Thank you for the warm welcome. It is a great pleasure for me to be here with all of you today at the Agri-Tech Centers conference.
As Minister for Science and Innovation at Defra, I am so excited about the potential of technology in the agribusiness sector, and I truly believe the opportunities are endless.
I’ve traveled across the country, I’ve been to events like today and I’ve even traveled to Dubai and across the world that we run and we have to be brave and we have to shout about it. If we can take that and our enthusiasm and move the industry forward, we have something fantastic to offer the world.
I’m especially glad that so many of you are here today – so that we can share this knowledge and collaborate, because there’s no point in having brilliant ideas if we don’t actually develop them within our own networks but wider. Now these challenges that we face, some of the most pressing challenges that we face are ubiquitous in all of our lives and I would say that when we are designing the solutions, everyone has sustainability at the forefront.
Just recently I attended Expo 2020 in Dubai – it was absolutely phenomenal to hear about a whole range of projects with international partners, from reducing methane emissions in livestock and food alternatives, to deregulation in the space of genetic technologies.
I want to start by taking a moment to reflect. Recent events in Ukraine and the impact of the Covid pandemic are stark reminders, if need be, that domestic food production matters. It gives us national resilience. We have a high degree of self-sufficiency, but I want to say here and now that we will always support our farmers and our producers, and especially our innovators.
Of course, food production and environmental protection go hand in hand. These are two sides of the same coin. The steps we take to encourage a more sustainable model of agriculture also contribute to the resilience and profitability of agricultural businesses – but innovation is crucial. And, lest I repeat myself, super exciting.
I am proud that the UK is leading in innovation. Whether it’s the Hands Free Hectare, now Hands Free Farm at Harper Adams, agricultural technology at the John Innes Center – who knew peat could be so interesting, the National Institute of Agricultural Botany with its work on climate-resilient crops, the James Hutton Institute in Scotland and their work on vertical farming that they’re doing, or Rothamsted Research’s work on gene technology, we have so much R&D to brag about and we also have so many farmers and dynamic producers who are adopting these technologies, but we need to help them trust them and adopt them faster.
But, as we look to the future, it is clear that we need to go further and faster to meet the challenges we all face. Whether it’s food production in a changing climate, how we get to net zero by 2050, and even how we address some of the challenges we face around issues like labor supply – and I look forward to posting the automation review and our response shortly. Nothing is the answer, we have to look and make sure we have the right parts.
We are making significant investments to unlock innovation and translate our cutting-edge research into practical, farmer-led solutions that help them invest in their businesses, improve productivity and profitability, build environmental sustainability and resilience, and move towards net zero emissions.
We have just increased the Farm Investment Fund for small technology grants from £17m to over £48m – supporting over 4,500 farmers with their investment plans this year. But I would say that the demand exceeds the supply. There is so much energy and so many brilliant ideas. Alongside this increase in funding, we have also provided £25 million for the first round of the big technology grant offer – Improving Farm Productivity, which helps farmers and growers invest in robotics and plant technology. automation to increase productivity and operating efficiency. Last month we opened applications for a further £20.5m under our Agricultural Innovation Scheme.
The Farming Futures Research & Development Fund will provide up to £12.5 million for innovation projects that help drive a climate-smart agricultural sector.
And the Large Research & Development Partnership competition will provide up to an additional £8 million for collaborative business-led R&D projects, benefiting farmers and growers across England, and especially innovators thinking about ideas to support them, benefiting everyone, with a focus on bringing new solutions to market in the future. Like the first rounds last October, both will be delivered in partnership with Innovate UK.
We are therefore making a significant investment and this support will continue in the months and years to come, but building on our food security, resilience and ambition for net zero, we must ensure that our funding trajectory delivers. the best value and that all the parts of the innovation puzzle, which currently looks like all the little pieces of a box without the picture, is really put together in a way that really allows people to understand what this image and what this opportunity gives us.
There is a wide world full of opportunities for our innovators, but they also need proof of concept, so our farmers must help.
I have never encountered so much excitement, enthusiasm, bravery, great ideas, but I have remained so silent. Please shout, please tell everyone how good you are at what you do. Because I am one voice, and if you can amplify that voice and explain to people why we might change, how we can use innovation, why science matters.
It’s part of that bigger picture to help our customers along the way, but also to help inspire young people to look at Agri-Tech and all it offers, in terms of reading the world and being inspired.
I visit a lot of schools and very rarely young people say “oh I want to get into Agri-Tech”, they should, and I often, coming from a rural part of the country, tell them they should. Because it’s one of the most exciting parts of science and it feels so good.
It not only deals with animal welfare, but you have this combination of human health. You have some really big challenges there, whether it’s climate change, obesity challenges, we can change the way we do things, we can innovate because we’re good. And I want you to help me amplify this message about why we need to do this.
We are now looking to unlock the potential of gene editing in England, which will allow us to breed drought and disease resistant crops that perform better and with less input. Reducing costs for farmers also allows us to reduce the impact on the environment, while helping us develop crops that can adapt to the challenges of climate change.
Water scarcity, I know better than most coming from the East of England, will have a major impact not only in this country. This is where we can look across the world.
Recently on a trip to Dubai understanding that their food security is around 15%. Watching them try to grow things and the challenges the nation faces, and cultivate cultures that can help them overcome those challenges.
How will water scarcity have a major impact on climate change, and it will mean that in some parts of the world that can currently be cultivated, land will no longer be viable unless we manage to put point this selection technology and to keep pace with both the challenge of climate change and also the challenge of delivery.
Elsewhere, we are currently supporting and investing in research and working with partners to develop a robust soil carbon market database, including considering several robust methodologies and techniques for monitoring, verifying and reporting on changes in soil health. This would cover the storage and maintenance of carbon in natural and cultivated landscapes.
Today’s event is a great opportunity for us to come together – government, industry, in all its forms and academia – and consider the opportunities that agri-tech and innovation can bring, not only to this room, not only to your businesses, but to the wider society, both in this country, but across the world. Because together I’m sure we can foster the potential that exists and we can nurture it, because that’s what many of you in this room are doing. We can watch it grow and we can send it out into the world to say look what we can do. So, I wish you a very good conference, and the strength of your elbows to continue doing what you are doing. Thank you.