Norfolk could reap the benefits of £160m Agri-tech strategy

George Freeman

George Freeman - Credit: Archant

The government today launched its new agri-tech strategy which could have implications for this region. Business writer BEN WOODS assesses its impact.

It is a conundrum of epic proportions which could mean the difference between feast and famine for millions of people.

As the global population continues to rise, so too does the demand for food, with developing nations facing widespread hunger if production does not double in the next 40 years.

But today, the government has launched a multi-million pound manifesto to try to meet the challenge head-on while boosting the UK economy.

The UK Agricultural Technologies Strategy throws its weight behind a new world of hi-tech farming by building bridges between UK food science and the agricultural industry to bolster yields, drive down crop disease and make the most of technological innovation.

And with the Eastern region already at the forefront of world-leading food science research, Norfolk is looking to benefit from a windfall of investment, which could transfer research at the Norwich Research Park, including the John Innes Centre, and the Institute for Food Research, into practises used by farmers both locally and across the world.

Some have wondered if the cash is just really recycling previous monies and will go far enough to invest in the country's food science base.

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But today, food research scientists and local policy makers rallied behind the strategy, which has a dedicated fund of £160m to boost UK agri-innovation.

The key points of the strategy include:

A £70m Agri-Tech Catalyst fund to help bring food research from the laboratory and apply it in the field.

A £90m fund to create regional and sector-led innovation hubs to bring science and industry closer together.

A project to collect vast sums of data on weather, commodity pricing, agricultural trends and seed development to help the UK lead in information-driven 'sustainable farming' practises.

A move to create a 'tech-savvy' workforce to put new innovation into best practise out on the field.

A commitment of £450m a year of government support for agricultural and food research.

Improved links between Norwich and Cambridge.

Mid-Norfolk MP George Freeman, the government's adviser on Life Science and strategy co-ordinator, said the government had already spent £450m on agri-food research and development last year, and a further £160m in the strategy would help drive UK growth through the emerging global markets.

He said: 'This is a huge opportunity for East Anglia. Rising world population and rapid development of emerging economies around the world mean that by 2050 the world needs to almost double food production using less land, water and energy.

'Breakthroughs in IT, remote sensing, satnav-guided precision farming, automation, agricultural engineering and modern food supply chains are driving an exciting new 'agri-tech' sector, with new opportunities for spin-out companies, exports, and exciting careers.'

Prof Mike Bevan, strategic programme leader at the John Innes Centre, said the strategy could help build a much-needed bridge between science and industry.

He added: 'The UK has the opportunity to harness its research to create value.

'The opportunities exist and we hope the new strategy will help deliver the vision to not only co-operate and compete but to lead the global drive to deliver food security.

'At the John Innes Centre, we are excited by this strategy and think the current plans are suitable to get our research into the field.

'Norfolk has already got a great relationship for agricultural innovation.

'And between them, Norwich and Cambridge already marshal some of the top plant science in the world. But now what we need to do is to show how these ideas can be translated into useful products to improve human health.'

David Willetts, minister for universities and science, said: 'Britain has the potential to be world-leading in agricultural science and technology, yet our productivity growth has dropped significantly in the past 30 years.

'These leading edge campuses will help reverse that trend by getting our researchers and businesses working together to commercialise their ideas.

'This is vital for our economy and future food security which is why we are launching the Agri-Technology Strategy.'