A renewed dialogue: perspectives on UK Agriculture after Brexit
On the 18th of October, UCL hosted an event aimed at fostering knowledge exchange on technologies applied to agriculture between policy, research, business and farming communities, providing an overview of current approaches, challenges and future directions for the UK. Together with UCL’s Dr. Kenneth Tong, Tim Bodley-Scott and Dr. Eugenio Zapata-Solvas, the main speakers were Dr. Riaz Bhunnoo (Director of the Global Food Security Programme), Prof. Angela Karp (Director for Science Innovation, Engagement & Partnership, Rothamsted Research), Peter Shearman (Head of Co-Innovation, Europe CSIG, CISCO) and Paul Rous (Impact Investor and former farmer).
The agriculture sector worldwide faces a number of high-level challenges, including meeting the demands for increased productivity, while maintaining high sustainability standards and low environmental impacts. The challenge of how to keep raising yields while reducing the sector’s negative impacts on the environment is often seen as a technological issue, with most actors turning to technology for the solution. However, whilst the need for innovation in finding a solution is clear, new technologies cannot be a one size fits all solution. Without a shift in practices and cultures of production and consumption, innovation will stagnate. Change needs to be fostered from discussions that identify opportunities to transfer knowledge, practices and technologies between research, policy and industry.
UCL recently led a “sandpit” that focused on the Perspectives on UK Agriculture after Brexit which brought together researchers, policy-makers, innovators and farmers to discuss this pressing and important issue. The event reflects the aims of UCL Public Policy and the UCL Research Strategy to encourage cross-disciplinary research communities and collaborations addressing major policy issues. Seeing Brexit as an opportunity to strengthen the UK’s position and leadership in technology implementation in agriculture, the discussions focused on:
- how to tackle the lack of knowledge within the agriculture sector about existing technology;
- how to take into account the cost and risk involved in the implementation of existing and new technologies;
- how to create the necessary connections between producers, consumers, policy-makers and experts to develop and exploit new technologies;
- how to anticipate the future policy developments and their likely impact in the sector.
The UK agriculture sector will undergo profound change, with Brexit creating both a risk and opportunity to significant impact on the sector for the decades to come. From 2022, the UK will have its own agriculture policy, currently being discussed through ‘The Agriculture Bill’ in UK Parliament. Views in the media broadly agree that it is a positive development for the UK as it will integrate the agriculture sector in with wider health and environmental approaches. However, the importance of this Bill should not be overstated, as the outcome of the Brexit negotiations and the degree of regulatory alignment of the UK with the EU (but also other international commitments such as the Paris agreement) will remain the main policy factors shaping the future of the sector.
“Move the food system from value to values”
Dr Riaz Bhunnoo — Director of the Global Food Security Programme
It was evident that a business as usual approach is not an option for the agriculture sector and the food system in particular. Speaker Dr Riaz Bhunoo stressed the need to think holistically about the food system, notably to link it with environmental and health policies. On the demand side, consumers’ behaviours will need to adapt as diets become more and more similar with globalisation and our nutrition become dependent on fewer products. Focusing on the nutritious value of agricultural goods rather than on their profit margin, to optimise the wellbeing and resource used for production is key. Governments have a responsibility to help consumers shift their habits to enable healthy and sustainable food choices. Some changes will be harder than others, for instance the introduction of insects as a source of protein for Western consumers, which could be implemented first as a source of protein in animal food to allow time for consumer attitudes to change (a by-product of this incidentally would be reduced methane emissions from cattle, which could have a significant impact on climate change). Peter Shearman, from CISCO, added that implementing technologies in farms is crucial to produce more food within the same field, to respond to the growing demand and the lack of available lands. However, the countryside has traditionally been the last to benefit from new network infrastructure and technologies and this trend has to be reversed through better engagement with local communities.
“Innovation without collaboration cannot transform industries”
Dr. Angela Carp — Rothamsted Research
We also heard that good ideas alone will not deliver new products or practices to transform industries. Professor Angela Carp argued that collaborating with farmers is crucial to translating ideas into practical solutions: innovations are not just about new products but also practices. To give an example, the solution to improving yields should not just rely on new crops but also on technologies that can optimise the planning of use of existing machines. Ongoing and frequent dialogue between innovators, farmers and policy-makers is needed from the earliest stages possible, in combination with a greater awareness of policy frameworks and legislation affecting technology adoption and uptake. This could deliver a more dynamic and nimble policy environment for agri-tech. This is especially pertinent as according to Paul Rous the next generation of farmers is likely to have an entrepreneurial mindset that is better suited to adopting technologies and so it is important to build the ecosystem and trust between funders, innovators and farmers today rather than wait for tomorrow.
Transforming an industry is usually a long process, with many failed innovations along the way. Nonetheless, climate change, global health and wellbeing issues weighing on the agriculture sector mean that change has to be implemented rapidly. Dialogue, shared practices and trust can strengthen the aim, and technologies can offer solutions to both production/consumption issues and to communication problems around these challenges. The views from researchers, policy-makers, innovators and farmers all came to the same conclusion: technologies are an essential tool, but only one part of the solution. What’s actually needed is large scale attitudinal and cultural change and greater collaboration between all these groups.
Clement Leroy, Research and Policy Engagement Associate, UCL Public Policy & European Institute