Interview and Podcast

A meeting of minds: where science meets technology

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Edition 1

Colin Campbell

Chief Executive, The James Hutton Institute
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In our first edition we were extremely fortunate to have the chance to interview Professor Colin Campbell, CEO of the James Hutton Institute. Professor Campbell spoke with our colleague Kate Forster as our first podcast interviewee and has also contributed through the interview below.

Q) Colin, can you tell us a bit about the James Hutton Institute and the work you undertake there? 

The James Hutton Institute is an independent research organisation in the United Kingdom, based in Scotland.  We study all aspects of agriculture and the environment and we are about 500 staff strong in terms of scientists and support in the Institute. We also have a post graduate school of over 100 PhD students and we have got several partners including the University of Dundee’s Plant Sciences Division who are co-located with us at our Invergowrie site, and increasingly a number of private companies also based with us.  When you take it all together, over our two sites and our research farms we are about 700-people strong. We carry out research, not just in Scotland and the UK, but a great deal in collaboration with Europe and also in Africa, India and China as well as many, many other parts of the world. There are over 50 different countries around the world with which we collaborate.   

Q) You have talked about collaborating with private companies, and I wonder if you could just tell us a bit more from your perspective about the Hutton’s collaboration with IGS?

As we are an independent research organisation, we get most of our funding from the public sector -  from Scottish and UK Governments and others - but one of the successes in our model is that we also work with the private sector. That is really important to us because the kind of research we do ranges from fundamental science through to applied and strategic science and by working with the private sector it allows us to fully translate what we learn and the insights we get into practical and useful outcomes.  

Our vision at the Institute is what we call an open science campus which means we are open to collaborate with both the public and private sectors. A few years ago in fact, we first met with IGS at a very early stage in the company’s development; an incredibly exciting new company working on indoor vertical farming. We had and have a large amount of our researchers based in crop and plant science and it seemed very sensible for us to try and help each other. IGS Ltd was probably one of the first new start-up companies to come and join us on our campus. It has been a very fruitful partnership over the last three years.

"IGS Ltd was probably one of the first new start-ups to join us on our campus. It has been a very fruitful partnership over the last three years."

Q) As CEO of a globally recognised crop and plant institute, based here in the UK, what would you highlight as the most serious inhibitors to sustainable food security in the short to medium term? 

A lot of people will be thinking that COVID-19 has had a major impact and disruption on the global food supply, but in reality we have to remember that climate change is the biggest threat in the short, medium and long term to global food supply.  It really is very serious and we have not yet managed to get on top of greenhouse gas emissions from our everyday activities. We have a very short time in which to dramatically reduce to try and minimise the impact of climate change. I say minimise because climate change is going to have a big impact, and indeed is already having a big impact, on global food supply chains and that is going to vary around the world.  It is going to affect different food commodities in many ways, but the majority of regions will suffer the adverse impacts of climate change. As such it will have a serious impact on where we have to try and grow food in the future.   

Q) Climate change is a far broader issue, but would you consider those challenges that we face both locally, nationally and internationally to have been magnified during this COVID-19 pandemic?

Without a doubt what COVID-19 is doing has given a bit of insight into what might happen in the future in terms of other major disruptions due to climate change.  COVID-19 has had an impact on the human resource in terms of a supply chain and fundamental supplies of labour and people to distribute food.  Climate change will have a similar impact in terms of limitations on crop production and disruption caused by extreme events but what COVID-19 has shown actually, and it is not necessarily all bad I would suggest, is that certain types of supply chain have been quite resilient.  COVID-19 could have been a lot worse, and could still be a lot worse, but our food supply systems in terms of logistics etc., have by and large actually delivered for us.  

There have been a few problems but overall they have been quite resilient. Clearly what this experience has shown us is that food supply systems can be quite vulnerable to this type of disruption and if we get worse disruption in the future we may struggle to remain as robust as we would want it to be. We do need to think very quickly of new ways to make our supply chains more resilient.  

Q) Do you think it is realistic to expect countries to increase their local food supply capabilities as a strategic response both to this immediate situation we find ourselves in, and also to the longer-term impacts of climate change?

Yes, I think localisation of production is a fairly obvious way to try and shorten the supply chain and make us more resilient.  It is not as simple as it maybe sounds for every type of food crop, however. Some of the technologies that are present in indoor vertical farming systems make some of our food production independent of land and independent of weather, which is fantastic in terms of the long-term viability of the supply chain.  But at the moment vertical farming is mostly suited to growing sort of short rotation crops such as salads, herbs, leafy veg etc., and the vast majority of our staple crops are likely to continue to be grown in the field.   

The reason we have a global food supply is that different crops grow better in different parts of the world at different times of the year.  There are also varying vulnerabilities right across the world in many climates, and it is quite a complex picture. To be resilient in that situation you need to have crops growing preferably in more than just one geographical location and subject to different types of weather threat.  Localisation is important but what we actually need to tackle are the big issues around variability and yield from year to year because of inclement weather, for example. What we need more than anything is predictable food supply.  We have usually tried to breed new crop varieties and managed soils to maximise yields, however if we are to think towards a longer-term future, what we need is more resilient systems and more stable yields from year to year.  That would make the livelihoods of farmers and supply chains much more predictable and be more suited to the more disrupted world we are likely to face.   

Q) What sort of methods and approaches might need to be considered for that improvement of localisation within the supply chain.  Are there any that you would particularly highlight that you think are more interesting or more viable to be considered first and foremost?

I think the advent of controlled environment agriculture is a huge technological step forward. The ability to grow foods anywhere at any time of the year using indoor vertical farms and the associated technology is a massive step forward. Obviously we need technologies that can grow economically and that is starting to happen with the higher value food crops such as leafy greens and herbs as I have already mentioned. As the technology improves and prices come down, particularly if we can get on top of the energy costs and preferably use surplus renewable energy, there is a massive opportunity to localise production and grow food all year round independent of land.  

You can envisage a situation for example in urban communities or remote rural locations where there are surpluses of renewable energy. They can grow food locally, cheaply and with greater certainty around supply, greater certainty around quality and nutrition. Indeed, they have the option to customise growth to suit local needs as well in terms of preferences around the quality and flavour of crops so that is hugely exciting. The permutations for how that might be translated to society is huge and it is a bit mind blowing when you put the power of that technology into the hands of different people what they will come up with.  For all of that to happen we need to really a) socialise the technology so that it is acceptable to people and b) democratise the technology so that it is readily available to people but if we can do all of these things we could see a real revolution where is food is grown locally in all parts of the world.   

Q) The concept of democratising the technology is a really interesting one. Playing into that is the important role of science and I am interested to know how important you think science and technology are in the advancement of sustainable food security and sustainable food supply?

I am a scientist and have patents and inventions myself and at the Institute that is what we do: we practice science and technology.  We actually do a lot more than that and at the Hutton we embrace both the natural and the social sciences. What we realised over many years is that you can have all the best technology in the world but if people don’t want it, it is not going to do any good.  

We do believe science and technology have a part to play but we must deliver what people actually want and they must be trusting and accepting of it. While we are keen to advance the technology and the science, we are also conscious that has to be done within a vision of what people actually want and need. We try to encourage our social scientists and natural scientists to work together on these kinds of issues. They are complex and we always remind everybody it is never entirely about the technology and never entirely about the social needs: it is about the combination of the two together.

"Science and technology have a part to play but we must deliver what people actually want and they must be trusting and accepting of it.”

Q) As we move forward do you think there may be a need for us to modify our attitudes as consumers to what we can realistically grow in our native environments and possibly consider the reinstatement of produce seasonality?

There is a huge bag of issues around this in terms of availability of properly priced food. There is an abundance of food in the world and in fact that is one of our problems: in many parts of the world we over consume and can see a real need to form a new relationship with food.  It is a sad fact that there are as many obese and overweight people in the world as there are starving people. Even in developed countries now we are seeing a rise in food banks and people who are insecure in terms of food. This is where the social sciences again come in to play in terms of governance and fairness around food. 

Again, the technology - if it is accepted and can deliver on price - has a huge part to play in this if it is democratised and can make food available to those that really need it most.  However, society has to make choices about its relationship with food: we can’t continue to over-consume.  Many lifestyle diseases are related to over-consumption of food and we are seeing this create particular vulnerabilities. Looking at the COVID-19 pandemic, for example, there are links between those frailties and the tragic death of people. We really fundamentally need to rethink our relationship with food and recognise that even as much as we are very good at producing it economically and efficiently, it is not fairly distributed. There is still a huge amount to do going forward.

"We really fundamentally need to rethink our relationship with food."

Q)   To conclude, I am interested to know what excites you - I suppose personally but also as a scientist - and what concerns you most about the concept or the need for developing sustainable food supplies across the world?

I am very concerned about climate change obviously, having studied it for many decades now and I do feel we are running out of time to make a difference. We really do need much more urgent action to prevent the worst outcomes and that worries me, but at the same time I am also very excited about the possibilities.

I have never seen so many technological opportunities open to us as we are seeing just now.  It is about getting organised and having a vision of a better and more sustainable world that technology fits into rather than doing it for the sake of the technology. In my opinion, advancing the natural and the social sciences at the same pace is the best way to tackle these very complex problems.

I am optimistic, even against the current backdrop of COVID-19 which can seem overwhelming. You can see people really reflecting on how we have done things in the past and whether that is the way we want to continue in the future. There is a real moment for reflection and consideration of how we can do things better.

"There is a real moment for reflection and consideration of how we can do things better."

Guest Bio

Colin Campbell

Chief Executive, The James Hutton Institute

Colin has been Chief Executive of the James Hutton Institute since 2016. He has a broad interest in sustainable development and has developed the vision and mission of the Institute around the UN Sustainable Development Goals. He sits on the Scottish Government’s Forum for Natural Capital. He served on the RSE Commission of Inquiry "Facing up to Climate Change" and was a contributing author to the UK National Ecosystem Assessment. His own research includes studies of the soil biodiversity and the soil microbiome. He is a visiting professor at the Swedish Agricultural Sciences University, Uppsala, and also has in-field experience of working in China, Australia and South America.

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