“We are focused on re-thinking everyone’s – not just Scotland’s – relationship with food; how it’s produced and how it affects nature”
By Colin Campbell, Chief Executive of the James Hutton Institute
Global food security is going to be a dominant economic theme over the next decade. Since the Russian invasion of Ukraine a year ago, we have all seen just how fragile the food ecosystem really is to acute shocks, as well as the chronic effects of climate extremes and pandemics.
The food industry accounts for nearly a third of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, so it is also one of the single largest contributors to climate change, illustrating just what a huge influence everyone’s diet has on what’s becoming a planet where natural resources – plant, animal, and mineral – are being consumed too much and too fast.
Turning this dangerous situation around dominates the agendas of everyone at the James Hutton Institute, and it needs both natural science and social science working together to solve it.
We are focused on re-thinking everyone’s – not just Scotland’s – relationship with food; how it’s produced and how it affects nature. We’re looking at how to grow and manufacture a more diverse range of quality food locally all year-round, reducing the need for imports; how produce could be transported by simpler supply chains less prone to shocks; how we can fight back against the ravages of centuries of over-consumption; and discover better ways of feeding ourselves without further damaging our environment.
We have already done pioneering work on finding new climate-positive food and drink products; piloted revolutionary technologies for crop management to leave less of a footprint on the land, such as using precision agriculture sensors and drones, indoor farming techniques, and creating more nutritious crops such as potatoes that are not only climate adapted, resistant to disease but even use less energy to cook.
This research is essentially a national investment in our ‘natural capital’ and safeguarding our future in a very uncertain world. We are inspired by nature to produce more nature-based solutions that truly transform the way we grow food.
The opening last month of the first phase our new £62m Advanced Plant Growth Centre and International Barley Hub will help us further. The latter aims to bolster barley growing by researching new varieties and techniques to increase yield, resilience, and the climate-change credentials of Scotland’s biggest grain crop, which alone supports 40,000 jobs, largely down to its pivotal role as a food, feed and main ingredient in whisky and beer.
James Hutton himself was one of the first to write in the 18th century about the potential for potato in Scotland to lift many more people out of food poverty, and it is still the case today given potatoes produce more calories per unit area than other crop. In this vein, we have blueprints in place for a dedicated International Potato Innovation Centre, focused on finding smarter potato growing systems and diagnostics, modelling for vastly improved pest and disease control, and making potato production more climate and environment friendly.
Our work means Scotland is punching well above its weight when it comes to discovering genuinely ground-breaking practical solutions to making this giant global industry greener and more sustainable.
Colin Campbell is chief executive of The James Hutton Institute. He spoke at the Cross-Party Group (CPG) on Food in Holyrood, meeting under the theme: ‘The Journey to Net Zero – where are we now?’