12 January 1996

Research cuts strangle growth

CUTS in training and research threaten UK farmers ability to benefit from new technology.

Speaking at the Oxford Farming Conference, deputy NFU president Ben Gill warned: "The governments attempts to further cut publically funded research in biological sciences must be shown up for what it is – nothing other than political dogma overriding common sense."

The UK government spends only 2.1% of its gross domestic product on research compared with a European average of 2.4% and 2.7% in the US.

However more research and training were needed to help farmers take full advantage of the second agricultural revolution which would sweep through world agriculture within the next two to three decades, he said.

Farming had an enviable record of adapting to change over the past five decades but it would become increasingly important for farmers to search for information.

Seek new information

"Farmers will have to positively go out and seek new information and skills rather than wait for them to be delivered to their doorstep. Failure to do so could well mean the difference between success and failure," he said.

In the past improved productivity was achieved with the help of the government-funded advisory service and the company representative. But ADAS was charging for most of its work and is shortly to be privatised. Also there were fewer company representatives.

"Considerable thought also needs to be given about the future roles of the Agricultural Training Board, the agricultural colleges, universities and public and private extension services," he said.

Growing alternative crops such as short rotation coppice as energy crops and fibre crops such as flax and hemp showed promise.

He also singled out the promise of using new technology to grow genetically modified oilseed crops to produce high quality chemicals at an economic cost for a range of industries.

Mr Gill acknowledged public concern about some new technologies and said emphasis should be placed on explaining the benefits involved.

Defence of new-tech

His stout defence of new technology found an ally in the Princess Royal. The Princess believed that biotechnology may help to overcome one of the most limiting factors on world agricultural production – the availability of water. Introducing drought-tolerant varieties would help to boost production, said the Princess. The Princess Royal also acknowledged the importance of reassuring the public about modern farming methods.

"The challenge in the UK is to educate and to bridge the gap between town and country. The role of the county shows and associations is extremely helpful letting those who have no contact with the countryside know what is involved."

Mike Stones

The need for an even-handed approach to farm research and training was stressed by deputy NFU president Ben Gill. Government support for research was vital, he said.