CLA column: Join the agri-tech revolution

CLA rural adviser Maisie Jepson

CLA rural adviser Maisie Jepson - Credit: Archant

The agricultural science and technology, or agri-tech, sector employs nearly four million people nationally, is worth almost £100billion to our economy, and is one of the world’s fastest-growing and exciting markets, writes CLA rural adviser Maisie Jepson.

A combine harvester at work

A combine harvester at work - Credit: Archant

It is driven by the need to safeguard food security, as an ever-rising population and the rapid development of emerging economies put heavy pressure on resources such as land, water and energy.

By 2050 the planet will have to feed nine billion people and this will not be possible without embracing new technologies.

The agri-tech sector is not just about advances in farm machinery and management it extends to include the entire length of the food chain from research into crop and livestock genetics to increasing the shelf life of products. As a result, it involves large research and development-intensive multinational companies, major food retailers, small innovative SMEs, and family farms.

The Government launched its agri-tech strategy in 2013 to bring together all the differing stakeholders in the burgeoning sector under a common plan, with the vision of making the UK a world leader in agricultural technology, innovation and sustainability. It is supported by the CLA, but the strategy needs to be built on with continuing investment in agri-tech centres to help the nation move towards self sufficiency.

The Norwich–Cambridge Agri-Tech Cluster is one such centre. It was launched last year with the aim to better link the world-class research capabilities within the two cities, with the food and farming sectors in the neighbouring rural areas. This includes a wide corridor of farming communities and businesses in Suffolk, as well as Cambridgeshire and Norfolk. It is bringing together farmers and growers with scientists, technologists and entrepreneurs to create a global innovation hub in agri-tech in the east of England in order to help improve crop production both in the UK and abroad.

Input from farmers, growers, producers and processors is crucial to help inform new ideas in development, and to enable trialling and demonstrations of cutting-edge technologies.

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In July, the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) announced that 15 agri-tech projects were in line to receive grants totalling £18 million, with the aim of accelerating innovation in agriculture and increasing commercial viability.

By providing funding in these areas of research, the Government hopes to rectify inefficiencies in the system and reduce waste. In combination, these approaches should enable the UK to increase its food security. The projects that are being supported are diverse but fall into three categories: food security, disease and pest control. They cover the three key areas of the agriculture sector: crops, livestock and aquaculture.

Some examples of the successful projects include creating the technology necessary to develop organic natural-based pesticides, a means of using light to extend the shelf life of fresh produce, anti-microbial technology to control disease in potato production, and precision application of fertiliser and plant growth compounds.

The Eastern Agri-tech Initiative has launched a £2.5m funding programme to help local businesses invest in new market and supply chain development, essential skills training, and the progression, application and commercialisation of Research and Development across the region.

The £2million Agri-Tech Growth Fund is aimed at improving agricultural productivity with the introduction of new products, improvements to existing processes, and energy efficiency, and will provide grants of between £25,000 and £150,000. While there is £540,000 in an R&D and Prototyping Fund which supports planned research critical to the development of new products or processes.

Businesses from Norfolk and Suffolk can apply for grants with both funds operating until 31 March 2015. However, the funds may end sooner if the money has been allocated and spent.

For smaller scale, on-farm improvements, farmers and landowners should look to their Local Action Groups (LAGs) and the Farming and Forestry Productivity Scheme set to open in January 2015. Both will be an important source of farm and rural business development funds when the next Rural Development Programme for England gets going.

LAGs are made up of individuals from the public, private or voluntary sectors with an interest in rural development. As the funds come largely from CAP modulation it is important farmers and landowners work closely with LAGs to ensure the money is spent wisely.

The Farming and Forestry Productivity Scheme will be a source of funding for grants to support investment in capital equipment as well as training, skills and business support.

The CLA is encouraging farmers and landowners to start thinking about investments they would like to make to increase their productivity, or developments they would like to carry out, in readiness for these schemes.

To find out more about the various funding streams, and to discuss your options, contact the CLA East regional office on 01638 590429.