It’s 2030 – Has food security improved?

Tom Allen-Stevens travels forward to 2030 and looks back at what progress has been made since 2024 to improve agricultural productivity.

What goes around comes around, it seems. The debate about food security and nanotechnology that we’re currently having in the first few months of 2030 has echoes of a very similar discussion that preoccupied many in the industry six years ago. What’s even more interesting is how the seeds of today’s debate were sown (quite literally) in the second issue of Tech Farmer published back in March 2024.

Cast your mind back six years to that time – swathes of the country were under water following what was then one of the wettest winters many of us had experienced, although it seems tame compared with the extremes climate change has thrown at farming since. It came on the back of the first signs of food shortages that then really came to fruition and hit the nation hard during 2025. Empty supermarket shelves started the stir of unease, and it was probably these that prompted Steve Barclay, who was then Defra Secretary of State, to suggest at the Oxford Farming Conference in January 2024 that “food security is national security”.

The call to protect our food security was one the NFU had repeatedly made to successive Conservative governments ever since the UK voted to leave the EU in 2016, as Baroness Batters to this day continues to remind the House of Lords at every opportunity she’s given. But it had fallen on deaf ears as ministers (including the hapless Liz Truss) sold out UK Farming in various bids to grasp at trade deals.

Finally, however, the message seemed to have sunk in. It was even repeated by former Prime Minister Rishi Sunak when he appeared at the NFU Conference in February 2024, and told delegates “I have your back”. Many asked then whether it was too little, too late to save an agriculture that subsequently underdelivered so seriously on the nation’s food needs during 2025. The haphazard way with which the government had thrown its £427M budget underspend on agriculture into productivity measures in the dying days of its last term in office has been the subject of too many Parliamentary Select Committees.

But there was one element of common sense that wove its way into policy at the time, and was thankfully picked up by the incoming Lib/Lab Coalition: the Agritech Delivery Fund. In particular there was the spending committed to genetics and plant breeding, that quite literally sowed the seeds of the advances we have in UK arable fields in 2030.

And that brings us back to the March 2024 edition of Tech Farmer. The issue focused on genetics, and featured on its front cover an article on the latest advances in gene-editing ready to come into the field from John Innes Centre and Rothamsted Research – the article appeared on pxx.

Surely it’s no accident that the same genetic edits found in that Cadenza wheat Professor Uauy held in his hand in 2024 are in the variety that tops, by a country mile, the AHDB Recommended List for 2030/31? An ever-increasing number of growers are now benefiting from the new premium paid by food manufacturers for the low acrylamide Group Three wheats that produce more healthy biscuits and breakfast cereals. And the world’s first commercial sward of high energy ryegrass is due to be cut this spring, with the potential to bring down methane emissions by up to 25% from the dairy cows it’s fed to.

You could argue these advances pale into insignificance compared with the LowN wheats now available to growers across the globe. Biological nitrification inhibition in wheat was largely unknown when the March 2024 edition of Tech Farmer landed (see pxx), but it’s tipped to deliver reductions in nitrate pollution alone of as much as 20% by the middle of this decade, before you even consider the productivity increases that farmers will benefit from.

Interesting too that biotech giants Wild Bioscience (pxx), CDotBio (pxx) and TraitSeq (pxx) were somewhat quaintly referred to in that issue of Tech Farmer as “agtech start-ups”. And those were the days when World FIRA (pxx) was little more than a hackathon with a few odd robots awkwardly manoeuvring around fake vineyards. Just 2500 visitors in 2024 – dwarfed by the crowds who flocked to Toulouse in Feb 2030 to see the latest jaw-dropping advances in fundamental autonomy and AI.

While these advances are awesome, the rather more sobering discussions at the 2030 event revolved around responsible use of technology. Global beef markets are still reeling from the effects of the 2029 nanotechnology scandal, that saw almost $1bn of US beef removed from supermarket shelves and incinerated. The USDA has yet to pinpoint how batches of zeranol growth hormone were contaminated with military-grade RNAi nanotechnology.

The inquiry isn’t being helped by the deep-fake videos circulating on social media that have framed everyone from Chinese terrorists to the US president herself. There is talk that this is an AI breach – a deliberate attempt by non-human intelligence to cause harm, although such a serious breach is fiercely denied by all signatories of the 2023 Bletchley Declaration.

But here in 2030, it’s raised once again the issue of food security, and at its heart is the technology garnered to increase agricultural productivity. So what do we learn from when this was last an issue six years ago?

There was much talk about food security at the 2024 NFU Conference (we didn’t have space for coverage in the March issue, but Tech Farmer did attend). Recriminations were directed at the government for failing to implement recommendations on a National Food Strategy made by Henry Dimbleby (that’s still gathering dust) while questions were asked about a Land Use Framework (that never materialised). Whether these would have staved off the National Food Crisis of 2025 remains a divisive issue.

What was interesting was the approach taken by the Foods Standards Agency on food produced from precision-bred organisms, unveiled shortly after the conference. The new regulations trod the very fine line between securing consumer confidence and enabling new genomic technologies. It set out to be “as efficient and proportionate a system” as it could be.

If 2030 agricultural productivity figures are anything to go by, the approach seems to have worked. Following Brexit, the UK dropped from the top quartile in Europe to the bottom. The most recent figures suggest the UK is back in the top quartile and the trajectory is promising. Arable crops are where the UK performs best, and that’s no surprise given the UK took the steps to ensure enabling legislation, while Europe continued to drag its heels on gene-editing.

But perhaps what shouldn’t be overlooked is the role farmer-led innovation has played in advancing crop genetics. The collaborative platform set up to do this, led by farmers and first described in March 2024 Tech Farmer (p9), now leads the world in testing novel traits – dozens of pre-commercial varieties have passed from the lab to farmers’ fields where they’ve been scrutinised and appropriate agronomy developed. It’s an open and transparent forum that generates trust in new technology. As Tom Clarke wrote in his column at the time: “when farmers collaborate they create value, and are able to capture it too” (p6).

There are considerable challenges with ensuring AI and nanotechnology can be trusted within our food system. But they have to be faced and overcome if we’re to advance as a society. The genetics revolution has shown us that proportionate regulation and the involvement of farmers bring results. So these are challenges we should be ready for.Tom Allen-Stevens farms 170ha in Oxfordshire and leads the British On-Farm Innovation Network (BOFIN).