Two decades of government withdrawal from agricultural research and development must be reversed if UK farming is to compete in the global marketplace.
Speaking at the Agricultural Industries Confederation conference in Peterborough this week (11 November), Lord Taylor of Holbeach, Conservative spokesman for environment, food and rural affairs, hinted at how a future Tory government might tackle the problem.
He said a move back to production-driven R&D was urgently needed.
“Whoever wins the next election will need to address this agenda. We have to reverse the decline in agricultural self-sufficiency, which has seen a drop of roughly 1% each year over the past decade.
“I recognise that the withdrawal of government from this task was already under way by the mid-1990s, but it was greatly accelerated by the Labour government which became convinced that productive agriculture was not necessary in a world of plenty.”
Agricultural R&D was in a poor state, said Lord Taylor. There were far fewer scientists, little or no government support for technology transfer and a network of grower-linked establishments had been systematically run down.
“Whole sectors have been effectively abandoned by the government. DEFRA will need to look at where it is spending its money and whether its current functions really do reflect the priorities of our time.”
However, a change of government did not mean a change of budget, he added. “There is no more money. The state of the public finances is dire so I cannot promise more spending.
“But it doesn’t all come down to money – it should also be about the priority you give to food production within existing budgets.”
Other government departments, such as health and business, could also contribute to the R&D effort, Lord Taylor said.
Key areas to be addressed included fertiliser efficiency and precision farming, sustainable soil and water use as well as chemical use and plant technology.
While politicians had to take a lead, the industry had to be ready to be led, Lord Taylor said. “There are no large businesses in farming. We can, as an industry, only work collectively and share the benefit collectively.
“We need science to match the challenge and there is a moral imperative to invest in new sustainable technologies to meet mankind’s needs.”