The Roundup on The Great Debate – Do We Need a New Agricultural Revolution?

Post by Dr Caroline Wood


How can we meet the challenge of feeding 10 billion people by 2050 whilst simultaneously addressing climate change, impoverished soils, mass extinctions and unsustainable pollution?

On 20th October, Oxford University Museum of Natural History hosted The Great Debate – an anniversary celebration of the Museum’s Great Debate in 1860, on Darwin’s Theory of Evolution. During this special event, the panel and audience (both in-person and live-streamed) discussed issues, opportunities and tensions relating to the future of food production. By the end of the evening, it was clear that we won’t be able to rely on ‘quick fixes’. Instead, we will need a whole-scale revolution at multiple levels: in our fields, on our plates, and in our attitudes. 


Panel Speakers

Lord John Krebs (Chair) – Former chairman of the Natural Environment Research Committee and Adaptation to Climate Change Committee

Helen Browning – Chief Executive of the Soil Association

Professor Sir Charles Godfray – Director of the Oxford Martin School

Stuart Roberts – Deputy President of the National Farmers Union (NFU)


In our fields

With global food demand estimated to increase by 35% to 56% between 2010 and 2050, it is unquestionable that we will need to keep producing more food. Although the prospect seems daunting, Helen Browning outlined the potential of new technologies to boost yields, including hydroponics and vertical farming; robots that can perform crop care and harvesting; and genetic technologies such as gene editing. However, she warned that the UK is currently ‘way off the pace’, and would remain so until there is more investment in farmer-led research, innovation and knowledge-sharing opportunities. 

As Stuart Roberts pointed out, there are also significant opportunities to boost production simply by addressing inefficiencies and yield gaps. For instance, according to the NFU, if all the 270 million+ dairy animals worldwide were as efficient as UK dairy cows, we would only need 76 million to produce the same amount of milk. New market models, such as direct-to-consumer and digital technologies (e.g. blockchain), could also help reduce the 15% of food that the WWF estimate is wasted even before it leaves the farm

But will increased production come at the expense of damaging natural ecosystems? The new UK Agricultural Act aims to avoid this by providing farmers with a financial incentive to preserve ‘public goods’ including air quality, biodiversity, soil health, and flood mitigation. Sir Charles foresaw that the Agricultural Act will result in a ‘patchwork’ of different farming systems across the UK, each tailored to their locality, with some being highly productive and others more dedicated to public services. 

Debate Panel (Left to Right) – Lord John Krebs, Helen Browning, Stuart Roberts, Prof Sir Charles Godfrey

On our plates

Extensive research indicates that achieving net-zero carbon emissions will require a global reduction in meat consumption and a shift towards plant-based diets. But as Stuart noted, presenting consumers with only the extremes of a carnivorous diet and a vegan lifestyle is not helping this transition. Instead of focusing on binary choices, we should be more concerned with improving the meat we do eat. As consumers, we need to stop seeing food as a cheap, mass-produced commodity, and be prepared to pay a price that will compensate for the development of production systems that are more in harmony with nature. Helen agreed that only by paying more for food can we allow farmers to escape the stranglehold of contracts that pressure them to produce as much as possible, regardless of the environmental cost. However, as Stuart pointed out, to avoid higher prices leading to food poverty, it will be necessary to tackle income poverty first. To this end, he cited Food Foundation research which reveals that the poorest 10% of households would have to spend 76% of their disposable income to meet current diet recommendations.

In our minds

Farmers are critical actors in the global response to climate change, but all too often they are portrayed as villains. Stereotypes regularly cast farmers as chemical lovers who rip up hedgerows and mistreat animals. Instead, we need to recognise and celebrate the farmers who are trying to be part of the solution, including those embracing regenerative farming methods such as pasture cropping, agroforestry, no-till farming and undersowing. Overall, if we want more farmers to become innovators, we need to support them – and as consumers, we can make that choice every time we shop.


The Huxley Room at the Oxford Natural History Museum where the original Great Debate took place in 1860.

Dr Caroline Wood works as a Communications Officer for Oxford Population Health, a department at Oxford University that specialises in global health studies. She is also a freelance science writer, focusing on sustainability, food science and packaging issues. When she is not writing, she enjoys visiting museums (including OUMNH obviously!), hillwalking and painting (badly). 

Image of the HMS Beagle

Darwin’s dockdown reading list

By Danielle Czerkaszyn, Senior Archives and Library Assistant 

Yes, lockdown 3 is long but imagine being stuck on a boat for years on end with no TV, no internet and definitely no Netflix. Luckily, when Charles Darwin set sail on the HMS Beagle in 1831 he had access to a library of over 400 books on the ship. For Darwin Day, 12th February, we explored some of what Darwin read to help him pass the time…

Image of Young Darwin
Young Darwin by George Richmond, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

As Darwin was following in the footsteps of earlier voyage naturalists, the Beagle library was well stocked with an excellent collection of books chronicling classic expeditions, such as James Cook’s three voyages to the Pacific Ocean (although this book is a later account of Cook’s voyages). Not only did reading about these earlier voyages inspire Darwin to undertake his own, but these accounts gave him insight into life at sea as well as fascinating details of some of the faraway places he was expecting to visit.

James Cook’s voyages

Many of the Beagle library books were beautifully illustrated with woodcuts or engravings of animals. Georges Cuvier’s, The animal kingdom arranged in conformity with its organization… (1827-35) had several volumes full of spectacular images covering mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, fossils, molluscs, crustaceans, arachnids and insects. While Darwin may not have had all 16 volumes with him on the Beagle, as some were published while his voyage was in progress, the numerous volumes Darwin did have access to would have provided a wealth of information and detailed illustrations to aid in species identification.

Using the vivid descriptions and chart in Patrick Syme’s Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours (1814) Darwin was able to identify the colours of the natural world and accurately record the colours of the plants and animals he encountered on his voyage. This beautiful pocket-sized taxonomic guide provided a uniform standard for colours that other naturalists would have understood and was an indispensable tool for Darwin in his scientific observations.

The most important book for Darwin was Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology (1830-33). Darwin was gifted the first volume of the first edition by the Captain of the Beagle, Robert Fitzroy, as a welcoming present for joining the voyage. Darwin received the second and third volumes while in South America. In Principles, Lyell argued the earth is extremely old and the processes that changed the earth in the past are still at work today. Inspired by Lyell’s ‘uniformitarian’ proposal, this theory allowed for the longer time span Darwin believed necessary for evolution to occur.

Reading other books of exploration encouraged Darwin to chronicle his own voyage. His bestseller was published in 1839 as Darwin’s Journal of Researches. A revised 2nd edition was published in 1845 with a dedication to Charles Lyell and his “admirable Principles of Geology.”

To learn more about what Charles Darwin read on board the Beagle: http://darwin-online.org.uk/BeagleLibrary/Beagle_Library_Introduction.htm.