Farming feature: Could East Anglia lead way in ‘agri-tech’ farm technology revolution?


When the Government announced its new agri-tech strategy in July, you could almost hear East Anglia’s ripening fields of wheat and barley stand to attention.

Much research and many farm technology breakthroughs have started life in the fields of Suffolk, Essex, Norfolk or Cambridgeshire.

And now, on the back of a series of Government cut-backs, here was a story of money being ploughed in rather than extracted. The cash-strapped Government was actually going to invest £160million in cutting edge agricultural technology, and taking innovative food products from the field to the shopping aisle.

Backed by major research centres in Cambridge and Norwich, including plant science and microbiology experts at the John Innes Centre and crop research and innovation scientists at the National Institute of Agricultural Botany (NIAB), the region already leads the way in agri-tech.

The Government expects industry to invest heavily in the strategy which means that the cash coming in should be some way above its own financial stake.

Its aim is to transform farming in the UK, using the latest technologies to ensure the process is as productive as possible while reducing environmental impact and resource use.

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.

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Agri-tech is a well-established and important UK sector, the Government points out.

While farming on its own is a relatively minor economic player nationally in terms of pounds and pence, combined with food processing, it’s a large and growing sector. With world populations on the rise, its significance is likely to grow. Farming has a public profile and an influence which far exceeds its own bottom line and the importance of its link with food production and retail cannot be underestimated.

The entire agri-food supply chain, from agriculture to final retailing and catering, is estimated to contribute £96billion to the UK economy and it employs a significant workforce of 3.8million people.

Universities and Science Minister David Willetts sees the need to get ahead in the global agri-tech race, and says the latest strategy sets out a way of achieving this by turning “world-beating” agricultural science and research into practical reality through the creation of new products and services.

“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,” he said.

This region is certainly hoping to play a leading role in the strategy, and farmers’ priority will be to ensure that it delivers on the ground.

Brian Finnerty, spokesman for the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) eastern region, said a key issue highlighted is ensuring farmers are working in partership with researchers so they can help to shape future research priorities and close the gap that exists between the lab and the field.

“We welcome the launch of this strategy and would expect our region to play a leading part in its delivery over the next few years. It’s significant that agricultural science and technology are finally being recognised across Government as essential to the success of the farming industry and its ability to contribute to the economic growth of the UK,” he said.

“We’ve had a lot of input into the strategy as it’s taken shape. The research priorities identified in the Feeding the Future report, jointly commissioned by the NFU, are included in the document and the NFU-led Agri-Skills Forum is mentioned as well. The challenge now is to ensure the strategy delivers what our members need.

“In East Anglia, we’ve got important research establishments doing some really good work, from drought-tolerant cropping to better soil management and precision farming techniques.”

The strategy also talks about the need for new and improved skills for farmers and improving the attractiveness of the sector to new entrants.

David Lawrence, principal of Easton and Otley College, believes the eastern region will be “critically important” in meeting the challenge to feed us over the next 50 years, with internationally-renowned research institutes.

“We need to be seen to make a real difference,” he said.

“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. We welcome this emphasis and feel it is vital if we are to meet the food security challenge.”

Having people with the right skills will be fundamental to achieving the strategy, from technicians on the farm through to applied scientists.

East Anglia has already begun to address the skills gap through a collaboration between different farm-related interest groups has created the EDGE initiative which is already trying to address the skills gap and has already signed up 100 apprentices on schemes around Suffolk and Norfolk.

“Working with industry, UEA and UCS 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 Bachelor of Science honours degrees,” said Mr Lawrence.

The National Farmers’ Union said it would continue to support the EDGE initiative as it expands across the rest of the region.

The NFU’s Mr Finnerty pointed out that a key area of the strategy was £90m of funding to set up new Centres for Agricultural Innovation, aligned to sector priorities, to help businesses develop, adopt and exploit new technologies and processes.

“Their locations haven’t been decided yet but East Anglia would be a strong candidate with so much productive agriculture in this region and the research already taking place here,” he said.

Suffolk-based local food campaigner Caroline Cranbrook, who is involved in organising this year’s Aldeburgh Food and Drink Festival Conference at Snape on September 27, welcomed the announcement, which she believes plays to the region’s strengths.

“It’s so exciting what’s happening in our region,” she said. “Collectively we have more plant scientists than anywhere else in the world. It chimes in very well with what we are doing at the Aldeburgh food conference.” It is important to bridge the knowledge gap between the laboratory and the market place, she said.

“This can only be positive because it’s in order to make sure the research being undertaken in this region will benefit all farmers,” she added. “In a time of crisis when we know availability is going down and costs up we need all the skills to ensures we can produce sufficient food sustainably.”

Within the UK and Europe, the row about genetically modified (GM) crops rages on with no resolution in sight, but in Lady Cranbrook’s view, the debate has moved on. Genetic manipulation of cereals has been going on for thousands of years, she points out, and much of the research now involves accelerating that process.

But the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England (CPRE) has warned the Government that it needs “to avoid the mistakes of the past” and ensure the agri-tech strategy doesn’t negatively affect our wildlife and landscapes.

CPRE senior food and farming campaigner Ian Woodhurst warned against turning agri-tech into a drive towards so-called “mega-farms”, and ensure that the innovations benefit a diverse agricultural and food sector.

He pointed to the CPRE’s own Vision for Farming report, which sets out its aspiration for centres of agricultural excellence and innovation developing new technology and farming practices which produce the food we need without damaging the environment.

One of the other big beneficiaries of the strategy will be research centres, and NIAB, which is based in Cambridge but also runs research within Suffolk, has also welcomed the strategy as “a clear signal that Government is committed to unlocking the economic and productive potential of the UK agri-science base, and to supporting a resilient, hi-tech and globally competitive UK farming sector”.

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,” she said.

“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.”

As part of the strategy, the Government plans to invest £90m in “world class” Centres for Agricultural Innovation with additional investment from industry.

These centres will support the wide-scale adoption of innovation and technology across key sectors in the food and farming supply chain. It 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.

A further £70m will be used to create an “Agri-Tech Catalyst” to help new agricultural technologies bridge the so-called ‘valley of death’ between the lab and the marketplace. Again, this will be co-funded by industry, and is specifically aimed at supporting 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 aimed at unifying the agriculture technology sector and make the UK more internationally competitive will be set up, and a new UKTI agri-tech team will be tasked with boosting exports and overseas investment in the UK’s agricultural technologies.

In addition to these measures, around £30m, from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council will be used to fund four agri-science research and innovation campuses.

At the same time, a multi million pound scientific research partnership is being forged between Rothamsted, an arable crop research organisation which includes Brooms Barn, a national centre for sugar beet research based at Bury St Edmunds, and agribusiness Syngenta, which has a based in Cambridge, to increase wheat productivity.

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

Dr Barsby said: “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.”

It was now up to the agri-tech sector, from lab to field, to step up to the plate, she said.

“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,” she stated.

“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.”

The CPRE’s Mr Woodhurst pointed out that even small, inexpensive technological innovations can make “a big difference” when it comes to boosting farmers’ yields and profits, and pointed up the importance of developing innovative technology and farming practices for farms of all sizes.

“It’s in this way that we can have high quality, healthy and affordable food produced where’s it needed, in environmentally sustainable ways,” he said.

Lady Cranbrook, herself a member of the CPRE and a former vice president, believes that the strategy firmly embraces this ideal.

“Anything that can transfer knowledge and improve our farming processes so we use fewer chemicals and less water and less fertiliser and a smaller carbon footprint is something I certainly welcome,” she said.

The strategy was “a compliment to the region”, she added.

“It has, without doubt, the most important collection of research institutes in the world. We are employing more land scientists than in any other region.”

The Country Land and Business Association (CLA)’s agricultural adviser Edward Barker, whose family farms at Westhorpe, near Stowmarket, and has pioneered conservation-minded, high yield farming, believes the region is bound to benefit from agri-tech.

“I think the area that has the most to gain from the strategy is the East of England where you have got the majority of the output of the cereals and combinable crops etc,” he said.

The strategy, a year or so in the making, shows how the public and private research sector and farming as an industry can work closely together to find answers, and build on the “excellent” agri-technology which is already in existence, he said. While a lot of the detail has still to be revealed, the £90m towards Centres for Agricultural Innovation was “hugely significant” for Suffolk, he said.

It was one of the few counties, along with Norfolk and Cambridgeshire, which was really profiting from agri-technology such as satnav and digital farming.

“I think the issue is to take what’s already been developing inthe commercial sector. I think this is to really stimulate the roll-out of that research. What we want to see is for that technology to be available on a small or medium farmholding. That’s obviously going to be a challenge,” he said.

“I think the biggest weakness in the chain is where applied research goes onto commercial roll-out,” he said. “Waiting for investments to come through has often resulted in a delay in roll-out and we really need to see that sped up.”

The CLA has written its own policy paper, Future Farming - CLA Policy on Biotechnology.

Among its recommendations is to ensure that intellectual capital is not drained from the UK’s agri-tech research hubs, such as John Innes and Rothamsted.

It calls on the government to ensure that private agri-firms view the UK as an attractive place to invest in, and use initiatives, such as the agri-tech strategy, to facilitate a close working relationship between farmers, landowners, researchers and private investors.

“We also feel that the Government must do all it can to remove much of the unnecessary regulation at a European level that hinders significant research being applied at a farm level,” he said.

“The ‘precautionary principle’ of decision making is misused, and as a result scientific decisions are often overtaken by political or ideological ones.”

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