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AgriTech Centres: are we hiding our light under a bushel?

An invitation to the UK Agritech Centres’ Open Day left me suffering communications frustration…

An invitation to an open day hosted by the UK Agri-Tech Centres recently came my way. Attended by those in industry or academia, rather than farmers, it promised to provide an insight into the work of these centres, seen as the backbone of the UK’s vibrant £14.3bn agtech sector.

Coming into existence after the UK government launched its long-term agri-tech strategy back in 2013, which sought to transfer knowledge from the UK’s science base into ‘benefits for society and the economy at home and abroad’, the Centres were to be seen as beacons of research, providing farmers and growers with a steady stream of cutting-edge science translated into practical application.

Dr Ian Campbell, interim head of Innovate UK provided an effusive introduction. “AgriTech Centres are the business-facing element of public research,” he said, “transforming good ideas and science into real benefits for industry and business.”

Currently the country spends 1.7% of GDP on R&D, he noted – but the Government has stated its objective of raising this to 2.4% by 2027.

What did I think of what I saw and heard? Interesting and informative, yes. Exciting, yes. Reassuring too, to see that the funds are being put to good use in developing strategies matched by facilities, bringing together public-private partnerships and consortia to focus on near-market research. It’s also evident that there is a real buzz from those involved in the Centres and their work.

But as a communicator specialising in this sector, the open day left me concerned. There seems to be a lack of visibility for these centres. It’s all very well developing the science but, to have any practical benefit, these Centres need to be following a clear plan for transfer and mobilisation – and I’m not sure it’s there.

Supporting world-class agricultural research

First, let’s provide some more context.

In 2013, the Government – recognising that adoption of new technologies had seen Britain lead both the industrial revolution and the agricultural revolution – invested £160m into the agri-tech strategy. This would support the UK’s world-class agricultural research and development community and ensure that farmers would benefit, applying science to modern, sustainable farming systems.

It marked the government’s first acknowledgement of a UK agtech sector; also its first real admission that the (now defunct) publicly funded research institutions that existed until the 1980s had not been adequately replaced. This lack of funding for applied and translational research had seen the UK’s agricultural competitiveness go into decline – over the last ten years, our farm productivity has increased by only 0.9%, compared to the Netherlands, where a 3.5% increase in productivity appears to vindicate the value of having a robust agricultural research and development strategy.

Key to the success of the strategy would be the founding of four to six Centres for Agricultural Innovation. Building capacity to translate scientific innovation into practical and commercial success, the centres would not only improve farming practice but also stimulate inward investment.

Turning innovation into opportunity

Four have so far been established:

  • First to launch was Agrimetrics, the world’s first Big Data Centre of Excellence for the whole agri-food industry. It aims to connect data within the agri-food sector and find the value within it to deliver practical insight. Its team puts data scientists alongside specialists from the agri-food chain, providing a unique combination of expertise which, it is hoped, will allow the UK to emerge as a front-runner in the development of global food solutions.

  • The Centre for Crop Health and Protection (CHAP) has a remit for sustainable intensification of agriculture. By giving farmers and growers access to effective and sustainable technologies, strategies and products for crop growing, it intends to improve crop performance, quality and yield.

  • Leading developments in global livestock production is at the heart of the Centre for Innovation Excellence in Livestock (CIEL). Through CIEL, the livestock industry can establish a direct link between science and practice, speeding up discovery and adoption of innovative technology, and supporting pre-competitive research to set priorities for a competitive, sustainable UK livestock sector.

  • Agri-EPI – the Agricultural Engineering Precision Innovation Centre – operates in the new, fast-moving market of precision agriculture to help the UK’s agri-food sector develop advanced technologies that will increase productivity and sustainability in UK agriculture.

Together, the four centres aim to help the UK turn innovation into opportunity, encourage inward investment, and improve farming practice.

It’s this last point that, on the basis of my open day experience, doesn’t yet seem to be happening. Farmers in the UK often feel cut adrift from government support – they feel Defra’s conspiring against them or simply not working in their interest – while they come under attack from environmentalists, vegan activists and conservationists, and face ignorance from the general public.

Yet the sums being spent on the Centres represent quite the largest government investment in agriculture for many years.

This should be a message that the Government. Does. Care. About. Farming.

The whole strategy is designed to improve farmers’ profitability and productivity, while reducing their environmental impact. This is money that can transform British agriculture and turn it into one of the world’s most respected agricultural industries. It’s the type of knowledge that used to flow freely from organisations such as IACR, SRI, PBI and WRO but which up until now, politicians have preferred to leave the market to supply. In the case of the Agriculture and Food Research Council in 1994, “agriculture was a success story” – which the politicians took to mean ‘job done’, and promptly closed it.

Other countries “get it”

In my travels as an international agricultural journalist with IFAJ and ENAJ, I regularly see what a genuinely-supported domestic agricultural industry looks like – and it’s impressive. We’re talking significant agricultural producers such as New Zealand, Ireland, the USA, the Netherlands, Turkey, but also small countries like Slovenia (whose total population is not even one-quarter of London’s). Advice, information, knowledge, tips for improvement, trials for productivity, often in collaboration with the commercial sector: this is the type of knowledge transfer, and knowledge mobilisation, that – in the government’s own words

‘will improve the economic performance of UK farming through the development and uptake of technologies, knowledge and practices, and open up opportunities for transformational change in the sector not possible in current structures’

These Centres need to start talking more enthusiastically, more thoroughly and more regularly to the audiences they’ve been set up to serve.

Farmers should hear what the Centres are doing and about the amazing technology they house, much of which has evident, easily demonstrable benefits. Those in the supply industry also deserve to know about the availability of grants and research funding, and how to access them (something SMEs see as inaccessible, judging by comments I heard during the open day).

Not only would it be a huge confidence boost for farmers to know about these new developments and near-market technologies, but it could also serve to open up dialogues between farmers and scientists, farmers and developers, scientists and commerce, better guiding the Centres in identifying and pursuing priorities.

Let’s take an example. The Open Day revealed the existence of CHAP’s Plant Phenotyping unit, an exciting and valuable new diagnostics tool. Phenotype units reveal to scientists the genetic markers and traits within plants, including the genes responsible for herbicide resistance – right now, the most challenging problem facing British arable farmers.

Its practical benefit is immense, not only helping farmers to know whether their weed populations are susceptible, but also enabling crop protection companies to develop much smarter solutions – biological and phage, as well as chemical – to more efficiently target problem weeds.

While none of that’s going to happen overnight, reports about the opening of the unit a year ago (which also features a Soil Health Facility) barely featured in the farming press, while official releases from the Centres paid more attention to the invited guest Indra Nooyi, the Chairman and CEO of PepsiCo, limiting the practical news to just one line: “The soil health unit is unique in allowing precision control and monitoring of soil, water, crop and climate conditions under a range of tillage operations.”

A duty to inform farmers?

By failing to adopt a more comprehensive, more sympathetic, and better targeted communications strategy, the Centres are not fulfilling their true potential – or, one could argue, their duty to the expectant British farmer. We need to see them communicating their successes, and their work, to the audience they’re supposed to serve. Not only would they build up a much-needed awareness of their existence and remit, but we could also start to generate a deeper sense of pride about the direction of British agriculture and its opportunity to seize a world-leading position for itself.

I’ve managed to avoid mention of Brexit so far but, whenever we eventually leave the EU, agriculture really can be one of the beneficiaries if we’re able to leverage technology and innovation to its advantage, allowing Britain to take its place in the vanguard of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

Why aren’t we parading these centres as the beacons of excellence and hubs of innovation that they were intended to be? Within the collective communications strategy for the Centres, there should be an objective thus:

“to extend our reach to every British farmer, leaving no-one unaware of the Centres’ existence, their capacity for agricultural development and advancement, and the successes they’re delivering to British farming”

We’re missing a trick – and as often happens in UK farming, it’s the enthusiastic, open-minded, progressive and knowledge-receptive British farmer who’s suffering the consequences.

AdrianBell

AdrianBell