Government to invest £160m in farming technology

Agricultural technology in the UK is to receive a £160m investment following the launch of a new strategy to deliver sustainable and affordable food for future generations, according to the government.

£160million will be invested establishing Centres for Agricultural Innovation and an Agri-Tech Catalyst fund to improve the translation of research into practice. The NFU believes it is very significant that agricultural science and technology are finally being recognised right across Government as essential to the success of the farming industry and its ability to contribute to the economic growth of the UK.

Developed in partnership with industry, the Agricultural Technologies Strategy will 'ensure farmers and retailers' benefit from the strategy.

Breakthroughs in nutrition, informatics, satellite imaging, remote sensing, meteorology and precision farming mean the agriculture sector is one of the world’s fastest growing sectors.

Industry is also expected to invest in the strategy using the latest technologies to ensure the process is productive whilst reducing environmental impact.

With the demand for food rising rapidly worldwide, the strategy also aims to make the UK a world leader in addressing global food security issues.

Agri-tech is a well-established and important UK sector. The entire agri-food supply chain, from agriculture to final retailing and catering, is estimated to contribute £96 billion to the economy and employ 3.8 million people.

"Some of the biggest brands in farming and food are based in the UK. We have a world class science and research community and our institutes and universities are at the forefront of agricultural research," said Universities and Science Minister David Willetts.

"To get ahead in the global race, this strategy sets out how we can ensure that we turn our world-beating agricultural science and research into world-beating products and services.

"This Agricultural Technologies Strategy follows the recent plans for automotive, construction, aerospace and other key sectors to secure sustainable future growth in the economy."

Defra Minister for Science Lord De Mauley said: "We face a global challenge to feed the rapidly increasing population in a way which is affordable and sustainable.

"We are investing in technologies that will enable British farmers to meet these challenges and take advantage of the growing demand in export markets for British food.

To take advantage of agriculture’s opportunities and drive growth the Agricultural Technologies Strategy sets out a range of actions including a £90m investment in Centres for Agricultural Innovation with additional investment from industry.

The centres will support the wide-scale adoption of innovation and technology across key sectors, technologies and skills in the food and farming supply chain.

This includes up to £10 million for a Centre for Agricultural Informatics and Metrics of Sustainability which will use data from farms, laboratories and retailers to drive innovatio creating a £70 million Agri-Tech Catalyst to help new agricultural technologies bridge the so called ‘valley of death’ between the lab and the marketplace. Co-funded with industry, the catalyst will specifically support small and medium sized enterprises.

£30 million for four agri-science research and innovation campuses by Biotechnolocy and Biological Sciences Research Council a multi million pound scientific research partnership between Rothamsted and Syngenta to increase wheat productivity.

The new Leadership Council will bring together representatives from the diverse agriculture sector, including food and farming production, industry, science and research, and government.

Judith Batchelar, Director of Sainsbury’s Brand, said: "Farming is one of the biggest industries in the UK which is why we think it’s so important to plan for the future now.

"This is the reason I’m extremely proud to launch a graduate scheme today that’s dedicated to British agriculture, it also adds to the 80 graduate placements we’ve offered in just the last five years. With the average age of a farmer being over 50 it’s important to attract and train young talent to drive technical development in a sustainable way and build on Sainsbury’s heritage in food technology and product development. The strategy and our scheme bring benefits for the whole supply chain - from farmers through to our customers.

"As well as making sure basic research is turned into new products fit for the global market, the Leadership Council will work to change the way jobs in agriculture are perceived, making it an aspirational area of work that attracts and retains talented people."

International Development Secretary Justine Greening said: "We promised at the Nutrition for Growth summit last month to put science at the heart of ensuring better nutrition for children in the developing world. The agri-tech strategy will help to deliver on that promise.

"British expertise is already changing lives. Supporting agriculture and food systems that address global malnutrition will help millions in Africa to lift themselves out of poverty for good."

NFU President Peter Kendall said: “The strategy resonates strongly with existing developments and initiatives involving many food, farming and research organisations and will catalyse lots of further activity.

“Skills and training for farmers are absolutely critical so that knowledge generated through agri-science can be adopted at a commercial scale. It is essential that the science is translated into activity and behaviour change on farm.

“Showing agriculture as an innovative, rewarding and business-focussed sector will make it a career of choice for the next generation of farmers, advisers, engineers, vets and scientists.

“The NFU is committed to working with the Government and the Leadership Council to ensure this strategy can contribute to a step-change in productivity, competitiveness and resilience of UK farm businesses. Profitability and confidence to invest are vital if farmers are to adopt innovative approaches.

“So we will also hold Government to account and urge action when policy and decision-making here and in Europe contradicts the aims of the Strategy. We want to see the Strategy encourage strong collaborations in R&D across the science community and with industry. The Leadership Council must proactively engage with the farming industry and have a strong, challenging voice into Government.”

AHDB Chief Executive Tom Taylor said: “Creativity and innovation is something we do very well in this country. If UK agri-businesses can harness the latest expertise, learning and technology then our sector has massive potential to help the UK economy grow by attracting inward investment, substituting imports and increasing exports."

“The competitiveness and sustainability of our farming sector will be transformed if funding is channelled into industry-relevant research that is capable of being rapidly translated into on-farm innovation. This new Agri-Tech Strategy shows the Government has real ambition for the UK to be a world leader in agricultural technology, innovation and sustainability - I’m greatly encouraged.”

Professor Crute was also encouraged by the strategy’s commitment to stimulate co-ordination, collaboration and integration along supply chains, including research, in a drive to use resources more efficiently, simultaneously achieving environmental benefit and increasing productivity – so-called Sustainable Intensification.

“Identifying where Government and industry should come together to fund research and innovation will be hugely important and central to enabling the sustainable intensification of UK agriculture – this is something I very much relish helping to promote as the route to greater productivity with positive environmental benefits,” he added.

At a press conference, Norfolk MP George Freeman, Chairman of the All Party Group on Agricultural Science, and the Government’s Adviser on Life Science, who has played a role in coordinating the project to launch the Strategy, said: "The UK, with its world-renowned research bases in England, Scotland and Wales and world class food, farming, engineering and IT sectors has the potential to pioneer the new technologies driving low carbon, low impact, low chemical and high output ‘progressive’ modern farming.”

Despite the cutbacks to agricultural science in the 1980s, the UK still spends over £450m PA on Agricultural and Food Research, and boasts many world renowned research centres from the John Innes (Norwich) to NIAB (Cambridge), Rothamsted (Herts) to the James Hutton and Roslin Institutes (Scotland), and Aberystwith, (Wales).

George Freeman said: “For too long successive Government’s have increasingly treated UK Farming not as a key industry but as landscape managers. Modern farming is about reducing impact and maximising yield, and the UK has the potential to become a world class cluster of Agri-Tech as we have in biomedical science: a world class hub of research, innovation, high growth companies and exciting new career opportunities. The home of the original Agricultural Revolution, the UK is again leading the world in the agricultural innovation behind a new Green Revolution in modern farming. This is a huge opportunity for the UK food and farming industry to export again our leadership in agricultural innovation to help feed the world.

“This is a huge opportunity for the UK agricultural sector. Rising world population and rapid development of emerging economies around the world mean that by 2050 the world needs to almost double food production using less land, water and energy. Breakthroughs in IT, remote sensing, satnav guided precision farming, automation, agricultural engineering and modern food supply chains are driving an exciting new ‘Agri-Tech’ sector, with new opportunities for spin-out companies, exports, and exciting careers.”

NIAB chief executive Dr Tina Barsby, a member of the Agri-Tech Leadership Council, said the challenge of ‘sustainable intensification’ was driving a renewed focus on applied research and innovation at the farm-level, from improvements in crop genetics and advanced agronomy to rapid advances in precision engineering and agricultural informatics.

“The Strategy sends a clear signal that agriculture is a key sector of the national economy and that the UK has the potential and ambition to become a global leader once again in the agri-tech sector. Despite tight constraints on public expenditure the Strategy allocates new funding streams to support translational research with impact and to promote closer collaboration and co-investment with industry,” said Dr Barsby.

“The creation of a new Centre for Agricultural Informatics also highlights the over-arching need for standardised metrics and proper integration of farm-level data to benchmark and monitor progress in sustainable intensification over time, and the opportunity for the UK to take a global lead in this rapidly advancing field.

“The launch of the Strategy sets a clear vision to build on existing strengths, to improve collaboration between public and private sector, and to exploit our competitive advantage at a global level to drive technology-based exports and attract inward investment.

“Now the agri-tech sector, from lab to field, must step up to the plate, integrated closely with the rest of the supply chain.

“The call for evidence and establishment of an Agri-Tech Leadership Council have already catalysed a great deal of activity and collective thinking – along the length of the R&D pipeline - to help unlock our agri-innovation potential. The Agri-Tech Strategy provides the framework and financial support to co-ordinate and accelerate that process. This is indeed a milestone bringing together industry, Government and the science base to drive an exciting new phase of innovation and global leadership within the UK agri-tech sector,” concluded Dr Barsby.