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Agri-tech and the UK

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‘A UK Strategy for Agricultural Technologies’,1 which was published by the Government recently, is of interest not just in terms of what it says about the future, but because it shows how much the Government's attitude to this subject has changed in the recent past. It would be hard to conceive of this document being produced a decade ago when, after years of food surpluses, farming to protect the environment was being seen as more important than farming for food, when it was felt that national food supplies could best be secured through international trade, and investment in agricultural research had long been in decline. All that began to change about five years ago, prompted by sharp increases in world food prices in 2007 and 2008, and a realisation that, with the world's population expected to grow from the current 7 billion to 9 billion by 2050, and with the Earth's resources being finite, effort needed to be devoted to producing more food sustainably (VR, January 9, 2010, vol 166, p 32). Science, and the application of science, will inevitably play a part in this process, and that, essentially, is what the strategy is about.

The strategy document makes no bones about the fact that the UK's once predominant position in relation to agriculture and agricultural innovation has slipped in recent decades. It notes, for example, that the infrastructure to support the industry in applying science and technology has declined over the past 30 years, and that growth in agricultural productivity in the UK has lagged in relation to that of its competitors. In a comment that chimes, somewhat belatedly, with concerns expressed over the years by vets and many others with an interest in applied research, it remarks, ‘We have rightly maintained our commitment to excellent research but it has not been matched with a similar effort to apply it to agricultural production. As a result, the balance of funding between basic, translational and applied research is not fully aligned with the agri-tech sector's needs.’ It also suggests that this imbalance may have contributed to reduced competitiveness.

Nevertheless, the document is confident that the UK still has strengths in ‘all three elements’ vital to support the growth of this sector and that this will help to fulfil the strategy's vision, which is ‘that the UK becomes a world leader in agricultural technology, innovation and sustainability; exploits opportunities to develop and adopt new and existing technologies, products and services to increase productivity; and thereby contributes to global food security and international development’. It lists these key elements as: institutes and university departments at the forefront of areas of research vital to agriculture and related technologies; innovative and dynamic farmers, food manufacturers and retailers; and being well positioned to make an impact on global markets through exports of products, science and farming practices.

The strategy sets out a range of actions aimed at delivering its vision, including a £70 million government investment to improve the translation of research into practice, £90 million of government funding for centres of agricultural innovation, and the establishment of a new Centre for Agricultural Informatics and Metrics of Sustainability. At the same time, it makes clear that this is not just a matter for government; industry input and investment will also be required and the document outlines a number of measures aimed encouraging this. Among them is the establishment of a Leadership Council to give industry ‘a stronger and more cohesive voice with government and the science base’.

‘This strategy recognises that innovation is driven by consumer demand flowing from retailers and processors through complex and varied modern food and farming supply chains,’ says the document. ‘This is not about recreating the old government advisory agricultural services or the days of the man from the Ministry coming to tell farmers what to grow when and where and how.’

The strategy makes much of ‘sustainable intensification’ and, while the document acknowledges that the public remains wary of high-tech solutions to social and environmental problems, Judith Batchelar, industry co-chair of the Leadership Council, argues that this is not a term that people should be afraid of. ‘It is simply a matter of getting better productivity yields with reduced inputs and environmental impact,’ she says. Elsewhere, the document notes that, in some cases, EU regulations are acting as a barrier to innovation and investment and says that the UK Government will continue to work with the European Commission and other EU member states for consistent application of the precautionary principle, particularly as it applies to new and emerging technologies, genetic modification and pesticides.

On the launch of the strategy, Lord De Mauley, Defra's science minister, said that it could help bridge the so-called ‘valley of death’ between the lab and the market place. This is part of a conundrum, long said to have applied in the UK, and by no means confined to agriculture, whereby excellence in basic research is not matched by success in developing technologies that can be profitably applied. It is good that the Government has recognised the problem in relation to agriculture, and is taking steps to address it. However, this is a valley where many previous initiatives have fallen; it must be hoped that this strategy can be successful where many others have failed.

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