Business Secretary reveals new £90m fund to drive farm innovations

Business Secretary Greg Clark addressing farmers at the NFU's annual conference in Birmingham. Picture by Victoria Jones/PA Wire.
Business Secretary Greg Clark addressing farmers at the NFU's annual conference in Birmingham. Picture by Victoria Jones/PA Wire.
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Business Secretary Greg Clark has announced a new £90m fund designed to make it easier for farmers and growers to embrace technology and innovation.

The funding will bring together the agri-food sector with experts in robotics, artificial intelligence and data science to turn research into practical innovations, that will in turn drive better productivity on farms and create exciting career opportunities for young people, he said.

Middlesbrough-born Mr Clark told of his determination to put farming at the heart of his department’s recently announced Industrial Strategy, which he said represents the “biggest ever” rise in research and development investment from Whitehall, worth an extra £3bn a year by 2021.

The new funding for farming is part of the new Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund. It is intended to build on the government’s 2013 Agri-Tech Strategy and the National Farmers’ Union vowed to told Mr Clark to his promises.

Speaking at the union’s conference in Birmingham yesterday, the Kent MP said technology and innovation will be critical to meet the food demands of a growing population, fuel rural growth and create high-skilled jobs.

“This is already one of the most innovative sectors of our economy and the advantages of bringing together our best scientists with our most forward-thinking producers is clear,” Mr Clark said.

Referring to a study by the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board, he went on to say: “In this country we have often been better at the invention and discovery of new ways of doing things than the implementation of them and the AHDB is right in saying that we need to put an increased emphasis on the ‘D’ in R&D, the development half of research and development.”

The £90m investment includes the creation of “translation hubs” that bring together farmers and growers, businesses, scientists, centres for agriculture and innovation to apply the latest research to farming practice.

Mr Clark said: “It should be a big boost to the knowledge exchange that already takes place across food and farming.”

Artificial intelligence and big data are parts of a technological revolution sweeping the world and they can benefit farming with the right investment, including more reliable broadband for all, the Minister said.

“Intelligent algorithms using data on atmospheric conditions and soil moisture has the real potential to dramatically reduce, for example, the water needed for agriculture,” Mr Clark said.

He also said that his intention to make Britain “the go-to place in the world” for the development of autonomous vehicles includes off-road that can help boost farm productivity.

Dr Helen Ferrier, the NFU’s chief science adviser, said she expects “genuine and immediate” signs of greater collaboration between Mr Clark’s department and the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to ensure the Industrial Strategy builds on past investment.

Dr Ferrier said: “The ‘translation hubs’ must accelerate and transform the link between science and practice. It is now vital that more attention is given to engaging more farm businesses in the Strategy and this new R&D programme, to make it real for farmers and growers.”

She said the NFU wants a more open, inclusive and proactive dialogue with food supply chain leaders to ensure the Industrial Strategy fully delivers for farming.