FINANCIAL support for grassroots farmer-led innovation needs a boost – because the current funding structure for agri-research and development undervalues farmers' own ingenuity.

Speaking at the annual Food and Farming Futures conference, Professor Tom MacMillan said the UK had ‘barely scratched the surface’ of what was possible in terms of transformative change in the sector.

Prof MacMillan, who chairs Rural Policy and Strategy at the Royal Agricultural University asked: “Are the UK’s systems for supporting research and innovation in agriculture working and, if not, what needs to change?

“A lot of the buzz these days about ‘transforming food production’ is about moving food production off the land, whether into greenhouses, labs, old shipping containers, tower blocks or disused tube stations. The implication is that innovation on farms has its day – that we’re banging up against the limits of what’s possible in agriculture," said Prof MacMillan.

“But I think we’ve barely scratched the surface of what’s possible in agriculture. For the past fifty years or more, agricultural R and D investment has focused mainly on inventing better inputs – breeding, pesticides, fertilisers, medicines, machines and so on. That’s where the return on investment has been clearest. And that’s what our research infrastructure is geared to support.

“There has been vanishingly little support for practical innovation in farming systems," he said. "We need a rethink that recognises farming is highly complex, that understands and works with a highly variable environment, and that harnesses farmers’ ingenuity. More money and bigger institutes are not the solution. Rather, the priority should be to boost support for farmer-led innovation, pioneered by networks like Innovative Farmers and the Yield Enhancement Networks."

Prof MacMillan said that this new focus would have most benefit if it could link with and influence formal research, benchmarking tools and knowledge exchange.

"The great news is that this is simple and affordable. From the experience of existing initiatives involved in the Farmer-led Innovation Network that we coordinate at the RAU, even £10 million a year – a fraction of the amount government already invests in agricultural research – could be transformative.”