Next steps for science and technology in UK agriculture

29 April 2022

Dr Helen Ferrier

Dr Helen Ferrier

NFU Chief Science and Regulatory Affairs adviser

A picture of Helen Ferrier speaking at a conference

NFU chief science and regulatory affairs adviser Dr Helen Ferrier presented to the Westminster Food and Nutrition Forum online conference examining the next steps for UK agritech.

Current state of UK farming

Helen opened her speech outlining the current pressures farmers and growers in the UK are facing, covering:

  • Brexit
  • new domestic regulatory regimes
  • Covid-19
  • rapid inflation of input costs
  • fertiliser prices rising four-fold
  • animal feed rising by 70%
  • fuel costs continuing to soar
  • exacerbating supply chain tensions due to the war in Ukraine

Part of rural community

Helen went on to highlight the importance of recognising that farming is part of the rural community.

“Many households and businesses are experiencing tough times. It is important to remember that farming is part of a rural community and there are families behind every farm business who will be impacted.

“These pressures are widening the gap between those people more able to do detailed planning and admin and make changes to their businesses and those who aren’t in that position.”

What farmers need from innovation

Uncertainty widens the gap between those businesses who can invest in innovation and those who can’t, and it is not an ideal time for innovating and taking risks.

But Helen said that doesn’t mean farming is a lost cause or cannot benefit from investment.

She stressed that farmers don’t just need new tech, or even tech that is new to them, to give them ways to be more resilient, innovative, progressive, or to be productive.

She explained that new farm management practices – and farmers having greater understanding of their own farming systems and landscapes – are all really important. Robust evidence for better decision making is especially important.

Farming priorities for research and development

Other challenges to adopting new technology include:

  • the lack of mobile and broadband connectivity
  • a lack of skills to initiate new high-tech or data-driven systems
  • lack of skilled labour to run new systems
  • an immature market for data-driven solutions in farming

Still, data sharing is too limited for farming to really reap benefits on large scale.

Innovation in policy-making

Helen told the audience that policies and rules should be based on robust science to ensure the evidence is updated. Schemes must be improved through evaluation.

She suggested there should be a system to organise and translate evidence into actionable things for farmers that helps them to make better decisions.

This could be in the form of a ‘What Works Centre’ or ‘Evidence for Farming Initiative’ for our sector, for which there is a pilot. This was recommended by the Food and Drink Sector Council and in Henry Dimbleby’s National Food Strategy Plan, but there is no investment to take it forward.

Out of adversity

To end, Helen looked to the future and explained that while geo-politics, conflict and climate change continues to impact society globally, food production and energy security concerns are focusing the minds of at least some political leaders around the world.

She told delegates that out of adversity comes invention and innovation – rapid changes we see under adverse conditions can in some areas be change for the better.

“Although the challenges are immense, the fight for survival can lead to collaborations and coordination that can produce a value far greater than the sum of the parts.”

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