Innovation is a critical part of solving global food security challenges, and presents business opportunities too, says Calum Murray.

Calum Murray

But, if the UK economy is to maintain its own food security and  benefit from the potential  global commercial opportunities that will prevail, we need to ensure that the business base both exists and is adequately supported.

As the UK’s innovation agency, the Technology Strategy Board understands that breaking down the barriers to innovation can be hard; these might include a traditional mind set, policy and regulatory hurdles, available expertise or adequate funding.

Our remit, therefore, is to identify and invest in those areas where we see the most likely potential to generate sustainable economic growth for the UK. The scale of the societal challenge that exists in the area of food security and sustainable agricultural production makes this one of our key thematic priorities.

In this case, this means that we need to understand both the capacity and the capability of the agrifood supply chain to engage in the process of applied research. It requires the presence of a strong,  UK-registered business base, with the capacity to match  funds from government so each side provides 50% of the capital to get projects off the ground. In turn, the public sector needs the  capability, often in the form of support from academia, to deliver the scientific expertise to ensure successful research projects.

Strategic applied research

Despite the international recognition of our world class research base here in the UK, there would appear to be insufficient acknowledgement of the importance of applied research. Too often science and academia reward only that work that is reviewed and cited in top end scientific journals – while high quality commercial research fails to receive the encouragement and support it deserves. We must all see that the pressure is on to deliver on the knowledge that has been generated by our basic, underpinning science.

Application, it has been said, is the payday for research, both in economic terms and in relation to tackling the global food security challenge. How then can we move this forward? Can there be a change in emphasis to place equal importance (and therefore eligibility for financial support and career progression) on high quality applied scientific research within our academic community?

Clearly we cannot cut off the ongoing work that delivers knowledge and understanding, but perhaps the time has come to redress the balance and reward those (with recognition and support) that accelerate the potential to exploit the knowledge we already have. In so doing, the opportunity exists to attract new entrants into all disciplines of agricultural and horticultural science and engineering.

Currently we are working with key  industry representatives (NFU, RASE, AIC and AHDB) to support them in the development of an industry-led roadmap, which we aim to produce by the end of 2012. The aim is to produce a document that will provide a concise coherent and integrated assessment of the R&D needs of the land-based industry sector covering the period up to 2030. As well as informing policy makers and funders, this will then feed into the ongoing activity of TSB’s Sustainable Agriculture and Food Innovation Platform which continues to focus on the four major challenges of crop productivity, sustainable livestock production, waste reduction and management, and greenhouse-gas reduction technologies.

In addition, it is apparent that the strategic importance of the food sector has now been widely recognised within UK Government – so much of this recognition will be down to the excellent work presented in reports such as those from by The Royal Society’s Reaping the Benefit report, Foresight’s The Future of Food and Farming and the recent IAgrE report on the importance of agricultural engineering, which was discussed on this blog by Bill Day.

Key stakeholders such as farmers and growers, the supply industry, processors and manufacturers, are  working together across the supply chain with a view to finding solutions to the challenges we face. For example, the Department for Buisness, Innovation and Skills and the Office for Life Sciences have just issued a call for evidence to feed into their current work on an agri-tech strategy, and Defra have commissioned a report to map the current innovation and R&D needs of the food and drink industry. These initiatives should be welcomed but there will be a need to co-ordinate the outcomes to help ensure that the collective thinking is properly aligned.

All of this activity, must however go hand-in-hand with recognising, and continuing to support, applied research in this critically important sector. In so doing we should ensure that UK agriculture enhances its position and remains a key player in the drive for global food security.

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About Calum Murray

Calum Murray, Lead technologist at TSB’s Sustainable Agriculture and Food Innovation Platform, graduated with an honours degree in agriculture from Aberdeen University in 1982. Calum started his technical advisory work with ADAS in Northumberland before being transferred, by the Ministry of Agriculture, to assume responsibility for the Breckland in northwest Suffolk. He moved on to private farm business consultancy with David Anderson and Co in 1986 before returning to his native Scotland to work with the Scottish Agricultural College in Elgin. Having specialised in agribusiness he was appointed to Bank of Scotland as national agricultural specialist in 1995 and became treasurer of the Scottish Beef Council until 2001. At the time of the HBOS merger, Calum transferred to East Anglia to as Director of New Business while retaining close contact with the agri sector. In 2006 Calum was appointed regional director for NFU Mutual Finance covering Northumberland to Kent, and in Feb 2010 Calum joined the Technology Strategy Board as co-lead of the Sustainable Agriculture & Food Innovation Platform.

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