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Building a sector for the future: How can we release the potential of Agri-Tech in the UK?

In the autumn we held a virtual roundtable, bringing together stakeholders from across the scientific and farming communities to discuss the challenges and opportunities of agri-tech, and how the industry and the Government can work together to realise the full potential of the sector post-Brexit. The discussion centred on ensuring the UK can meet future food security needs, enable farmers to stay competitive and meet environmental responsibilities including achieving net zero.

The discussion took place in the context of an evolving political situation. The Government last published an Agri-Tech Strategy in 2013, yet the context in which the agri-tech sector now operates has changed almost in its entirety. Never has there been a better opportunity for agri-tech to thrive, and simultaneously never has there been a more significant need for its benefits to be realised.

Following the UK’s departure from the EU, participants at the roundtable made clear there is an opportunity for the sector to develop its own science and evidence-based regulation that allows it to capitalise on the UK’s strong science knowledge. One attendee said ‘we are constrained in our ability to apply knowledge of biology in terms of greening and competitiveness, whole areas are closed off to us’. Developing a UK-specific regulatory framework can allow the sector to thrive, as well as to realise the benefits from new trading relationships and regulatory models. Able to determine its own agricultural policy for the first time in decades, Britain has a unique opportunity to develop an innovative regulatory framework that works for the environment, farmers and consumers alike.

When the Prime Minister stood on the steps of Downing Street in July 2019, he promised to ‘liberate the biotech sector from anti-genetic modification rules…[and] develop the blight-resistant crops that will feed the world’. This, combined with the Government’s recent commitment to consult on the future regulation of new plant breeding techniques, there is clearly appetite within Government to establish the UK as a hub of agri-tech, capitalising on the opportunity Brexit provides to make UK agriculture more competitive on the global stage.

The benefits of this go beyond the sector. With the Government committed to net zero by 2050, participants noted that agriculture is one area where the Government can make real strides towards this goal. Greater use of agri-tech will be an essential tool in allowing the industry to respond to environmental challenges, and contribute towards meeting the Government’s ambitious climate change targets. It also has the potential to improve food security in the face of COVID-19 and future pandemics, allowing farmers a choice to access every tool in the toolbox to ensure food production is as efficient, resilient and sustainable as it needs to be.

Those at the roundtable discussed the fact that technology offers researchers and farmers the ability to be more precise in how crops are developed and managed. Being more targeted with inputs, better informed about emerging pest pressure and weather events, and equipped to respond in a more timely and accurate way can reduce the footprint of agriculture while enhancing crop quality and value. There is a need to embrace a collaborative approach to agri-tech, investing in the development of not just bio-tech and chemical solutions, but the use of data and software too, to ensure the most sustainable results.

While there is demonstrable appetite within Government to capitalise on this moment, it is essential that industry continues to works alongside ministers and Whitehall. It was fantastic to see at our roundtable the extent to which researchers, scientists, plant breeders and farmers are in a prime position – ready and willing to demonstrate how technology can provide solutions to some of the major challenges we face.