Great Yorkshire Show: 'Yorkshire's status as world leader in farm innovation is under threat'

Generations of farmers and scientists in Yorkshire can work together to tackle the world's most pressing environmental challenges, if a potential funding cliff edge is addressed.

Tuesday, 9th July 2019, 1:42 pm
Minette Batters, president of the National Farmers' Union, at the 161st Great Yorkshire Show in Harrogate. Picture by James Hardisty.
Minette Batters, president of the National Farmers' Union, at the 161st Great Yorkshire Show in Harrogate. Picture by James Hardisty.

National Farmers' Union president Minette Batters, speaking at the Great Yorkshire Show, said this ongoing collaboration - which is already a major strength in Yorkshire - is key to British agriculture meeting its ambitious target to cut its emissions to net zero by 2040.

However, the very future of Yorkshire's status as world leader in farm innovation and scientists' capacity to work with farmers to deliver innovative climate change solutions, is being threatened by a lack of firm, long-term funding commitments from the Government as Britain leaves the European Union.

Mrs Batters said: "The best of British science is supporting the best of British farming, all here in Yorkshire.

"I believe this work in Yorkshire can inspire new generations of scientists and farmers to talk to each other and put the UK at the forefront of the progressive, sustainable farming industry that is UK agriculture."

The union boss added: "We need this science base more than ever. The years in front of us will see producing more food on less land and with less water and fewer resources.

"If government can create the right economic and commercial conditions for farming and science together to thrive, we can achieve our climate change aspiration."

Meg Lewis, associate director for the University of Sheffield's Institute for Sustainable Food, also sounded a warning at the NFU's press conference at the show.

The university has secured more than £40m for agricultural research over the last five years, but Ms Lewis warned: "There are really tough challenges ahead. After we leave the EU, we face losing one of the biggest sources of funding. We also risk losing access to some of the world's greatest scientific minds. This not only jeopardises our vital research but it threatens Yorkshire's status as world leader in farm innovation and development of solutions farmers need to survive the coming decades.

"This comes at a time when we have 11 years to prevent climate breakdown. Globally we need to double the amount of calories we produce from agriculture without using any more land in order to support a population of 10 billion people by 2050.

"Meanwhile, increasing disease resistance is an environmental concern, meaning that farmers are losing the chemicals they are currently reliant upon for their crops, and our agricultural soils are disappearing at a rate of the equivalent of a football pitch every five seconds, so now more than ever we need to think big with our research... beyond political timescales and geographic confinements. We can't afford to scale down our research and we don't have time to work individually in silos."

She added: "We won't tackle climate breakdown or feed our growing population unless scientists, farmers, agricultural industry, retailers and the public all work together.

"With the security of seven to ten year EU funding schemes at risk, the Government absolutely must step in to deliver what it promised and deliver long term support for researchers and farmers."

Using EU funding, Sheffield University research projects have included the development of drought resistant cereal crops; research which is currently being used to help Malaysian rice farmers adapt to an increasingly extreme climate, and the development of fertiliser pellets made from captured carbon dioxide that has the potential to cut farming emissions.

Meanwhile, the Yorkshire Agricultural Society's Farmer Scientist Network, which links the science community across Yorkshire and the North with farmers, is involved with other projects that include trials of biological pesticides to combat the septoria wheat disease - also using EU funding - the press conference heard.

Making the case for financial support for the agri-research sector, Ms Lewis said: "We've been so successful because of that (EU funding) security. Without it we risk being limited to only producing research that has immediate returns. If we are to grow the food we need in this rapidly changing world we absolutely must be bold, collaborative and ambitious."

Responding to calls for future agri-science funding, a spokeswoman for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, said: “We are seizing the opportunity of EU exit to put the UK at the forefront of agricultural innovation with our Agriculture Bill setting out an ambitious future for domestic agriculture policy.

“We intend to support farmers to improve their productivity where this will be done sustainably and in a way that improves our air, water, soil and biodiversity.

“This builds on the £90m investment from the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund to further support agricultural innovation.”