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Defra review to consider role of science skills in farming

A highly skilled, entrepreneurial workforce is needed to boost and sustain the UK’s agricultural industry, according to the chairman of a Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs review that was launched today.

The ‘Future of Farming’ review will investigate the science and engineering skills needed by the next generation of farmers and whether public perceptions dissuade graduates from entering the industry.

“The future farmer is going to be a very different individual from the one who did it in the past—they’re going to have to have technology skills, as well as an understanding of the balance of the environment and food production, and so on,” David Fursdon told Research Fortnight Today.

Fursdon says he expects the working group, made up of a range of people in the agricultural industry, will spend six months collating evidence before making recommendations to Defra. It will also work with existing projects that aim to attract people into the industry.

Richard Longthorp, a farmer and fellow member of the working group, adds that without a skilled workforce, there is no one to take full advantage of investments made in agricultural R&D.

The Future of Farming group will also discuss how to encourage innovators and entrepreneurs with no background in farming to join the industry.

Environment secretary Owen Paterson backed the review in a speech at the Oxford Farming Conference on 3 January, saying entrepreneurial, ambitious people were needed to put farming on a sustainable footing.

Paterson also called for UK farmers to have the chance to use genetically modified crops, which offer “great opportunities”.

He said that the government should make the case for the benefits of GM to the public, although he acknowledged it was a controversial topic and that both risks and benefits must be considered.

In his speech, Paterson also confirmed that two pilot badger culls that were postponed in October will go ahead in the summer as the government attempts to tackle the spread of bovine TB. He said that without “bearing down on…the surrounding wildlife population”, TB in cattle could not be controlled.

Another government priority is to control the spread of plant diseases, which should be given the same level of importance as animal disease, Paterson said.

On ash dieback disease, he said that the government, research councils and European partners were researching spore production, genetic resistance and long-term resilience in the plants.