Ithaka Life Sciences - Blog

Ithaka Life Sciences Ltd (Ithaka) is a provider of business advisory and interim management services to the life sciences sector.

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Food for thought

Last week I attended the Genesis conference (http://www.genesisconference.co.uk) in London. It was an enjoyable event with some good presentations and the usual networking opportunities. The conference has become something of a showcase for the UK biotech scene and, given the current economic situation, the mood was surprisingly upbeat.


Reflecting back on the conference, one of the things that struck me was the domination of the agenda by drug discovery and, to a lesser extent, medical device technologies. Now this is nothing new but, as someone who has spent at least half of his career applying biotech to the food and agriculture sectors, I continue to be both amazed and disappointed by the lack of attention paid by the UK biotech community to matters gastronomic. No doubt our French friends would have something to say on this subject but it seems to me that, in the UK biotech, is synonymous with healthcare and medtech.


Now, there is no doubting the importance for society of addressing healthcare issues and the potential financial rewards for the developers of new products in this sector. However, has no one in the UK biotech community heard about the looming issue of food security, which promises to be just as much of a global threat as any pandemic?


Take the drought that devastated the Australian wheat harvest last year; wheat prices across the globe soared by 130%, while shopping bills in Britain leapt by 15%. This was a mere foretaste of what is likely to come. Over the next 40 years Britain's population will rise from 60 to 75 million while the world's will leap from 6.8 to 9 billion. Feeding all these people will stretch human ingenuity to its limit.


Professor Mike Bevan of the John Innes Centre in Norwich has said "We are going to have to produce as much food in the next 50 years as was produced over the past 5,000 years. Nothing less will do." Because of climate change, the farmers of tomorrow will not only have to improve yields using less fertiliser and less water, they will also have to be increasingly wary of new agricultural pests and diseases as global temperatures rise and more and more devastating varieties of plant viruses and fungal pathogens spread around the globe. You can find more information on these issues at www.foodsecurity.ac.uk.


Europe has been something of a no go area for biotech crops over the last decade but the rest of the world has moved on with 125 million hectares of biotech crops planted in 2008. There is now an urgent need to develop novel ways of growing food crops with fewer chemicals, in more hostile environments and with potentially severe water restrictions. This is a challenge that the UK, and the rest of Europe, cannot afford to ignore; we must start to channel some of the ingenuity previously applied to, for example, the development of therapeutic antibodies, towards the production of crops and agricultural systems that can cope with all that climate change will bring to our farming communities.

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