Invest in Innovative Farmers
Following the release of the Soil Association manifesto priorities in April this blog takes a deeper look at the vital on-farm research and our call for the new government to allocate 10% of the current R&D budget for innovative agriculture projects led by farmers themselves.
The future success of UK agriculture will depend on innovation by farmers.
In my view, the future success of UK agriculture will depend on innovation by farmers. The UK currently spends around £450 million a year on agricultural research and innovation yet only a fraction of this – as little as 1% - goes to practical projects led by farmers that cannot continue. Most the investment goes upstream or downstream of farmers, developing innovations they can buy, as the financial return is more obvious.
We believe that farmers are well-placed to drive innovation. They know the challenges farmers face inside out, and they can find solutions that can be practically implemented, whilst being economically viable.
Practical innovation by farmers has always played a vital part in improving farming practices. Farmers everywhere experiment - choosing, developing and adapting practices and tools to suit their land.[i] They have been called ‘innovators by tradition’.[ii] This is as important now, in the development of modern techniques such as reduced tillage, as it has been through history.
Farmer-led innovation is too valuable to give up and is already paying dividends
In recognition of the value and success of farmer-led innovation, we are calling on the new Government to commit to a dedicated farmer innovation fund with a budget of at least 10% of the UK’s public agricultural research and development budget. On current figures, that would amount to a minimum £45 million per year. This should be accompanied by innovation support services to help farmers apply and make the most of the new funds, building on experience from other countries of doing this through the European Innovation Partnership (EIP-Agri), and of home-grown initiatives such as Innovative Farmers www.innovativefarmers.org. In the short term, some of the money might need to go to research institutes to train scientists to work with farmers – the UK’s capacity for applied research has shrunk radically and needs rebuilding.
Focusing more of the UK’s agricultural research investment on farmer innovation could be game-changing. Putting just 10% of the current total budget towards such projects could see upwards of 1,000 projects a year led by groups of farmers. This would support many of the most active innovators in UK farming to team up and develop ideas that they have identified as priorities for the sustainability and resilience of their businesses, creating a powerful engine driving improvements across the sector.
How can we make this happen?
Now that the new government is in power, we are asking them to reward practical research by incentivising individual researchers and institutions to pay more attention to the impact of their research, for example, through awards schemes for researchers working on farmer-led projects; training; and involvement of farmers and practitioners in reviewing research grant applications.
Post-Brexit changes to farming policy could also present an unprecedented chance for a more ecologically sustainable farming system that sees local food thrive, encourages biodiversity and animal welfare, promotes health and boosts rural economies but that can only happen if we continue to innovate and protect our soils.
Innovative Farmers works and is having a real impact on-farm but don’t just take my word for it – in this short film, Nick Freeth of Manor Farm in Cricklade tells us what he has learned with Innovative Farmers.
However, the policy landscape unfolds, farming is set to enter a period of transformation, driven by changes in trade, markets, labour and support payments. To weather this change, and make the best of it, farmers will need to innovate.
How can I take action?
You can help by asking your local MP what they are doing to ensure soil protection is a top priority for food and farming policy - and sending them a copy of this article. We’d love to hear what they say, so please do drop us an email to let us know.
You can also join us in protecting our soils by becoming a member today.
If you’d like to know more of our general election priorities, or you would like to stay up to date with other food and farming policy, you can visit our Food and Farming Policy Hub.
[i] MacMillan, T. and Benton, T. (2014) ‘Engage farmers in research’. Nature 509: 25-27.
[ii] EU SCAR (2012), ‘Agricultural knowledge and innovation systems in transition – a reflection paper’, available online at: http://ec.europa.eu/research/bioeconomy/pdf/ki3211999enc_002.pdf