Opinion: Collaboration is key to raising productivity and innovation

Last month saw the publication of a report titled “The application of science to realise the potential of the agricultural transition”.

Over the course of the past year, leading authorities from academia, industry and policy met, formed a working group and subsequently published their findings.

Led by Lord Curry of Kirkharle, they were answering the question of why the UK’s agricultural industry has lagged behind other nations in productivity and innovation.

See also: What is productivity and how to achieve it on your farm?

About the author

Ian Pigott
Farmers Weekly Opinion writer
Ian Pigott farms 700ha in Hertfordshire. The farm is a Linking Environment and Farming demonstration unit. Ian is also the founder of Open Farm Sunday.
Read more articles by Ian Pigott

The suggestion that we have lagged may come as a surprise to some. British farming has a habit of telling everyone how great we are. But compared to who and by what metric? Usually by our own standards of a quarter of a century ago.

Let’s call it the Old Firm Syndrome. Celtic and Rangers are unquestionably the finest football teams in Scotland. No other team has won the Scottish Premier League since 1985.

But have they improved in those 37 years? Yes, they probably have, but not to the same extent as their European counterparts.

British farming is much the same. From 2001 to 2012, UK’s agricultural total factor productivity growth was half that of Germany, France and the US.

We lost ground when compared with their economic performance, technical and environmental adoption, and outreach delivery.

Some may ask why it matters if we are satisfying our domestic market. But we are not.

Our self-sufficiency is slipping ever closer to 50%, and this during a cost-of-living crisis where our customers are seeking out the cheapest food items.

The UK’s food security will continue to slide unless we address our performance and our ability to compete.

The report has nine recommendations, but in summary we need to collaborate.

Without sounding flippant, all the recommendations come back to our resistance to sharing – be it knowledge, science or education, both vertically and horizontally.

Without question, we have some of brightest, scientific minds and finest farmers on the planet within our little island.

But unless our sector overcomes its siloed attitudes and rampant desire to duplicate every initiative, I fear we will slip further behind.

The report highlights the need for transparency of knowledge, technology and ideas.

In particular, it recommends universities with agricultural interests should adopt farm-level extension; agricultural research institutes should include stronger support for problem solving and collaboration; and the government should establish a “what works centre” to evaluate and disseminate research.

It goes on to say that the agri-tech centres should consider a single management structure and the networks of demonstration farms should be more co-ordinated.

Finally, interactive digital platforms need to be harnessed, to help develop farm-based knowledge. I applaud and recognise the merit in them all.

Ultimately, we must recognise the need to improve. We must accept that Brits aren’t very good at sharing.

Perhaps it’s a part of our culture. Let’s face it, we couldn’t even see the merits of collaborating with our 27 EU neighbours.

Lord Curry is a master collaborator who has spent the past 30 years bringing farming groups together to consolidate ideas and resources.

His report recognises that, for a successful piecing together of these fragmented knowledge centres, we need to start with the acceptance that food security must be considered a public good.

Once established, the government should see that agriculture fulfils the criteria for funding under the premise of “public money for public good”. That’s worth sharing.

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