Agri-Tech fund seeks to drive sustainability

Development of viral control for blackleg in potatoes and aquaponics trial cited as examples of fund meeting current need.

Meikle: case for further funding
Meikle: case for further funding

Details of how the Government's £160m Agri-Tech Strategy fund will fuel the sustainable intensification of UK agriculture emerged last week.

Ian Meikle, head of agriculture and food at government funding body Innovate UK, told a conference in London: "We have funded 52 projects to date and have already given out £43m of the £160m total. We think there is a case for going back to ask for more funding."

He highlighted the development of a viral control for blackleg in potatoes and of a commercial-scale trial of aquaponics as examples of how the Agri-Tech catalyst funding is already addressing current challenges. "Some of these are risky. We are not just doling out money, we are sharing that risk," he said.

Alongside the catalyst funding for specific research projects, the Centres for Innovation that constitute the other part of the strategy are also starting to take shape, Meikle added. Details of one covering "informatics and sustainability metrics" are expected in February, with specifics of other centres to follow shortly after.

Explaining the rationale for this first centre, Professor Alan Buckwell of the Institute for European Environmental Policy said: "Farming isn't meeting environmental standards. We have gone to huge effort and expense to benchmark agricultural productivity but very little on their environmental performance. We have to be smarter here and develop metrics to benchmark these aspects as well."

Food & Environment Research Agency director of science Dr Philip Newton said the new centres "have to be inter-operable", adding: "We want a centre for crop health and protection. It's important that partners share objectives, trust and a willingness to invest."

NFU chief science and regulatory affairs adviser Dr Helen Ferrier said she hopes future emphasis in research will be on knowledge exchange rather than transfer from researchers to farmers. "I hope the new centres will facilitate equality of expertise," she added.

UK Trade & Investment Agri-Tech lead Cliff Wilson said the agency is keen to help commercialise fruits of the strategy overseas.

"Growth is elsewhere in the world, and there are commercial opportunities in meeting challenges such as precision farming and molecular diagnostics," he said.

Defra chief scientific adviser Professor Ian Boyd said agri-science is one of 10 "emerging technologies" that the Government considers key to boosting national productivity and that "interface with each other".

But he added that agriculture could be transformed by taking up underused existing technologies such as robotics and sensors - areas that "we need to make more use of", said Boyd.

Fresh produce 'Go-to place' for innovation

The British Growers Association has submitted a bid for Centres for Innovation funding to develop what chief executive Jack Ward called a "go-to place" for innovation in fresh produce.

He explained that this would "better align with and access research and development funding and private sector involvement, while still keeping tightly focused on industry priorities".

It would also include "a knowledge exchange hub for best practice from around the world via a single gateway", he told the National Fruit Show.

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