UK agriculture needs to be more competitive, says Jim Godfrey.

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As farmers we want a competitive farming industry because that is what will be sustainable in the longer term.  A competitive industry is profitable, more resilient, better able to withstand financial, disease and other shocks; it is more likely to reinvest, better able to provide good working conditions, environmental benefits, and give greater choice, innovation and value to consumers as well as being less likely to require subsidy.

Over the last 20 years we have seen the output of UK agriculture decline, mainly as a result of less land in production and less livestock.  The UK’s self sufficiency has decreased too, and the average yields of our major crops have at best only marginally increased over this time, the notable exception being sugar beet. The pig sector has decreased substantially as a result of UK welfare legislation and subsequent under re-investment, whilst the poultry sector has increased substantially due to well targeted research and investment in buildings.

Industry focus

To help the farming industries become more competitive and address the food security challenge we require more research and development.

The UK Government invests about £420M per year into agriculture and food research, but my feeling is that much of this investment is in research for publication, policy and safety. What we need is a change of emphasis to more research for development and into knowledge transfer and uptake in the agricultural industry. 

To do this effectively we need a strategy for UK agriculture developed by the agricultural industry which we can take to Government and the research community so we can ensure we have research which is focused on our priorities. 

Agriculture is very different to the pharmaceutical industry which has a more linear pipeline from research to product.  Agriculture is a fragmented, multi-faceted industry which requires interaction between researchers and the practitioners to solve problems. Hence, the Commercial Farmers Group has set out its four areas for research:

  1. Genetic improvement in crops and livestock exploiting the latest biotechnology (GM) methods to increase productivity (output per unit of input), to control pests and diseases, to reduce environmental impact and to increase nutritional benefits to human health.
  2. Increased productivity and reduced environmental impacts of crop and livestock production systems through precision technology developments, such as using automated real-time diagnostics for disease detection in crops and livestock; individual electronically controlled feeding systems for pigs and dairy cows; investment in high quality buildings to reduce environmental impact.
  3. Improvement of soil structure using crop management systems with lower energy input (per unit of output), such as no-till systems and controlled traffic wheelings in crop production
  4. Prevention and control of crop and livestock diseases to minimise the incidence and impact of both endemic and exotic diseases, including surveillance and monitoring of existing and emerging diseases.; development of more vertically integrated livestock systems to reduce animal contact between herds and flocks.

Policy progress

Food security has come to the forefront of government policies around the world.  The UK can take credit for providing much intellectual leadership through Sir John Beddington’s “Perfect storm” concept and the Royal Society’s “Reaping the Benefits” report. The EU, too, has published its vision for agriculture in its proposals for Common Agricultural Policy reform; part of this vision is for a competitive EU agriculture and Caroline Spelman, the UK Secretary of State for the Defra, has stated she wishes to see a competitive UK agricultural industry. 

Organisation is important to achieving the desired goals. BBSRC has included food security in its revised strategy and the research institutes it funds, which  includes Rothamsted Research, the Institute for Animal Health and the John Innes Centre, who are aligning their research programmes to this strategy. The bringing together of different farming sectors under the Agricultural and Horticultural Development Board is a welcome move to create greater critical mass and the joining up of their research programmes.

The newly formed Technology Strategy Board (TSB) Sustainable Agriculture and Food Innovation Platform has started to help fill the research gaps between the BBSRC, AHDB and the private sector. 

We have a good starting point. Now we all must work together to help UK agriculture to be more competitive and to fulfil our part in ensuring global food security.

About Jim Godfrey

Jim Godfrey is an arable and pig farmer from Lincolnshire.  He is a member of the Commercial Farmers Group, BBSRC Council member, chairman of the TSB Sustainable Agriculture and Food Innovation Platform and a non executive director of the Rural Payments Agency. He is a former chairman of the Potato Marketing Board (now the Potato Council), Scottish Crop Research Institute, The International Potato Centre in Peru and the Alliance of the 15 Consultative Group on Agricultural Research Centres (now CGIAR).

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