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Opinion: Prof Tina Barsby on why we must rethink how agricultural innovation is delivered in the UK





Cambridge plant scientist Professor Tina Barsby explores why academic science leadership in the field is not translating into productivity growth in the UK.

A remarkable statistic was presented to me recently. According to an analysis of high-citation academic studies in agriculture, the UK ranked third, behind China and the USA. This analysis of agricultural papers in the world’s leading food producing economies between 2018 and 2022 was conducted by researchers at the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences (CAAS), defining high-citation papers as a ‘gauge of innovation capacity’, and therefore those most likely to deliver impact.

An agronomist at work
An agronomist at work

A total of 2,926 Chinese papers were classified as high-citation papers, accounting for about 27 per cent of all such papers in the 22 countries studied. The United States (1,738) and the UK (634) had the second- and third-highest number, the academy said.

But expressed per head of population, or in relation to GDP, this puts the UK streets ahead of both China and the USA in terms of the value and impact of our agricultural research base. By any standards this is a remarkable achievement, and a reflection of the significance attached to high-quality public sector research by successive UK governments.

But why, though, does UK leadership in academic science not translate into leadership in agricultural productivity growth, in which the UK continues to lag behind most other developed agricultural economies? And why has it not positioned the UK as a major destination for private sector investment in agricultural innovation – compared, for example, to Britain’s healthcare or medical life science sectors?

As we mark 10 years since the launch of the UK Agri-Tech Strategy, whose introduction I was involved in as a member of the Agri-Tech Leadership Council, these are questions which have puzzled and frustrated me beyond measure.

Public sector investment over the lifetime of the Strategy has led to the creation of valuable new facilities in the UK agri-tech sector which might otherwise not have existed, but the Strategy itself has simply not delivered on its original ambition to unlock a step-change in productivity growth, inward investment, technology-based exports and new models of collaboration between Government, industry and the science base.

A smart farm
A smart farm

As the Government looks to reshape and revitalise the Strategy, possibly by combining three of the four Agri-Tech Centres into a single Agri-Tech Catapult, we must be honest and upfront in trying to understand why this was the case. I have previously discussed concerns that the Strategy’s funding model was overly focused on capital expenditure, making successful outcomes dependent on industry co-funding, and that the Agri-Tech Centres lacked a thematic focus on genetic innovation, the single biggest driver of agricultural productivity growth.

But other factors are undoubtedly at play. I’ll offer a few suggestions, in the hope that others might contribute their own thoughts in return.

The first is the regulatory environment. While the Precision Breeding Act is certainly one of the potential benefits to flow from Brexit, the immediate reality of Britain’s departure from the EU has been a significant increase in the regulatory costs and resources required to service a much smaller market. Whether it is the approval of new crop varieties, new pesticides, GMO imports for animal feed or novel feed additives, the UK’s regulatory system is over-stretched, with applications taking longer and costing more than elsewhere, even including the EU. With very few of the companies bringing forward these innovations actually based in Britain, this will be seriously focusing minds about the viability and attractiveness of the UK market.

The second is the farm policy environment. The UK has no clear targets for agricultural productivity growth, and farm policies do not recognise food production as a ‘public good’. Instead, the majority of subsidy options under ELMS and SFI, including those most recently announced at the Oxford Farming Conference, reward farmers for adopting less productive practices, or for taking land out of production. The UK Government has confirmed that it has not carried out an ex ante impact assessment of its policies in terms of farm-level yields, agricultural productivity growth or domestic food production.

This is in stark contrast to the United States, for example, whose farm policies emphasise the use of agricultural science and innovation, with a stated aim of increasing farm output by 40 per cent, while cutting the environmental footprint of US agriculture in half, by 2050.

The third factor is the UK R&D environment, which is not sufficiently focused on translational and applied agricultural research in key areas. In plant genetics, for example, while UK institutes and universities remain world leaders in published research (as evidenced by the CAAS study), current R&D policy lacks a long-term commitment to fund the research activity needed to transfer early-stage discoveries into germplasm and tools of value to commercial plant breeders and farmers, with the possible exception of wheat. This 'Valley of Death' hiatus in the crop innovation pipeline has been repeatedly highlighted in Government-led plant science reviews over the past 20 years.

UK public sector investment in translational genetics, through the Genetic Improvement Networks (GINs), totalled £5.5m over 5 years from 2018-2023. This compares with £90m investment over 4 years in digital and precision farming technologies through the Government's flagship Transforming Food Production R&D programme – a 20-fold difference, which needs to be rebalanced in favour of genetics.

So, in many respects, we stand at a crossroads. Before jumping two-footed into ‘more of the same’ with the planned Agri-Tech Catapult, we must examine whether our regulatory, policy and research ecosystem is fit for purpose, and/or focused on the right objectives.

In my view, the post-Brexit era of regulatory delays and stalling agricultural productivity growth should prompt us to challenge and rethink how we regulate and incentivise the delivery of agricultural innovation.

In terms of regulation, are there ways in which we can streamline current approaches, and/or allow greater emphasis on reciprocal recognition of authorisations by other trusted countries? There may be mileage in exploring former science minister George Freeman MP’s suggestion that the UK could harness its agricultural science expertise and its reputation as a trusted regulator by developing a global regulatory ‘sandbox’ capacity as a test-bed for new agricultural technologies and innovations, providing the data needed by companies worldwide to gain internationally recognised authorisation for their products.

In terms of farm policy, and amid widespread concerns that the current approach sidelines the importance of food production, ministers must commit to measure and track the impact of ELMS and SFI programmes on agricultural productivity growth and farm-level yields. This is critical if the government is serious about its commitment to maintain current levels of domestic food production while at the same protecting 30 per cent of England’s land area for biodiversity conservation (30by30).

And in terms of the R&D environment, are there lessons we can learn from countries which have successfully maintained high levels of agricultural productivity growth, such as the Netherlands, for example, with its ‘triple-helix‘ approach to fostering more effective R&D collaboration between government, industry and the science base?

Given its improving position in conducting high impact agricultural research, we might also look to China, which over the past six years or so has adopted a relentless focus on unleashing crop genetic innovation as a strategic response to food security and climate change concerns.

The CAAS study has highlighted the UK’s world leading position in agriculture-related research. Delivering on its potential for impact and innovation is our next great challenge.

Prof Tina Barsby. Picture: NIAB
Prof Tina Barsby. Picture: NIAB

Prof Tina Barsby OBE is a plant geneticist and a former CEO of NIAB, where she led the implementation of innovative approaches to plant breeding, including the first public-good wheat breeding programme in the UK since the privatisation of the Plant Breeding Institute in 1987. She was awarded an honorary professorship in agricultural botany by the University of Cambridge in 2021. This article was originally written for Science for Sustainable Agriculture – www.scienceforsustainableagriculture.com



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