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Farming’s tech revolution can only succeed if we get Brexit right, says MP

PUBLISHED: 11:08 08 February 2019 | UPDATED: 11:08 08 February 2019

Mid Norfolk MP George Freeman speaking at the 2019 Norfolk Farming Conference at the John Innes Centre in Norwich. Picture: Keiron Tovell

Mid Norfolk MP George Freeman speaking at the 2019 Norfolk Farming Conference at the John Innes Centre in Norwich. Picture: Keiron Tovell

Keiron Tovell

Innovation and technology can pave the way for a prosperous future for Norfolk farming – but only if the government gets Brexit right.

The 2019 Norfolk Farming Conference at the John Innes Centre in Norwich. Picture: Keiron TovellThe 2019 Norfolk Farming Conference at the John Innes Centre in Norwich. Picture: Keiron Tovell

That was the message from one of the headline speakers at the 2019 Norfolk Farming Conference, which brought hundreds of farmers to Norwich to discuss their industry’s challenges and opportunities ahead of a period of turbulent change.

Mid Norfolk MP George Freeman, a former life sciences minister who co-ordinated the UK’s agritech industrial strategy, explained the ways he believed innovation could help UK agriculture prosper after Brexit.

They included greater productivity, inspiring recruitment, harnessing data from precision farming to satisfy consumers’ demands for quality and traceability, and translating “high science” from institutes like the John Innes Centre – which hosted the conference – onto frontline farms.

But the Tory MP said all these opportunities were under threat unless the nation’s withdrawal from the EU could be negotiated in the best way for business – and he launched a scathing attack on how his party’s leadership was conducting this process, which he called a “disgrace”.

“None of this can happen unless we get Brexit right,” he said. “We are in real danger of not treating this like a business negotiation, which it is. It is the biggest business negotiation I have ever been a spectator on, and it pains me to say a spectator. In the last two years I have not had one call from a minister, not one call from a department to ask if I would like to help.

“The whole process is being driven by a very small group of people in Number 10 as if it is some secret bunker negotiation. It is completely wrong, and I am afraid we are seeing those chickens coming home to roost.”

MORE: Farmers urged to harness Norfolk’s political power base to avoid cheap food ‘crisis’

Mr Freeman, who voted to remain in the EU, said he believes the mandate from his leave-voting constituents is to “leave the political union but remain part of some kind of single market”.

“I want us to deliver a sensible Brexit that is pro-British business, and let’s dream of ten years where we are selling our mainstream agricultural produce into Europe but also dream of Britain as a country that is once again exporting its technology around the world,” he said.

On his key conference topic of how innovation could help UK farms prosper after Brexit, the MP began with productivity.

“British agricultural productivity has not kept pace, it has fallen behind,” he said. “If we want to improve our productivity, and that means improving profits for frontline farmers, then technologies like precision farming, drilling in straight lines, using GPS satellite guidance, all of that precision technology taking one, two, three, five per cent out of big numbers, makes a huge difference and reduces our reliance on increasingly-less-cheap labour.

“That leads me to my second point, which is recruitment. If we want to get new blood into this industry, and inspire a new generation to come in and help us innovate, then that innovation and the ability to be part of a cutting edge modern sector with shiny kit and big rigs and modern technology, is an important point, don’t underestimate it. So a positive message about innovation is also important if we want to recruit and retain the brightest people into the industry.

MORE: With Brexit just 50 days away, how confident are Norfolk farmers about the future?

“Thirdly, within the whole idea of modern, progressive precision farming, is an industry that prides itself on being able to source back – when you buy a pint of milk, which farm it has come from, actually technology will allow you know to know which herd it has come from, even which cow it has come from. That is not just hugely exciting for producers, and for quality, but also very exciting for consumers.

“Today’s consumers are deeply interested in provenance, and integrity and sourcing, and they will pay for it – to know that food has come from someone they can talk to, rather than from some anonymous industrial supply chain.”

Innovation can also help the farming industry take its “rightful place in the bioeconomy”, comprising food, medicine and energy, and take advantage of growing global markets for UK technologies, said Mr Freeman.

Earlier in the meeting, National Farmers’ Union president Minette Batters had urged Norfolk farmers to harness the county’s “power base” of influential MPs to push home the importance of viable food production in emerging agriculture, trade, environment and immigration policies.

Delegates at the conference, which was organised by AF Group, were also given a sobering view of the scale of the food and resource challenges facing the world.

Sir John Beddington, former government chief scientific adviser, said estimates of climate change, urbanisation and population growth trends suggested there would be an extra billion people in the world by 2030, with a “middle class” of almost 5bn – increasing water and food demands by as much as 60pc.

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