NEWS: Does the UK need a growth strategy for agricultural technology?

26 Jun 2012

JOINT PRESS RELEASE from abc, NFU, NIAB, Rothamsted Research, The Sainsbury Laboratory

Does the UK need a strategic plan for growth in the agricultural technology sector in order to address global food security, sustainably, and to keep pace with growing competition from emerging markets?

That will be the subject of a roundtable discussion to be held later today with Minister for Universities and Science, Rt Hon David Willetts MP, Defra Minister Lord Taylor, and senior figures from the UK’s leading research institutes, the farming sector and the agricultural industry.

The meeting, chaired by George Freeman MP, Chair of the All Party Group on Science and Technology in Agriculture, marks the launch of ‘Going for Growth’, a new report on the potential economic opportunity presented to the UK by agricultural technology research and innovations, published by the Agricultural Biotechnology Council.

This follows the UK Government’s Foresight Report ‘The Future of Food and Farming 2011’, which highlighted that ‘there are real sustainable gains to be made from combining biotechnology, agronomic and agro ecological practices. Because of the significant time lags in reaping the benefits of research, investment needs in new knowledge needs to be made now to solve the problems in coming decades’.

Farmers need access to agricultural tools to help them produce high quality affordable food, in a way that makes the most of limited land and resources. Europe, and the UK specifically, has lacked a strategic plan for the sector, while countries like Brazil and China have understood this sector’s worth, have encouraged investment and are now reaping the benefits.

Minister for Universities and Science Rt Hon David Willetts MP said: “Food security is a global challenge which is increasing as the population grows and climate change threatens agricultural areas. Britain has traditionally been at the forefront of  research. We continue to be committed to finding ways of producing food efficiently and advocating the role of agricultural technology to tackle the problem.”

George Freeman MP, Chair of the All Party Group on Science and Technology in Agriculture, added: “Given the urgency of identifying opportunities for export-led growth in the British economy and the growing global challenge of food security and sustainable development, I believe we have a golden opportunity to attract significant inward investment and international technology transfer from the UK agriculture research sector.

“Agri-science, alongside biomedical and cleantech, is one of the three strands of the growing global bio-economy. We need a new partnership between government, agriculture and our research base to put new biotechnology to work to tackle the biggest problems in our society.”

The ‘Going for Growth’ report received significant support and input from across the agricultural technology sector, including the NFU, National Institute of Agricultural Botany (NIAB) and public research institutes including Rothamsted Research and The Sainsbury Laboratory.

Peter Kendall, President of the NFU, welcomed the publication of the report, saying: “Farming delivers £8.8 billion to the UK economy and supports 3.5 million jobs and underpins the UK’s largest manufacturing sector, food and drink. Agricultural technologies help farmers to grow more and grow it in a way which manages agriculture’s environmental impact. UK farmers need to be able to choose from all available technologies to remain competitive in the global market, whilst working hard to protect and enhance millions of hectares of British countryside. A forward-thinking strategy for agricultural technology research is essential to help UK farmers continue to meet the future food and farming challenge.”

Professor Jonathan Jones of the Sainsbury Laboratory said: “UK public sector institutes are engaged in cutting edge research into crop technologies used around the world to meet the challenge of changing climatic and growing conditions. There is a huge opportunity for the UK to build on this and become a global centre for agricultural research – given the right support from Government and organisations throughout the food chain.

“We welcome the calls to action in this report and look forward to working with policy makers and others to create the right strategic framework for research to flourish.”

Dr Julian Little, Chair of the Agricultural Biotechnology Council said: “British science is one of our great national assets and agriculture is a growth area for the UK economy. Innovations in agricultural science are taking place at British institutes right now – both advanced, including GM, and conventional breeding techniques.

“From soybeans in Brazil to maize in Spain and papaya in Hawaii to oilseed rape in Australia, farmers around the world are using such innovations to improve the reliability and returns of crop production and to produce more food more sustainably. Encouraging British research and providing farmers access to all of these new technologies represents an exciting growth potential for the UK economy, and is a key tool to help them to compete in the global agricultural market.”

The report is available online at or download here. For more information, please contact the abc secretariat:

Tel: 020 7025 2333 (Emma Cerrone 07789 635401 / Matthew Hill 07984 415317)
Email: enquiries [at]


The report was prepared by the Agricultural Biotechnology Council (abc) with the input and support from the National Farmers’ Union, NIAB, The Sainsbury’s Laboratory and Rothamsted Research, and contributions from individuals at the James Hutton Institute, and leading universities including the Universities of Cambridge and Leeds. The public and private sectors want to work with the Government to:

  1. Help maintain the competitive lead of UK research institutes in the development and export of agricultural technology from Europe. Specifically, the potential of agricultural biotechnology should be included in the Government’s next Life Sciences Strategy.
  2. Set up a dedicated cross departmental working group, involving academic institutions, research bases and industry to publish a UK strategy for growth in the agricultural technology sector.
  3. Utilise agricultural research and knowledge as a driver to increase political and economic links with emerging and  established markets, including those which are leading the way on increasing food production.

abc, comprising of six member companies, works with the food chain and research community to invest in a broad range of crop technologies – including conventional and advanced breeding techniques, such as GM. These are designed to improve agricultural productivity by tackling challenges such as pests, diseases and changing climatic conditions, whilst reducing water usage, greenhouse gas emissions and other inputs. The companies are BASF, Bayer, Dow AgroSciences, Monsanto, Pioneer (DuPont) and Syngenta.


International comparisons

  • Over the last 10 years the global biotech seed market has expanded by 450%.
  • China’s spending on agricultural R&D has increased by about 10% every year since 2001, reaching almost US$1.8 billion in 2007. Private sector investment in R&D has also matured; less than 2% of total agricultural R&D was privately funded in 1999 but this increased to 22% in 2006.
  • The Brazilian agency EMBRAPA (Empresa Brasileira de Pesquisa Agropecuária) has become one of the world’s biggest funders of agricultural research and development, with a budget of approximately US$1.11 billion in 2009. Productivity growth in recent decades has allowed Brazil to become one of the world’s largest agricultural exporters. Embrapa sends scientists on placements to leading institutions around the world, and has a reciprocal arrangement with Rothamsted here in the UK; to share knowledge and expertise in state of the art research and to create new opportunities and links between Brazilian scientists and UK research (including other BBSRC Institutes and UK universities).

The opportunity of new crop technologies

  • The net global economic benefit at farm level added by cultivating GM crops rather than conventional varieties has been estimated at $14 billion in 2010.
  • In 2011, almost 17 million farmers around the world planted GM crops, up from 15 million in 2010.
  • European farmer margins would increase by €443 to €929 million if they were allowed to grow GM crops.