlines with its calls for a sugar and salt tax, as well as proposals for fruit and veg to be available on the NHS.

But dive deeper into its 290 pages and you will find a slew of recommendations relating to land use, investment in research, and ways to help farmers transition to a post-Brexit, low carbon future.

Commenting on the report, Rothamsted Research Director and CEO, Professor Angela Karp welcomed the idea of a £500 million challenge fund to promote innovation on farms and agri-tech start-ups.

“Society will only successfully tackle the challenges laid out in this report by embracing scientific solutions – by developing more nutritious foods that are accessible to all, that are grown in harmony with the natural world, and that allow farmers to earn a fair living.

“The UK is home to some of the world’s foremost experts in agricultural research, experts who have already made great strides in addressing the issues laid out in this report. What is needed now is for industry, government and civil society to help us to build on these breakthroughs and realise them in the wider world.”

The report identifies numerous threats to human and planetary health from our current eating habits – not least the country’s ‘tragically high death rate’ from obesity or food production being responsible for a quarter of our total greenhouse gas emissions.

From developing a wheat for high-fibre white bread, to producing heart healthy fish oils in plants, to trialling low carbon and environmentally benign farming methods, Rothamsted is at the very forefront of research into how best to future-proof our food, said Professor Karp.

“Add in our thriving hub of agritech start-ups, as well initiatives such as our £3.5 million SHAKE Climate Change programme, and it demonstrates the real critical mass we have created here - and why the UK Government relies on Rothamsted to deliver nationally important strategic research into farming as well as training the next generation of researchers, technical specialists, entrepreneurs, and innovators.”

The report also encourages the government to set a target to reduce the nation's meat consumption by 30% over 10 years. 

Whilst reduced meat consumption is desirable for both human health and environmental reasons, it is not the only route to zero carbon for the livestock industry – and nor should it be, says agricultural economist Dr Taro Takahashi.

“The panel's effort to fully capture the complexities surrounding the protein transition should be applauded, and it is particularly good to see that the potential impacts of different transitional pathways on farmers and the countryside are clearly considered. 

“However, their choice on the unit of carbon footprint (kgCO2e/kg product) to support this discussion does not accurately represent the nutritional and health values of food produced from different farming systems. Alternative frameworks are available, and they could have led to a different 10-year target for reduction. We are eager to see these more modern approaches integrated into the Three Compartment Model the panel recommends for future policy planning.” 

Professor Johnathan Napier, who leads Rothamsted’s research into ways of sustainably producing omega-3 fish oils in camelina plants, said the report makes some good recommendations, but missed a trick in grouping all animal protein production systems together.

“Given the proven role of omega-3 fish oils in reducing metabolic disease risk for cardiovascular disease, type II diabetes and obesity, the prevailing dietary recommendations from pretty much everyone is that we need to increase our consumption of fish to get the omega-3s that are devoid in terrestrial animals.

“The world’s oceans cannot sustain that many fisheries, nor can it supply aquaculture with enough of the correct form of food so farmed fish can produce these oils. Therefore, the only viable solution is to find ways of producing these oils on land.”

The report can be found here.

About Rothamsted Research
Rothamsted Research is the longest-running agricultural research institute in the world. We work from gene to field with a proud history of ground-breaking discoveries, from crop treatment to crop protection, from statistical interpretation to soils management. Our founders, in 1843, were the pioneers of modern agriculture, and we are known for our imaginative science and our collaborative influence on fresh thinking and farming practices.
Through independent science and innovation, we make significant contributions to improving agri-food systems in the UK and internationally. In terms of the institute’s economic contribution, the cumulative impact of our work in the UK was calculated to exceed £3000 million a year in 20151. Our strength lies in our systems approach, which combines science and strategic research, interdisciplinary teams and partnerships.
Rothamsted is also home to three unique resources. These National Capabilities are open to researchers from all over the world: The Long-Term Experiments, Rothamsted Insect Survey and the North Wyke Farm Platform.
We are strategically funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), with additional support from other national and international funding streams, and from industry. We are also supported by the Lawes Agricultural Trust (LAT).
For more information, visit; Twitter @Rothamsted
1Rothamsted Research and the Value of Excellence: A synthesis of the available evidence, by Séan Rickard (Oct 2015)

The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council is part of UK Research and Innovation, a non-departmental public body funded by a grant-in-aid from the UK government.
BBSRC invests in world-class bioscience research and training on behalf of the UK public. Our aim is to further scientific knowledge, to promote economic growth, wealth and job creation and to improve quality of life in the UK and beyond.
Funded by government, BBSRC invested £469 million in world-class bioscience in 2016-17. We support research and training in universities and strategically funded institutes. BBSRC research and the people we fund are helping society to meet major challenges, including food security, green energy and healthier, longer lives. Our investments underpin important UK economic sectors, such as farming, food, industrial biotechnology and pharmaceuticals.
More information about BBSRC, our science and our impact.
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About LAT
The Lawes Agricultural Trust, established in 1889 by Sir John Bennet Lawes, supports Rothamsted Research’s national and international agricultural science through the provision of land, facilities and funding. LAT, a charitable trust, owns the estates at Harpenden and Broom's Barn, including many of the buildings used by Rothamsted Research. LAT provides an annual research grant to the Director, accommodation for nearly 200 people, and support for fellowships for young scientists from developing countries. LAT also makes capital grants to help modernise facilities at Rothamsted, or invests in new buildings.