Harness farmers’ ingenuity – urges expert

HARNESS INGENUITY RI Farm
Professor Tom MacMillan, Rural Agricultural University (RAU)

RESEARCH support for inn-ovation in agriculture should focus on developing farmers’ ideas, not just ‘more money and bigger institutes’, a leading rural policy expert has argued.

Speaking at the annual Food and Farming Futures conference, Professor Tom MacMillan, right, said the UK had ‘barely scratched the surface’ of what was possible in terms of transformative change in the sector.

A relatively small proportion of the government’s agriculture research budget could be made to go a long way if invested intelligently in farmers’ ideas and encouraging collaboration, he said.

Prof MacMillan, Elizabeth Creak Chair of Rural Policy and Strategy at the Royal Agricultural University (RAU), explained: “Are the UK’s systems for supporting research and innovation in agriculture working and, if not, what needs to change?

“A lot of the buzz these days about ‘transforming food production’ is about moving food production off the land, whether into greenhouses, labs, old shipping containers, tower blocks or disused tube stations. The implication is that innovation on farms has its day – that we’re banging up against the limits of what’s possible in agriculture.

“There’s certainly a strong case for a fresh approach. But I think we’ve barely scratched the surface of what’s possible in agriculture. There are huge opportunities in farming better – synergies for health, nature, rural communities and the economy – that are hard to match. For the past 50 years or more, agricultural R&D investment has focused mainly on inventing better inputs – breeding, pesticides, fertilisers, medicines, machines and so on. That’s where the return on investment has been clearest. And that’s what our research infrastructure is geared to support.

“There has been vanishingly little support for practical innovation in farming systems. We need a rethink that recognises farming is highly complex, that understands and works with a highly variable environment, and that harnesses farmers’ ingenuity. More money and bigger institutes are not the solution. Rather, the priority should be to boost support for farmer-led innovation, pioneered by networks like Innovative Farmers and the Yield Enhancement Networks.

“That will have most benefit if it links with and influences formal research, benchmarking tools and knowledge exchange. The great news is that this is simple and affordable. From the experience of existing initiatives involved in the Farmer-led Innovation Network that we coordinate at the RAU, even £10 million a year – a fraction of the amount government already invests in agricultural research – could be transformative.”

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