Conference told farming has key role to play in Agri-Tech Strategy

'If a theme is missing, there is a good chance you will get money out of us,' says strategy leader.

Farming has a key role to play in setting the future direction of the Government's £160m Agri-Tech Strategy (ATS), a conference heard earlier this month.

"The Government can't deliver agri-tech on its own," said Dr Stephen Axford of the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills, who is leading the development and implementation of the ATS.

He continued: "Compared with something like aerospace, we are at a much earlier stage with agri-tech, and need to guide its development. If you feel that a theme is missing, and can put together a business case, there is a good chance you will get money out of us - it's ready to flow."

Sainsbury's director of brand Judith Batchelar, who co-chairs the Agri-Tech Leadership Council, which coordinates industry views, said: "Thinking is evolving on capital spending. But we don't have long to think about this."

However, Baroness Miller, who co-chairs the All-Party Agro-Ecology Group, said: "It's not clear to the public what 'agri-tech' is. It's not just shorthand for GM - it has to meet the challenges of food security, lower carbon emissions, biodiversity, health and consumer demand."

To which Global Food Security Programme head Professor Tim Benton said: "If it's not an agri-food strategy, it will work against the wider agenda."

Friends of the Earth senior campaigner Vicki Hird agreed, and pointed out: "Fruit and vegetable production isn't addressed in the strategy. We should look at import substitution rather than trying to export more."

NFU chief land management adviser Andrea Graham said: "We need to look at the bulk of farmers in the middle if we're to have a step change across the industry. We need a better understanding of what leads to uptake."

John Innes Centre deputy director Professor Michael Bevan commented: "A lot can be achieved by raising the standards of the lowest-performing producers up to the medium and beyond - this is fertile territory for entrepreneurs."

But Paul Rooke, head of policy at the Agricultural Industries Confederation, pointed out: "Farmers are a mixed bunch and they do not all necessarily want to maximise the uptake of the latest available technology."

Strategy - Improving the sector's skills

Judith Batchelar emphasised the importance of using the Agri-Tech Strategy to improve the sector's skills.

"At Sainsbury's we have never had a full team of food technologists," she said. "But if we can upskill the sector, we can not only export food but also knowledge and expertise."

University of Nottingham professor Dr Paul Wilson stressed the need for a balance between applied and fundamental research.

"Without the latter, you run out of knowledge," he said. "Global companies will invest where there are good people but we haven't got enough graduates in the right fields."

Without ensuring that there is a succession of skilled researchers, "in five years' time this could come to a grinding halt", he warned.

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