East Anglia: Region hoping to benefit under Government’s Agricultural Technologies Strategy

John Poulton of CROPCO

John Poulton of CROPCO - Credit: Archant

EAST Anglia’s farming sector is hoping to reap the benefits of a major Government drive to make the UK a world leader in agricultural science and technology.

The Agricultural Technologies Strategy, which has been developed in partnership with industry, includes a £160million government investment in developing cutting edge technologies, and taking innovative products such as cancer-fighting broccoli from the field to the shopping aisle.

The money will be invested in establishing Centres for Agricultural Innovation and an Agri-Tech Catalyst fund to improve the translation of research into practice.

The region, which is home to important research centres including Broom’s Barn near Bury St Edmunds, part of Rothamsted Research, which benefits from a multi-million pound scientific research partnership with Syngenta to increase wheat productivity, and John Innes Centre at Norwich, is a key food-producing area and is therefore well-placed to benefit from the initiative.

The National Farmers’ Union (NFU) welcomed the strategy which it said could lead to a step-change in the efficiency, profitability and resilience of UK farm businesses.

Regional NFU spokesman Brian Finnerty pointed out that much of the UK’s productive agriculture was based in East Anglia. “With the centres we have got in this part of the world, we would expect this to be important news for this region,” he said.

David Lawrence, principal of Easton and Otley College, said the region would be critically important in meeting the challenge to feed the world. “A key element of the new Agri-Tech strategy is to empower the industry and key research and education partners to work together to solve current problems and develop new technical responses. Much of this is related to the application of new scientific discoveries to work in the field.

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We welcome this emphasis and feel it is vital if we are to meet the food security challenge,” he said. “Having the right skilled people at all levels in the industry is fundamental to achieving the Agri-Tech strategy from technicians on the farm through to applied scientists.”

“Working with industry, the University of East Anglia and University Campus Suffolk and key research institutes through the Centre for Contemporary Agriculture we have set out to make sure we have an appropriate flow of young people - in this region and the rest of the UK - to meet these needs ranging from work to driving up the number of apprentices via the Edge Project through to BSc Honours degrees.”

Easton and Otley’s programme area leader for agriculture Dr Anthony Wilson said it was “extremely important” that the proposed national centres for Agricultural Technologies are expert in the transfer of knowledge to industry so that a robust platform for training and specialists skills development is created.

“The Centre for Contemporary Agriculture based at the Easton campus of Easton and Otley College is ideally placed to do this having practitioners, advisers, researchers and educationalists amongst its members so that any new technologies that are developed and its associated knowledge, finds its way quickly to industry where it is needed,” he said.

John Poulton, owner of Sudbury-based agricultural merchant CROPCO, said: “Anything that promotes cutting edge technology in the UK and that will put real resources behind it is good for the region. East Anglian farmers are already in the forefront of agronomic best practice and the region should therefore stand to benefit from this programme.”

Natasha Waller, curriculum manager for agriculture at Easton and Otley College said it was “excellent news” for East Anglia.

“As a college we are well placed to support this new strategy and we look forward to actively playing a part in its development,” she said.

Universities and Science Minister David Willetts said: “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.

“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.”

To take advantage of agriculture’s opportunities and drive growth the Agricultural Technologies Strategy sets out a range of key actions, including a £90m government investment in world class 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 £10m for a Centre for Agricultural Informatics and Metrics of Sustainability which will use data from farms, laboratories and retailers to drive innovation

Under the strategy, a £70m Agri-Tech Catalyst to help new agricultural technologies bridge the so called ‘valley of death’ between the lab and the marketplace, will be created. Co-funded with industry, the catalyst will specifically support small and medium sized enterprises.

The investment includes £10m to support the transfer of technology and new products to developing countries.

An industry Leadership Council will be formed to unify the agriculture technology sector and make the UK more internationally competitive and a new UKTI agri-tech team will aim to boost exports and overseas investment in the UK’s agricultural technologies

Also announced was £30m for four agri-science research and innovation campuses by Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC).

The BBSRC funding is for the development of UK research and innovation campuses at Rothamsted Research, The Roslin Institute at Easter Bush, IBERS at Aberystwyth and the John Innes Centre and the Institute of Food Research at Norwich.

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.