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British Government ministers rarely excite union conferences and congresses, but yesterday’s announcement from Business Secretary Greg Clark of a £90m government investment in agtech has turned heads.
Given that the announcement came just one day after Environment Secretary Michael Gove’s speech to the National Farmers Union conference, in which he declared his determination to see food and farming strategies attract greater priority within Whitehall, British farmers could be forgiven for wondering why they’re suddenly being courted with government promises and adulation.
The answer’s simple: Government has woken up to the value of food and farming. Perhaps belatedly, it’s recognised agriculture’s strength as the largest industrial sector in the UK. Bigger than our automotive and aerospace industries combined, this is an industry that contributes around £112bn to annual GVA and employs one in eight British workers.
Suddenly we’re on their radar. We’re one of eight key areas that the government, in consultation with business and academia, has identified as a priority concern. Far from being an industry of the past, we’re now seen as an industry of the future – one in which the UK can become world-leading.
In part, this is because the government has recognised how British farmers’ earning power has been boosted by new technology. It’s helping to make agri-businesses more productive and profitable than ever before.
“New technologies require new abilities and today’s modern British farmer is a Swiss-Army-Knife of skills,” said Mr Clark. “The skills of the farming workforce need to keep pace with the technological revolution.
“Farming needs to be profitable. We need to help make the conditions right for investment in the future. There is no more essential industry.”
Hence farming’s inclusion in the government’s Industrial Strategy – the long-term plan to boost the UK’s productivity and earning power. And that’s where the £90 million comes in.
New ‘Challenge Platforms’ will bring together businesses, farmers and academics to prioritise research project; ‘Innovation Accelerators’ will explore the commercial potential of new tech ideas, ‘at pace’; innovative agtech projects will benefit from support and demonstrations to show how a concept works in practice; and a bilateral research programme will focus on international opportunities, to help build the UK’s agtech export strength.
UK companies are already leading the way, enthused Mr Clark. Data, robotics and AI are creating new technologies, heralding new approaches – the Agricultural Engineering and Precision Innovation Centre, Rothamsted Research’s CROPROTECT app, and Ordnance Survey’s satellites being just three examples.
In part, of course, this is the government starting to set out its stall for a life after Brexit. It’s seen that it has a winner on its hands with agriculture and doesn’t want to do anything to upset the agtech apple cart. Britain’s had a long history of innovation and leadership in the tech sector: start with Turing, but don’t forget Sinclair, Acorn, ARM, ICL – and even Amstrad. The same can be said for the ag sector: think Jethro Tull, Ferguson, Bamford and Dolly the sheep.
Governments on their own don’t tend to innovate successfully, but when they create an environment conducive to innovation, the whole country benefits. For the glorious combination of agriculture and technology, we’ve got form. Let’s not waste this opportunity.