Policy paper

UK strategy for agricultural technologies: executive summary

Updated 24 December 2013

This is a summary of the government’s strategy for agricultural technologies.

Woman with clipboard, surrounded by plants in a commercial greenhouse

1. Industrial strategy

To invest and grow, business needs long term certainty and a government that behaves more like a business, sticking to long-term plans to tackle economic weakness and instability. Industrial strategy is about government and industry working together over the longer term to grow commercial opportunities, stimulate economic growth and create jobs.

2. Agricultural technologies: the vision

This is the first time the UK government, science base and food and farming industry have come together to identify and develop the opportunities and strengths of the UK agricultural technologies (agri-tech) sector. Led by the Agri-Tech Leadership Council, this strategy is the outcome of consultation and partnership with the agri-tech communities to agree a set of actions to deliver our vision:

We want the UK to become a world leader in agricultural technology, innovation and sustainability; exploit opportunities to develop and adopt new and existing technologies, products and services to increase productivity; and contribute to global food security and international development.

3. Why now?

Agricultural science and technology is rapidly becoming one of the world’s fastest growing and exciting markets. It is driven by global changes: a rising population, rapid development of emerging economies with western lifestyle aspirations and growing geopolitical instability around shortages of land, water and energy.

A technology revolution is also taking place. Breakthroughs in nutrition, genetics, informatics, satellite imaging, remote sensing, meteorology, precision farming and low impact agriculture mean agri-tech has huge potential for development.

Agri-tech is a well-established and important UK sector. The entire agri-food supply chain, from agriculture to final retailing and catering, is estimated to contribute £96 billion or 7% of gross value added. The UK exported £18 billion of food, feed and drink in 2012 and is one of the top 12 food and drink exporters. Employment for the whole food supply chain that includes agriculture and fishing is 3.8 million.

4. UK strengths

The UK has strengths in all the 3 elements that are vital to support the growth of the sector:

  • we have institutes and university departments at the forefront of areas of scientific research vital to agriculture and related technologies
  • we have innovative and dynamic farmers, food manufacturers and retailers
  • we are well positioned to make an impact on global markets through exports of products, science and farming practices

This strategy is about better integrating the UK’s progressive food and farming businesses, and world class science base, with the government’s support for trade, investment and international development. The aim is to help unlock a new phase of global leadership in agricultural innovation.

5. Where we need to improve

The infrastructure to support industry in applying science and technology to help modern farming and food production has declined over the past 30 years. UK agriculture’s productivity growth has declined relative to our major competitors. Aspects of the current regulatory regime and skills gaps can hinder the UK in developing and using innovation and new technologies.

We want to address these gaps and meet the huge potential to attract more global investment and EU funding into the UK and open up new global markets for UK leadership in agri-tech innovation.

6. What we will do

The strategy sets out a range of actions for the Agri-tech Leadership Council, industry, government and the science base to deliver our vision for the agri-tech sector. The actions will:

  • improve the translation of research into practice through a £70 million government investment in an Agri-Tech Catalyst which will provide a single fund for projects, all the way from the laboratory to market; this will include £10 million to deliver international development objectives
  • increase support to develop, adopt and exploit new technologies and processes through £90 million of government funding for Centres for Agricultural Innovation
  • help the UK exploit the potential of big data and informatics and become a global centre of excellence by establishing a Centre for Agricultural Informatics and Metrics of Sustainability
  • provide stronger leadership for the sector; the Agri-tech Leadership Council gives industry a stronger and more cohesive voice with government and the science base
  • build a stronger skills base through industry-led actions to attract and retain a workforce that is expert in developing and applying technologies from the laboratory to the farm
  • increase alignment of industry research funding with public sector spend by increasing understanding of what is being spent and where
  • increase UK export and inward investment performance through targeted sector support

7. Implementation

The newly-established Agri-tech Leadership Council will oversee the delivery of the actions in this strategy. The council will help to prioritise and focus activities, reduce duplication by the Technology Strategy Board (TSB) and other funding bodies, and facilitate integration.

The success of the strategy will depend on the whole agri-tech sector leading, participating and co-investing. The potential rewards are increased productivity, reduced costs, growth, new investment and jobs and tackling the challenges of sustainable intensification and global food security.

8. World class research

The UK has a science and research base that is world class across a number of agricultural technology disciplines. Government spent £450 million on research and development in agriculture and food in 2011 to 2012, including substantial capital expenditure supporting research institutes and campuses. Conservative estimates of private sector investment in agricultural research and development in the sector suggest it is at least £100 million a year. However, this underestimates the true activity as farming makes up only one part of the agri-tech sector.

The research landscape is complex, involving many different institutions from agricultural colleges, universities and institutes as well as private organisations; research takes place across the UK. Large companies like Syngenta and British Sugar as well as major retailers all fund major research activities.

9. Increasing investment in agri-tech

We want to increase investment across a range of disciplines, some of which are:

  • crop and livestock genomics
  • agri-engineering (sensors, autonomous vehicles, robotics, precision agriculture)
  • genetics
  • nutrition
  • food science
  • health in crops and livestock
  • plant breeding
  • environmental sciences
  • human nutrition
  • functional foods
  • nutraceuticals
  • clean technology and energy generation from waste
  • industrial and synthetic biology

Much high quality and useful research is taking place. However it is fragmented, with too few commonly agreed priorities. Not enough research is commercialised, so farmers and food manufacturers are unable to take advantage of the opportunities and productivity improvements that new technology and innovation provides.

To resolve this confusion, the Leadership Council, working alongside others, will conduct a comprehensive mapping and evaluation of private and government funding available for research, translation and innovation. The Leadership Council will use this as a basis to better prioritise and coordinate research

Building on existing reports, the Leadership Council will work with the research councils to identify the skills needed to support the agri-tech research base.

To specifically address the need to commercialise more agricultural technologies in the UK, the government will:

  • invest £60 million through the TSB to establish an Agri-Tech Catalyst to support the ‘proof of concept’ development of near-market agricultural innovations
  • contribute an additional £10 million through DfID to the Catalyst to support the transfer of technology and new products to developing countries
  • invest £90 million over 5 years to establish a small number of Centres for Agricultural Innovation to support advances in sustainable intensification

We want to see more private sector investment. The Catalyst fund and the Centres for Agricultural Innovation will be developed and co-funded with industry either in cash, or in kind.

The first Centre for Agricultural Innovation will focus on big data, and establish the UK as a world class centre in agricultural informatics: the metrics and performance indicators needed at field, farm and landscape level to improve productivity and ensure a balance between efficiency and resource impact.

10. Food and farming supply chain

The agri-tech sector and food supply chain in the UK ranges from large research and development intensive multinational companies to small innovative SMEs, major retailers and family farms.

To strengthen support for the agri-tech sector, we need more people entering the sector; clearer, more prioritised investment in skills; better co-ordination and proliferation of best practice and knowledge transfer; and a stable regulatory environment.

To support investment in skills, the Leadership Council will build on the work of the Agri-Skills Forum, LANTRA (the UK sector skills council for agriculture) and the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board to:

  • improve clarity and communication of available training and advice
  • establish and communicate the future skills needs for the sector
  • participate in the design and investment in courses and vocational training

The agri-tech sector will work to ensure that best practice and knowledge transfer is maximised across the food and farming supply chain by increasing coordination and integration of on-farm demonstrations, and the use of demonstration and monitor farms to share best practice.

The government will work in partnership with the agri-tech sector in the design of the next Rural Development Programme to identify opportunities to support skills development and knowledge transfer.

To improve the regulatory environment, government will:

  • argue for further progress toward an open market that makes farmers less dependant on subsidies
  • work with the European Commission and other member states to develop a clear and consistent regulatory environment, including in the use of the ‘precautionary principle’; particularly as this principle applies to new and emerging technologies including GM and pesticides
  • continue the work of the Farming Regulation Task Force to reduce domestic red tape

11. Global markets

The true scale of the commercial opportunity for trade and inward investment is becoming clearer. The global market value of agricultural input sales, for example, is estimated to be worth more than $355 billion and continues to show high growth.

We want UK businesses to export more agricultural technologies, and for existing inward investors such as Bayer, Syngenta and New Holland to grow their businesses. We also want to attract new investors to the UK to collaborate with our research base to develop novel, innovative and high value products and then manufacture these technologies in the UK.

To boost exports, UK Trade & Investment will:

  • champion UK agricultural technologies overseas and identify early stage markets for future growth through the Business Ambassador, James Townshend
  • provide strategic and practical support to UK companies seeking to work with foreign governments to deliver food security strategies; this programme of work will begin with Qatar and other Gulf States; over the longer term focus efforts on winning food security high value (big contract) opportunities, particularly in Asia

The UK needs increased inward investment in research and more venture capital to facilitate this. To deliver this investment government will establish a new unit in UK Trade & Investment solely focused to increasing the value and volume of overseas investment into the UK.

The strong links between trade and aid offer mutually beneficial opportunities to the UK and developing economies: positioning the UK as a world class centre for commercialising agricultural technologies; and, increasing the UK’s contribution to tackling the global need for the sustainable intensification of agriculture.

UK science and business can play a vital role in addressing long term global food challenges, and also access dynamic new agriculture markets in the developing world.

Government will commit funding to a scoping study for a project to develop technology that will contribute to development outcomes in Africa, by linking the best UK, Chinese and African research and private sector organisations.