More research needed to meet farming challenges

Agricultural research is critical if farmers are to meet future challenges of climate change and food security, according to speakers at the Cirencester Conference this week.

Professor Colin Dennis, former director general of research firm Campden BRI, said that the government and general public must not underestimate the importance of the food and farming industry. “Agriculture has a huge role to play.” Farmers were needed to sustainably produce food and energy within a changing climate, while also meeting consumer demands on taste, safety and affordability. Better research was therefore urgently required, he said.

“We need joined-up thinking and action from each of the public sector sponsors.” Recent LINK projects, which were jointly funded by the public and private sectors, proved that success could be achieved with integrated, industry-led research. Collaboration between research bodies and throughout the supply chain was also important, he added. “Doing research is no use unless people in the industry can hear about it and use it to develop and evolve their businesses. It is all about being able to translate fundamental research into practical solutions, and translate practical problems into future research.”

Professor Chris Gaskell, the principal of the Royal Agricultural College, which hosted the conference, agreed that the farming industry would be pivotally important in the future. “It is a very exciting time.” To meet future challenges farmers must be supported by excellent research and technology, and equipped with the necessary skills to adapt and thrive, he said.

“We’ve got to make sure that the excitement of being in this profession is passed on to and appreciated by tomorrow’s farmers.” Higher education institutes were enjoying renewed interest in agricultural and associated courses, and needed to offer more accessible, bite-sized training for the existing workforce, he added. But restricted government funds were limiting the potential to do so.

“I think society is recognising the importance of farming, but the government must recognise the need for more education in agriculture. There needs to be more joined-up thinking. We should to be planning 30 to 50 years ahead – and we need the best technology, the best research and the best skills to operate in this changing environment.”

Business strategies for the next decade

• “Farming has got to get bigger – scale is so important, because that’s what we’re up against in the world markets. Price is everything and the UK needs further consolidation in its supply chain if it is to have a healthy and profitable future.” John Shropshire, G’s Marketing Group.

• “Everyone has got to get together – it’s all about working with other people to get critical mass. We’ve all got to look at ways to be more efficient and add value to absolutely everything that we do.” Christine Tacon, The Co-operative Farms.

• “Get closer to your customers and make sure you are delivering what they want. Step back to check if you are doing the right thing. It’s very easy to do the wrong thing perfectly.” Guy Watson, Riverford Organic Vegetables.

Quote of the day

• “People from DEFRA are highly intelligent – they just don’t understand farming. It’s up to us to educate them.” Christine Tacon, The Co-operative Farms.

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