It makes a pleasant change to attend a meeting or event that doesn’t mention Brexit. It was in this spirit that I found myself at Newcastle University recently to hear all about the government’s industrial strategy.
The industrial strategy has been under the radar in many respects, but it is a big deal. It is the government’s plan to get the economy in shape, build on strengths and boost productivity. We’re already focused on this in farming but this event was all about how we make sure rural areas don’t miss out on what can too often be a policy aimed at urban areas.
There is a lot to miss out on too if rural areas aren’t covered, and that’s why the NFU has been actively involved. The government is aiming to spend 2.4% of GDP on research and development, and has already put nearly £750m into a ‘challenge fund’ for innovation – a big chunk of which is destined for ‘transforming food production’. All this is designed to address the big challenges ahead – to create the world’s most innovative economy, boost jobs and infrastructure to make the UK the best place for business and ensure prosperous communities across the UK.
The question I always have when looking at new policy is what it actually means for farmers in our region. The answer could be ‘quite a lot’ if we can make sure the industry is properly involved in this strategy. One issue discussed, for instance, was the fact that compared to urban areas, the countryside is home to fewer people of working age and more aged over 65. Its clear we need some innovative thinking here.
Another discussion point that was an eye-opener was how to help farmers make better use of data. An unbelievable amount of data is now collected, but apparently only about 2% of it is ever used. Accessible data can help boost productivity – and that’s what the industrial strategy is all about.
I left the event feeling excited about how we can link farming and research in our region. The universities in Newcastle and Leeds with their research farms, the colleges at Askham Bryan, Bishop Burton and Kirkley Hall, the exciting work of Stockbridge Technology Centre all combined with innovative work on-farm and in food processing means there is plenty of scope for more involvement in this emerging policy area.
The next step is to develop local industrial strategies that explore what needs to happen in different parts of the country. We’re working hard across the region to make sure farmers’ views are represented in this process. With the uncertainty of Brexit there has never been a more important time for farmers to have the tools, the data and the knowledge to improve their business productivity and profitability. The industrial strategy, implemented in the right way and taking proper account of farming and rural issues, should do precisely that.
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