Go back

Agri-tech centres warned not to reinvent the wheel

Planned centres for agricultural innovation and informatics must build on existing data and make use of knowledge already available, the UK government has been advised.

The centres were proposed in the government’s UK Strategy for Agricultural Technologies, published in July 2013. Over five years, £90 million will be provided from government through the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council and the Technology Strategy Board to establish a small number of centres focused on sustainable intensification. The first centre, which will focus on agricultural informatics and metrics for sustainability in farming, is expected to cost £10m.

Researchers, farmers, businesses and others were asked by the government to respond to the strategy. In a document published at the end of last month, respondents said that the first centre should not duplicate or replace existing work and facilities. Instead, it should build on agriculture projects already under way.

Respondents agreed with the government that the UK can become a global leader in benchmarking sustainability, but warned that simple metrics that define sustainable systems would be difficult to agree nationally and internationally.

Topics for further centres were also mooted. The most popular theme was crop innovation, suggested by 77 respondents. Sustainable intensification and resource was the second most popular theme, backed by 66 respondents. The themes of animal improvement and tracing food supply chains each garnered 50 proposals. The document does not indicate the total number of respondents.

Feedback was also obtained from workshops, emails and an online survey. Some participants at workshops held in October 2013 criticised the concept of basing each centre on a particular theme, suggesting that there would be important additional questions that more general centres would be able to address more effectively.

Some delegates also suggested that fewer, larger centres may offer better value for money and more co-investment opportunities than small centres, and that some themes are likely to be relevant to all. The £90m was intended to be shared by four to six centres, but respondents said that this would result in none of them receiving enough money.

The feedback emphasised that the centres should not replicate expertise but tap into knowledge that is already available, and that systems approaches and strong collaboration between centres should ensure that they learn from each other. The centres should not attempt to achieve too much, nor compete with other countries that already have an advantage in a particular area.

The government’s intention for industry to match its £90m funding for the centres caused some concern, with some feedback suggesting that the UK’s agriculture industry is too small to be able to raise such resources. Some potential investors implied that they were only likely to invest in scaling up existing organisations, and the government also heard that big industry was likely to invest in “pre-competitive” work only.

The feedback will be considered by the Agri-Tech Leadership Council, which features science minister David Willetts, former government chief scientific adviser John Beddington and representatives of the BBSRC and TSB. The council will consider publishing a statement about the centres, and a subgroup of the council will be formed to look specifically at establishing the Centre for Agricultural Informatics. An announcement on the specifics of this centre is expected to be made later this year.