Dr Tina Barsby of NIAB
"....consumers will ultimately decide whether GM crops are grown and consumed in the UK, but I believe it is irresponsible to ignore, or prevent investigation of, the potential benefits of such advances...."
Backgrounder: The National Institute of Agricultural Botany (NIAB) is a pioneering plant science organisation based at the heart of the Cambridge science, technology and university communities. It is internationally recognised as a centre of expertise for the testing and evaluation of new varieties of agricultural crops and the Institute enjoys a reputation for independence, innovation and integrity. Dr Tina Barsby recently took over the position of chief executive officer, having previously been site director at NIAB. A plant geneticist with extensive experience in plant biotechnology and applied crop science, she is the first female CEO in NIAB’s 90-year history.
1) What are your priorities for NIAB? With my appointment the NIAB Board has signalled a desire for continuity and delivery. My priorities will be to maintain the standards of excellence in our core services of agricultural crop research and evaluation, as well as to establish NIAB as a pre-eminent centre for translational plant science fit to address the challenges of the 21st Century.
There may be a change of style, but not of substance – an acceleration of purpose, but no change of direction. 2) Has the focus changed in any way since your appointment? A major review of UK crop science in 2004 led by Professor Chris Gilligan of Cambridge University found that while the UK was a world leader in basic and strategic plant science, we lacked the ability to translate knowledge into meaningful products of relevance to farmers and their customers.
NIAB identified a potential opportunity to develop its expertise in plant science by providing a dedicated pre-breeding platform capable of translating basic genetic discoveries into material suitable for use in commercial plant breeding programmes.
That situation remains, and our focus will therefore be to deliver excellence in our crop research and evaluation services, and to position NIAB as the intellectual and operational hub of UK and international plant science in support of plant breeding for the public benefit. 3) Previous CEO Prof Wayne Powell spoke about the need to create a profit-making organisation. Why is this important for NIAB? NIAB is a registered charity and as such is charged with conducting operations to fulfil its charitable objectives. The organisation needs to generate funds in order to grow its plant science activities including significant investment in new translational research capability and an ongoing programme of site development at the Cambridge HQ.
NIAB needs to create and win new business, and to diversify its funding base. Over the past two to three years we have made major changes to internal business practices, bringing NIAB fully into line with the demands and expectations of both private and public sector. 4) You’re quoted as having a desire to translate NIAB’s science into “innovative products of value to farmers and consumers.” What kind of products do you envisage both farmers and consumers benefiting from? The opportunities for innovation through plant science are virtually limitless. For farmers, consider the significance of crop varieties with better yields, improved resistance to major pests and diseases, and with the ability to thrive in hostile environments. Research taking place at NIAB in collaboration with the John Innes Centre is already showing promising signs that we may be able to increase wheat yields by up to 30 per cent in sub-Saharan growing conditions by varying the crop’s flowering time.
Consumers can look forward to agricultural crops with improved nutritional qualities. An example from collaborative research I have been involved in includes efforts to help fight obesity by slowing down starch digestion in bread or pasta, both products derived from adapted strains of wheat developed by researchers at CSIRO in Australia. NIAB has also embarked on a series of breeding projects aimed at deriving novel products from crops including those for pharmaceutical and biofuel uses as well as investigating possibilities for under-utilised or neglected crops. 5) To what degree does NIAB need to establish corporate partnerships to deliver its objectives? Partnerships are essential to NIAB, and strong alliances are required not only with downstream commercial businesses but also with upstream research providers in public sector institutes, universities and Government departments. 6) As NIAB says, there’s a renewed interest in agricultural research driven by concerns over global population growth, food security and climate change, is the stance on GM foods in this country softening and does it need to? If media treatment of the GM issue is any guide, I believe public opinion in the UK is beginning to change in relation to GM crops and foods. Our continuing ability to feed more people, protect the countryside and address emerging demands such as climate change will not be achieved by turning back the clock, but will depend on continued access to the most advanced scientific and technological solutions available.
Improving crops through genetic modification is without doubt the most successful and rapidly adopted technological innovation in agriculture on record. Production of GM crops is now mainstream in many parts of the world, with over 100 million hectares planted globally by around 12 million farmers last year.
To date, use of GM technology has focused on protecting crop yields through improved weed control and resistance to insect attack. The next generation of GM crops is already emerging, offering drought and stress tolerance, more efficient use of nitrogen, healthier food oils and renewable sources of non-food materials.
Through the market place, consumers will ultimately decide whether GM crops are grown and consumed in the UK, but I believe it is irresponsible to ignore, or prevent investigation of, the potential benefits of such advances. 7) What is your view on the issue of food security and what needs to be done to improve it? Earlier this year, Gordon Brown became the first Prime Minister since Harold Macmillan to highlight the importance of food security, and the crucial role of productive agriculture in ensuring the needs of a growing world population can be met in the face of climate change and depletion of the world’s natural resources.
In particular, the Prime Minister referred to the role of plant science in addressing these challenges and the need to develop higher yielding, more climate resilient crop varieties in response. I believe NIAB has a key role to play in delivering these advances. 8) Will there be cheaper crops in the future or do you think high prices are here to stay? Already we have seen significant declines in commodity prices since the peaks of recent months, as global growing and harvesting conditions have been more favourable and plantings have increased.
However, the overall picture in the longer-term is one of continued growth in demand – both for crops as a source of food and animal feed, and for crops as a renewable source of non-food products such as biofuels, textiles and industrial chemicals. The challenge for the plant science community is to develop crops which will allow farmers to keep pace with these competing demands. 9) NIAB is involved in some work overseas, how far and deeply does your science reach and influence farming practices in other countries? NIAB continues to be instrumental in influencing legislative and technical systems associated with plant varieties and seeds in the UK and in Europe. Our unique status, as both a research body and a centre for knowledge transfer, ensures an active role in the practical delivery of scientific innovation through to farming practice in countries across the world.
Through extensive consultancy and training work on behalf of governments, inter-governmental organisations and development agencies we have helped deliver structural reforms and improvements in productivity and competitiveness in the agricultural and horticultural sectors of a large number of countries including Poland, Croatia, Kygyzstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Russia, Georgia, Uganda, China, Kenya, Ethiopia, Vietnam and Cambodia. 10) What are the advantages of a Cambridge base in the work of NIAB? Cambridge is central to the UK’s productive arable heartland, with most of the British plant breeding industry located in and around the city. Cambridge is also a thriving centre of bioscience innovation, fuelled by the excellence of biological research at the University. This dynamism attracts the highest calibre of plant scientists to Cambridge.