How can we boost technology take-up in the fresh produce sector post-Brexit?

High-level event called by West Midlands MEP examines options for industry action

Leading figures in agricultural research and policy are together formulating an industry position for boosting technology uptake in the sector, both at European level over the next two years and nationally after Brexit.

A recent conference in Ross-on-Wye, convened by West Midlands MEP Anthea McIntyre, looked at how her Technological Solutions for Sustainable Agriculture in the EU report, adopted by the European Parliament last June, should be taken forward. "What started me on this report is the fear that Europe is being left behind and that farmers aren't taking advantage of what's available," she said. "We need technology to enable them to produce more while impacting less on the environment.

"The report welcomes controlled traffic farming, remote sensing and the continuous progress in crop breeding, not just for pest and disease resistance but also for nutritional and health characteristics. The message I have been preaching is that we have to look at the risks and benefits using the best scientific knowledge and to work together to translate innovation from lab to field to fork."

The initial report, prepared at McIntyre's initiative for the Parliament's Agriculture & Rural Development Committee, grew out of a meeting at Harper Adams University. "Much of that survives in the final report," she said.

A final report will be published next month and a second "Brexit and beyond" report will be put to Government after the general election. So what were the big issues for the experts gathered at Ross-on-Wye?

Research funding

One concern felt by many is the UK's inability to pursue EU-funded research post-Brexit, she added. "It's one area where we get more out than we put in." Warwick Crop Centre director Dr Rosemary Collier said: "The R&D funding in my area of crop protection isn't in proportion to the rate of loss of active ingredients. I worry we will be cut off from European research at any level."

Rothamsted Research director of science innovation, engagement and partnerships Professor Angela Karp said: "The money saved on paying into the EU and CAP should be used to fill the gap in research funding. We have excellent lab science, then there is the innovate end such as agri-tech, but there is a gap in the middle. Getting researchers out on farms would accelerate adoption."

On soil organic matter, Organic Trade Board chair Adrian Blackshaw said: "Soil is a ticking time bomb. We have maybe 25 years left," to which University of Leicester lecturer Dr Trude Scharzacher added: "We also need to think about soil micro-organisms. They have a huge impact on the crop."

HL Hutchinson horticulture technical manager Jonathan Blackman said: "If you prove to farmers that something will improve their bottom line, they will do it. If you regulate against it, they will kick against that. Soils aren't in good condition but they weren't 50 years ago."

Precision farming

On informatics, AHDB director of research and development and knowledge exchange Bill Parker said: "Precision farming is largely about data, of which there is more and more available. How do you apply that to help make decisions that benefit the bottom line?"

Country Land & Business Association rural surveyor Richard Goodwin added: "Larger farmers are already using big data but the report talks of farms 'irrespective of size'. As the technology advances it will get more affordable, but maybe not in time. All farmers would like the best kit, but is it affordable given what they are paid?"

Worcestershire Wildlife Trust agronomist Caroline Corsie pointed out that if farmers are to be paid for delivering ecosystem services: "There is a whole range of factors that need satellite data to cost." This includes the use of LiDAR imaging to quantify farm run-off.

On the regulation of plant-protection products, McIntyre said: "In the next two years we should be banging the drum for risk-based policymaking. Commissioner [for health and food safety, Vytenis] Andriukaitis is open to this."

Bob Nicholls of agrochemical consultancy Laronkarn warned: "The big agrochemicals companies are dumping Europe because of EFSA [the European Food Safety Agency]. It takes five-to-10 years to approve an active. It's no longer worth their while to do the work for the European market. So the expertise will go and the chemical armoury will reduce to virtually nothing, which is of particular concern to vegetable growers."

He added that once outside the EU "we can reinstate COPR" - the UK national scheme for chemicals not regulated under the EU's Biocidal Products Regulations, such as rodenticides and insect repellents, administered by the Health & Safety Executive (HSE). "Its evaluation time is six months, not five years. The HSE are efficient and have the expertise."

Skills and employment

On skills and employment, RHS director of science and collections Dr Alistair Griffiths said: "We lack the basic data on who is employed in EU and UK agriculture and horticulture, though a lot of good work has been done to bring in new people."

Karp added: "We have a massive important job to train the next generation of agronomists, who can then apply these integrated tools." To which McIntyre said: "This is another thing we can bang on about in the next two years."

Professor Pat Heslop-Harrison of the University of Leicester said that at UK Government level "we must help Defra build up expertise to provide support to farmers - they don't have much now. This report shows what they should focus on."

Blackman pointed out that in the run-up to Brexit and beyond: "Trade will be a major topic, migration is a Home Office matter, pesticides are with the HSE, which is with the Department of Work & Pensions. Where is agriculture's voice?"

NFU West Midlands regional director Robert Newbery responded: "We will have to deal with more than one department and compete with a range of sectors."

Concluding, McIntyre said: "We need to talk to all relevant Government departments. Simplification is a strong message, as is an agile response from Government, and collaborative working to accelerate implementation between blue-sky work and practice. We need access to skills and labour. We appreciate that profitability drives businesses and we don't want to be a basket case that relies on handouts. We have to be able to survive in the market long term."

The final report will be unveiled at the Royal Three Counties Show in Malvern next month. "It's important that it includes the names of all these experts as it adds weight," McIntyre told Horticulture Week afterwards.

European Parliament - Influencing the next Common Agricultural Policy

The European Commission's 2017 work programme states that it "will take forward and consult widely on simplification and modernisation of the CAP (Common Agricultural Policy)".

European Parliament agriculture policy adviser Caroline Healy told the conference: "We are shaping the next CAP and British influence is still quite strong. Even though we're leaving in two years, others tell us they worry about a 'French CAP'. The pace may seem frustratingly slow, but politicians are starting to change the language they use."

Presenting McInytre's report to the Parliament highlighted the political divisions on agriculture, she added. "In plenary, 67% of MEPs supported it, which is not whopping - 26% didn't, mainly from the Green left, who prefer traditional, artisanal farming.

"For representatives of some countries with a big focus on smaller farms, some the language in this was too much for them, but no one from Bulgaria, Romania or Latvia and only one from Poland opposed. Part of pushing forward something like this is identifying who your friends are. We also share many problems, and so the need for solutions, with countries like the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden and Ireland."

Organic Trade Board chair Adrian Blackshaw said: "There is a strong logic in trying to influence the CAP now because what happens in Europe will continue to affect the UK even after Brexit."

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