North East scientist plays part in challenge to feed a growing world

Newcastle company chief sets up foundation fund to help region's researchers boost food production

James Garratt runs an environmental crops company combining science and nature
James Garratt runs an environmental crops company combining science and nature

For centuries people faced the prospect of hunger or even starvation if the harvest was poor or the crops failed.

There were no handy corner convenience stores, supermarkets or fast food outlets.

The Irish potato famine showed that as late as the 19th Century, the threat was still there.

Most people in the UK today take an abundance of ever-present food supplies for granted. But not Dr James Garratt.

The continued supply of food to a growing global population is his business.

James runs Enviresearch, which is based on the Newcastle University campus where he studied.

His Enviresearch business helps pioneering chemical companies to bring new technology to agriculture to keep crop yields high.

James’s first degree at Newcastle was in natural resources, when he studied basics like soil, water and crops.

“The soil itself is a resource and it won’t keep going forever if we don’t look after it,” he says.

He went on to study for a PhD at Newcastle in the use of chemicals in agriculture and where they end up. “If we can predict that mathematically, we would have the chance to make decisions about whether certain chemicals were safe before it was too late,” he says.

After he completed his PhD, James had a dream.

“It was to run my own company and work in something to do with science, agriculture and the environment.

“I had no money so I had nothing to lose,” he says.

Fourteen years later Enviresearch, which specialises in chemical regulation and risk assessment, employs nine people and conducts most of its business in Europe.

Firms seeking licences for their products from European governments come to Enviresearch for the Newcastle company’s expertise.

They need to show that their products are better than those already available and that they are safe.

“It is the governments which make the decisions about whether a product is safe,” says James.

“If our company didn’t have absolute integrity then we would be out of business.”

The use of chemicals in food production can be an emotive subject.

“In Europe, we enjoy high quality food at affordable prices. To sustain this, we must use the best available techniques to produce our food,” says James.

“The benefits of using chemicals is to cut down the amount of food loss to diseases, from insect pests and competition for crops from other plants. It means we can have higher yields.

“Chemicals are not going to provide the whole answer. But I believe it is possible to use them safely if we understand them properly.

“There are lots of ways of controlling crop loss and chemicals are one of them.

“If the global population is going up and up, the pressure on food production will be there.

“We will need more and moire innovation, and there is also room for the organic sector. It’s a mix.”

The big challenges are food production and water availability, he believes.

“It is good for people to know where their food comes from, how it is made, and the pressures farmers are under, and the decisions which have to be made so that people can have their food at a reasonable price. That is what we are trying to support.

“But we can’t assume that is going to continue if we don’t keep innovating. Because otherwise one day the food might not be there.”

Now that Enviresearch is established and running successfully, James has decided on his next step.

He has set up the Enviresearch Foundation, with an inaugural fund of £10,000 to help researchers build up their knowledge to keep the food supplies coming in.

James says: “When I was studying, I was lucky enough to visit Spain and Italy to work with researchers there. I got a lot out of it and now I’d like Enviresearch to put something back.

“Business has been strong for us over the last few years.

“At Enviresearch we realise that business isn’t all about profit - if you don’t put a little back now and again, there’ll be nothing left in the future.

“Enviresearch wants to support the next generation of technologies to ensure a long-term supply of safe food.”

The foundation fund will sponsor the travel plans of researchers with Newcastle University’s Institute for Sustainability who wish to visit research groups or carry out fieldwork in Europe. Applicants must be researching the environmentally safe use of chemicals in sustainable agriculture.

“The more that our young researchers and students can learn from their peers across Europe, the faster we’ll find solutions to the sustainable food-production issues our planet faces,” says James.

Details from james.garratt@enviresearch.com

The changing face of crop protection in 21st public lecture by Professor Robert Edwards, head of the School of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development at Newcastle University.

The talk on Tuesday at 5.30pm will be in the Curtis Auditorium, Herschel Building, Newcastle University.

It will look at how crop protection based on agrochemicals has revolutionised arable agriculture and horticulture.

However, Prof Edwards will examine how existing practices now face a massive challenge due to regulatory pressures and widespread resistance by pests to agrochemicals.

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