Last week saw the launch of the UK government’s Agricultural Technologies Strategy which aims to foster investment in technology and innovation while bridging the gap between scientific research and food manufacture. Ben Cooper reports.

The UK government’s GBP160m (US$242.5m) Agricultural Technologies Strategy, launched last week, does what government strategies tend to do. It promises much. The proof of the pudding is always in the eating and if governments consistently delivered on their promises, the world – and the public view of politicians – would be very different.

However, there are reasons why UK food manufacturers can hope for some tangible positive outcomes from the new strategy.

Arguably, a defining characteristic is its ownership by two government departments, the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills (BIS) and Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra), with input from the Department for International Development (DFID). ‘Joined up’ policy has been an aspiration of governments for many years, and the strategy attempts to realise that aspiration.

BIS’s involvement speaks to a second characteristic which sets this strategy apart from its antecedents. It sits within the government’s broader industrial strategy, launched last November, complementing plans for other sectors, such as construction and automotive.

With Environment Secretary Owen Paterson’s pro-GM remarks last month, it is no surprise to see the issue of EU regulation raised within a strategy dealing with agricultural innovation and technology. While stating that “good regulation sets the conditions for a well functioning market that benefits industry and consumers”, it adds “in some areas EU regulations are acting as barriers to innovation, particularly when these are based on a hazard, rather than risk-based, approach”.

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It states the EU regulatory pipeline for genetically modified (GM) crops remains “blocked” in spite of the fact the “European Commission reports finding no scientific evidence associating GM organisms with higher risks for the environment or food and feed safety”. The document concludes there is “a continuing challenge to ensure the balance is right between innovation and regulation”.

Crucially, the strategy recognises the potential of the agri-food business, the UK’s largest manufacturing sector, not just to provide sustenance but as an engine for economic growth.

Andrew Kuyk, sustainability director at the Food and Drink Federation (FDF), sees this as critical. “We think it is high time that our industry collectively was recognised both as a key part of the economy in terms of employment and strategically in terms of meeting our need for food, but also in terms of growth potential.”

In addition to joining up the work of government departments, the strategy aims to foster coordination between public and private entities and precompetitive collaboration within industry. “That is very much what everyone is hoping for from the strategy,” says Kuyk. “By bringing things together in a more structured and coordinated way it will have a sort of accelerator effect.”

There will be a GBP90m public investment in Centres for Agricultural Innovation, with additional investment from industry, to support the wide-scale adoption of innovation and technology across the food and farming supply chain. Included in this investment will be up to GBP10m for a Centre for Agricultural Informatics and Metrics of Sustainability which will use data from farms, laboratories and retailers to drive innovation.

Facilitating the translation of scientific research into commercial opportunity is another key facet of the strategy. Through the creation of a GBP70m Agri-Tech “Catalyst”, the strategy aims to “bridge the so-called valley of death” between the lab and the marketplace.

“What we’re hoping the strategy will do is fill the gap that is there in the knowledge chain at the moment,” Kuyk says. The UK food and farming sectors are “very good” at scientific research and new product development but “what we’re less good at is the bit in the middle, getting that translational research from the lab into something that can be commercialised”. This investment includes GBP10m, provided by DFID, to support the transfer of technology and new products to developing countries.

The strategy also allows for industry to be involved in the execution of the strategy going forward through the creation of an industry Leadership Council which aims to “unify the agriculture technology sector and make the UK more internationally competitive”. The new Leadership Council will bring together representatives from the diverse agriculture sector, including food and farming production, industry, science and research, and government, according to the Defra and BIS announcement.

So inherent in the strategy is the overall idea that it covers the entire food supply chain, including both farming and food production. In view of this, the name is something of a misnomer, and perhaps owes more to the strategy’s initial premise.

Judging from the detail of the strategy and the dual involvement of BIS and Defra, it is clear that it is more than an agricultural strategy. The fact that it now takes a “whole chain” approach may owe something to the consultation process that preceded it and the influence that the food manufacturing sector in particular was able to bring to bear.

Kuyk says the FDF was “actively involved” in the development of the strategy and he hopes that “we have contributed constructively”. In particular, he says manufacturers have emphasised “the need for a whole chain approach, the need to make sure you’re not doing these developments in agriculture in isolation but that you’re looking at how you bring these things to market, how you commercialise them, how you add value, and how you get consumer benefit”.

Kuyk says the strategy started out focusing more on primary production and “not looking across the chain and towards markets in the way it does now”. He continues: “They sought a range of views; it’s been an iterative process. I hope we’ve been a positive influence in trying to bring out the need for this broader whole chain vision and making sure at the end of the day there are tangible results.”

And, through its representation on the Leadership Council, the manufacturing sector will remain involved in how the strategy is rolled out.

For some stakeholders, however, ensuring that it is a strategy for the entire food supply chain is a challenge not be taken lightly. While the government stresses that the Catalyst will aim to support SMEs, Tom MacMillan, director of innovation at the Soil Association, points to the fact that larger and more powerful concerns, whether in farming or food manufacturing, tend to have the resources to engage fully and take most advantage of available resources.

“It will require a special effort to make sure the process is very inclusive in helping SMEs right along the supply chain get involved,” MacMillan tells just-food. “One of the challenges will be to make sure that SMEs, whether in farming or in food manufacture, can be fully involved and get the support they need.”

Notwithstanding this concern, the fact that the strategy looks along the supply chain, and specifically aims to join up agricultural research and innovation with food manufacture and commercialisation, is arguably to its credit. And evidently, in order to succeed in that aim and satisfy all stakeholders, it will have to do more than its name suggests.