Appliance of UK science will aid agriculture

Challenges faced by the global agriculture sector provide opportunities for the UK’s knowledge economy, says MP George Freeman

Over the next 30 years the rate of global population growth and economic development across a huge swathe of the planet will see today’s emerging markets rapidly develop into mature economies with increasing demand for Western-style products and services.

The rate of global growth creates extraordinary challenges in terms of food, energy and medicine, and the human and political infrastructure requirements of developing economies. I believe the UK has a fantastic opportunity to service this extraordinary global development by unlocking the value of our knowledge economy to help create the technological solutions to deal with these challenges.

This is about the appliance of science: applying our deep reservoirs of scientific knowledge and our research infrastructure to help unlock the technological solutions to some of these global grand challenges. We have an opportunity to feed, fuel and heal the world by developing our clusters of science and technology in biomedicine, clean technology and agri-food. The UK has world-class research facilities in these disciplines, but we are missing out on attracting our proportionate share of the growing volume of investment in these sectors.

We have an opportunity to feed, fuel and heal the world by developing our clusters of science and technology

Last year the Prime Minister launched a major medical life science strategy focused on our biopharmaceutical research sector. This year we are working on a similarly ambitious strategy for our agri-food sector, which will have at its core the idea that by properly integrating our research base with our world-class food and farming sector, and better integrating our aid and trade missions through the Department for International Development (DFID) and UK Trade & Investment (UKTI), we can unlock significant investment into the UK and export-led growth.

The UK has had no strategy for the agri-food tech sector for over 30 years, but the scale of the public-finance crisis in the UK and the urgent imperative to unlock new models of economic growth, create a real opportunity for us to recognise and unlock the economic potential of this sector.

The agri-tech strategy is being put together by the Department for Business, Innovation & Skills (BIS), Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) and DFID, with strong co-ordinating support from No 10. Our aim is to set out a coherent long-term landscape to promote greater collaboration between our food and farming sector and our research base.

Over the next decade we want to see an increase in private-sector and global sovereign investment in our research on the challenges that world farming will need to tackle in the decades ahead. We want to see venture capital in the agri-food sector come to the UK as the place to find, invest and develop agricultural innovations. We want UK food and farming to be able to draw on UK science and excellence to help it produce more from less, in a more resilient and sustainable model of competitive agricultural productivity. And we want all of this to benefit UK plc by attracting additional inward investment and export through both aid and trade, and collaboration with emerging economies around the world.

As the Prime Minister takes the chair of the G8 this spring, rightly committed to using the legacy of  a brilliantly successful Olympic and Paralympics in 2012 to drive British leadership in tackling world hunger and the scourge of food insecurity, the UK agri-tech strategy is a major part of our vision of the UK succeeding in the global race, and exercising our responsibility to the emerging world in a way that benefits the UK taxpayer, consumers, and our cluster of world-class researchers and entrepreneurs.

The country which gave the Western world the agricultural revolution cannot afford to sit on its hands as the world faces and tackles the challenge of sustainable intensification of agriculture. We know as much as anyone about how to produce great food from a small amount of land in a way that is sustainable. We have a moral and economic duty to our citizens to share that best practise for the benefit of global agriculture, the environment and UK plc.

George Freeman, Conservative MP for Mid Norfolk, is chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Science and Technology in Agriculture, Government adviser on life sciences and co-founder of the 2020 Group of Conservative MPs, where he chairs the Innovation Economy Commission. Before entering Parliament in 2010, he spent 15 years in biomedical venture capital.