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Defra boosts agri-tech

DEFRA HAS moved to boost the UK's agricultural industry by funding new farm sector research to the tune of £160m.

The Agricultural Technologies Strategy budget will, said Defra, be used to establish new centres of excellence, where new technologies can be developed, alongside headline-grabbing products such as 'cancer-fighting broccoli .

The strategy is also being touted as ensuring farming is as productive as possible, whilst reducing environmental impact.

Reaction to the announcement has been mixed. While many welcomed the investment as a welcome sign of Defra moving the domestic agriculture industry up the political agenda, some campaigners are concerned that Defra may focus on the wrong aspects of agri-science.

Meanwhile in Scotland, with its own well-established agri-science sector already given £30m a year by the Scottish Government, there was more than a hint of 'about time too' in the official reactions.

Rural affairs CabSec Richard Lochhead said: "Science and innovation are key to sustainable economic growth, and Scotland is, in many ways, leading the rest of the UK with regard to agricultural technology and innovation.

"The great work of those within the industry has led to commercial successes such as conventional crop breeding and livestock vaccine development.

"Scotland already offers so much on this front and I encourage Scottish organisations to cooperate to make the most of any opportunities for additional funding to ensure they remain at the forefront of agricultural innovation."

SRUC principal Professor Bob Webb, noted that Scotland had very much already proved itself in this area: "SRUC's success in supporting innovation and sustainable development in agriculture and the rural sector relies on our partnerships with others working in in this vital area," he said.

"These relationships will continue to be crucial in delivery of the strategy's aims. Scotland has maintained a unique system of supporting research which informs teaching and consultancy so is very well placed to take advantage of the opportunities the strategy offers."

According to NFU Scotland president Nigel Miller, the new Defra investment will also help innovation occur at farm level: "The funding is a very significant injection of money into bridging the gap between agricultural science and technological innovation and the creation of centres of excellence to drive uptake at farm level.

"Productivity on our farms has fallen in real terms of late and this a first step in getting back up the ladder and our agriculture becoming world leading again."

Mr Miller also reinforced the message that Scotland has a good record of investment into agricultural science research: "Here in Scotland, courtesy of a sustained commitment from Scottish Government, our research institutes have a deserved reputation in both livestock and cropping biosciences. These high value research centres maintain a world class status and create not just home market opportunities but provide export income for Scotland as well."

Levy board AHDB welcomed the Defra move, saying that it showed ambition for UK farming. AHDB chief executive Tom Taylor said: "Creativity and innovation is something we do very well in this country.

"If UK agri-businesses can harness the latest expertise, learning and technology, then our sector has massive potential to help the UK economy grow by attracting inward investment, substituting imports and increasing exports.

"The competitiveness and sustainability of our farming sector will be transformed if funding is channelled into industry-relevant research that is capable of being rapidly translated into on-farm innovation."

Organic watchdog the Soil Association welcomed parts of the strategy – such as a new Centre for Agricultural Infomatics and Metrics of Sustainability – but expressed concern that decision-makers will not listen to farmers to sort out the details.

SA director of innovation, Tom MacMillan, said: "Whether this big investment is good for farming, the environment and consumers will depend on how well government involves working farmers and the public in the new innovation centres it's planning.

"The challenge is to make sure this is a strategy for innovation in agriculture, not just for the manufacturing and supermarket industries that are upstream and downstream of farming.

"How the new agri-tech strategy plays out in practice will depend on the detail. While it pays lip service to minsters' unhealthy obsession with lobbying against the EU's precautionary approach on GM and pesticides, it at least seems there's no plan to fritter new money away on it."

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