Outstanding in our field

4 min read

The Iain Gray blogMankind’s oldest challenge finding sustainable ways of growing food, and food and drink is the UK’s largest manufacturing sector. The Technology Strategy Board has a number of initiative to help this, explains its chief executive

A key feature of Government policy over the last year has been the development of a comprehensive industrial strategy which describes how we can maximise our strengths in particular areas. A number of sectoral strategies have been published and the Technology Strategy Board will be involved in setting the pace in nearly all of them.

Aerospace, automotive, nuclear energy, the information economy – all of them essential elements in driving a modern, high-tech, 21st century economy.

Yet one where I think we have the opportunity to make a fundamental and long-lasting difference – both as an innovation agency but also more broadly as a country – is in Agritech. The challenge of providing plentiful, sustainable food is arguably the oldest challenge faced by the human race. Mankind has throughout history managed to deliver and rise to the challenge of increasing demand for food. That said, today, with all the advances available to us, over one billion people go hungry every day and food poverty in many parts of the world is a major concern. With a rapidly rising population, rising demand for food energy and water, all against a backdrop of climate change, the challenge is set to become even tougher. How we address this challenge today is surely a litmus test for the effectiveness of all our technology.

Food and drink manufacturing – from farm to table – is the single largest manufacturing sector in the UK. It represents 16% of all manufacturing and has a turnover of £76.2 billion. The sector employs around 400,000 workers in over 6,000 enterprises, representing 15% of the overall manufacturing workforce in the UK.

Underlying this huge industry is the primary production sector. Agri-Tech has been a priority area for the Technology Strategy Board for a number of years. We launched the Sustainable Agriculture and Food Innovation Platform (SAF-IP) in October 2009. This has been helping UK businesses develop innovative technologies, production systems and supply chain solutions to address current challenges and increase the productivity of the UK agri-food sector, while at the same time reducing its potential environmental impact. Working closely with Defra, the BBSRC and Scottish Government, the SAF-IP will have committed more than £90 million to relevant projects in the five years to 2014.

‘SYIELD’ nodes warn oilseed rape growers of incipient infection of the parasite Sclerotinia

Enhancing crop yields and reducing disease are among the areas that have received support. SYield is a system of sensor nodes that have been designed to work with computer models to provide a sensor network for pathogen detection and prediction. The first generation of the SYield platform warns growers of imminent risk of Sclerotinia in Oil Seed rape.

Recently, the Technology Strategy Board helped facilitate a report called Feeding the Future. We worked closely with a commissioning group derived from industry to identify their needs and aspirations for this sector. The timing was ideal as it fed into the development of the Agri-Tech Industrial Strategy which was launched at the end of July. The central part to be played by engineering in delivering a sustainable future was stressed time and again in the report.

However, much of the UK engineering base for agriculture has become fragmented over past decades, with engineering businesses often importing technologies rather than maximising the UK’s R&D and manufacturing capabilities. Indeed, overall, the UK’s agricultural productivity has been falling over recent years relative to that of our main competitors. Yet we have an agri-science research base that is second to none. The challenge is to leverage all that insight and creativity to close that gap.

“Much of the UK engineering base for agriculture has become fragmented over past decades, with engineering businesses often importing technologies rather than maximising the UK’s R&D and manufacturing capabilities

Hence the launch later this month of a new £13 million competition entitled Engineering solutions to enhance agri-food production. In conjunction with Defra, BBSRC and the Scottish Government, we are looking for business-led proposals on to advance the sustainable intensification of primary agriculture, and raise product quality and process efficiency in both production and food manufacturing. We are particularly keen to encourage engagement with sectors such as space, ICT and electronics sensors & photonics, which may not have fully recognised opportunities that exist for applying technologies throughout the agri-food supply chain.

The Government’s recent Agri-Tech Strategy builds upon and amplifies the work already done by the SAF. Over the coming months, the Strategy will deliver support mechanisms which will take the initiative forward. One of the major announcements of the Strategy was the setting up of a new £60 million Catalyst programme for the sector. Catalysts are a means of accelerating early-stage ideas more rapidly towards commercialisation through different phases of funding within the same programme. The first stage of the new Agri-Tech Catalyst will be launched in the next couple of months.

A series of Centres for Agricultural Innovation will also be established, and while nothing has yet been decided, it is likely that engineering will play a significant part. The details are still being finalised so watch this space.

The  Strategy offers a vision of the way that industry and government, working together, can achieve a step change in the UK’s ability to develop and implement the kind of agricultural technologies we – and the world – need for the future.

Britain led the Agricultural Revolution of the 18th century. Can we be at the forefront of another in the 21st? Can we help deliver a global, sustainable agricultural system that can feed the world’s growing population? It’s certainly a big ask. But then a combination of intellectual endeavour and business ambition is what has made us great in the past – and can do again. Success in this area will benefit the UK economy, while for many of the world’s population it offers the promise of a better tomorrow.