A groundbreaking project to explain more about the potential benefits of “greener” plant-based science has been formally launched on the edge of Cambridge.

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The £1.4m building at the National Institute of Agricultural Botany’s Innovation Farm is scheduled to be completed within seven months on a Greenfield site at Heston alongside the network of glasshouses.

Heinz Wolff, who is best known for The Great Egg Race programmes on BBC Television more than 20 years ago, was invited to cut the first sod and break the ground for the major investment.

Tina Barsby, who is chief executive officer of NIAB-TAG, said that the visitor centre would enable research staff to “actively engage with the public and help the public to understand more about science. It dovetails perfectly with what we’re trying to do at Innovation Farm”.

She said that the challenge was to communicate to a wider public from the man on the street, to politicians, farmers and policy makers and also to the broader educational community. “It is great and bringing excitement for us and for innovation in UK agriculture,” she said.

“Although the primary reason for our project is to assist small and medium sized enterprises in the Cambridge region, we also hope that Innovation Farm will have a far greater reach across the UK and indeed internationally.”

Brian Montgomery, chairman of the NIAB Trust, said that the project had been proposed three years ago and planning started last year. “We have encouraged many of the ideas which exist within NIAB for the family of farming in future.

“I believe that this will be a very rewarding journey in genetic innovation and commercialisation of the results which will come from that,” he added.

Mr Montgomery praised project leader Lydia Smith for her development of Innovation Farm and said that the trust was actually under-writing the investment. “She has been really carrying the can for the last couple of years,” he added.

Dr Smith said that the project would enable more understanding of the “next stage of research from crop science or plant science” to the point when farmers, growers or industrialists could gain a benefit. “If you’re talking about completely new genetic innovations and things growing in a different idea, it is really important to engage with the producers effectively. It is very much about knowledge exchange and their demonstration just prior to commercialisation.”

“We’re working very closely with the Norwich Research Park. The John Innes Centre was one of our first partners in the whole exploration. What we’re doing here is demonstrating and taking it out into the market place. It is a very natural partnership,” added Dr Smith.

Prof Wolff said that it was crucial to have the opportunity to keep educating young people about science. It was equally important to encourage such opportunities for knowledge transfer, which also made sense to businesses. He also suggested that future societies might have to “get ourselves used to the idea that we might well, over the slightly longer term, return to a standard of living that isn’t so very different from the 1970s”. The challenge was also to improve “food sufficiency, material sufficiency and energy efficiency,” he added.

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