LOOKING AHEAD to the future of Scottish agriculture in a post-Brexit environment, concerns have been raised over future funding for research and development within the industry.

Are Scottish farmers doing enough to productively utilise their land? Could we ever see a change in policy which could legalise genetic modification? Professor Derek Stewart, business sector lead for agri-food at the James Hutton Institute shared with us his thoughts on what the future may hold for Scottish farmers.

What are some of the biggest challenges to food and environment security here in Scotland?

Brexit aside, the environment is in constant flux. Scotland has some of the best farmers in the world but the increase in extreme events, this year’s prolonged cold snap at the start then heatwave the summer, have impacted on the yield of many crops and the duration of the flowering and harvest periods. These factors are beyond the ability of farming to control, with conventional crops, bred for, and trialled in, optimum conditions. We need a concerted research effort, through co-construction with farmers, to create crops that are more plastic in their response to enduring these extremes and still deliver yields at, or better above, our current best.

Are farmers doing enough in terms of sustainable and productive land-use?

This has to be a long game, as sudden shift from what one may call conventional to sustainable practises could, if done without the scientific evidence be potentially disastrous. However, the James Hutton Institute (and others), hand in hand with farmers, are exploring how we can shift to these sustainable solutions. These include green margins, no-till (weeding) diversity of cover crops, dual cropping, green manures, managing the ecosystem to ensure pollinators flourish etc. With this there is a committed effort at the fundamental side to explore the factor underpinning nutrient uptake and efficiency with the plan to use less applied PKN. One thing worth considering for UK agriculture is an expansion into protein crops to both deliver Nitrogen into the soil but also to create a sustainable route to dietary protein for the consumer. We are seeing a significant upswing in the flexitarian diet with people taking a more environmentally sustainable approach to what they eat by reducing their meat consumption. This non-meat protein needs to deliver everything meat did in a meal: the sensory experience, nutrition, etc., as well as being sustainable.

Post-Brexit there are financial concerns from research institutes as many receive funding through the European Union. Has there been a commitment from the Scottish Government to invest in research centres like the JHI or can you foresee this as an issue?

The UK government has committed to the EU programme until 2020, and this is the same as any other government. The Scottish Government make no bones about wanting to continue as part of Europe, and indeed our partners in there want to continue to collaborate with us: we are viewed as excellent agricultural scientists that can deliver international science and local solutions. Beyond 2020 it is difficult to make predictions and the current geopolitical situation does not help. However, we (Scottish and UK) scientists continue to lobby at every opportunity we can, and through case studies identifying the benefits to be had to Scotland, the UK and EU from being part of the EU research effort, we hope to ensure this will be so.

GM is currently banned in Scotland – what are your thoughts, and can you envisage a time scale where the JHI could run field trials or grow GM crops?

The James Hutton Institute’s position is that GM crops have the potential to increase crop production and feed a growing population using fewer chemicals and energy as well as to increase their resilience to the effect of climate change. Hutton scientists use this technology as a research tool to better understand gene function in plants to benefit economic growth, the environment and to enhance social wellbeing both within Scotland and globally. The Institute would only advocate commercialisation of GM plants in Scotland (or elsewhere) in compliance with the prevailing laws and is fully committed to advancing public knowledge on new plant breeding technologies, such as gene editing.

My personal view is that decisions around GM approval or not are emotive and although the scientific case for safety is overwhelming positive the legislative powers have deemed not to approve crops derived through these and/or gene editing technologies. As a crop scientist, this is disappointing, but we live in a democracy and we the scientific community need to get the positive messages over in different ways as clearly the benefits and safety of GM and gene editing technologies have not been convincing. Interestingly, GM crops and their product are already in our foods, sourced from international crop feedstocks or generated using GM-derived enzymes in processed food and this does not seem to generate the same level of anger. Similarly, GM is the common route for drug production from bacterial fermentation.

What current research or new developments are underway which would be of significance to Scottish farmers?

The step into the genome era has seen game-changing shifts in our understanding of biology and hence agriculture. In essence for crops and livestock having the genome sequence, the order of DNA nucleotides, or bases, in a genome—the order of As, Cs, Gs, and Ts that make up an organism's DNA, means that we now have the picture on top of the jigsaw box. The identification of the genes making up an organism allows us to create molecular markers, sort of barcodes, that can be used in traditional breeding to make it faster and smarter and thereby create crops and livestock with better attributes, disease resistance, quality etc.

Another spectacular advance has been the surge in precision agriculture employing an Internet of things approach and increased connectivity be it tractors, sensors, drone and/or satellites all of which are making the management of crops with regard to monitoring performance and yield, disease, drought etc much smart targeted and faster. Today's farmers are shifting from taking tablets to using them.