Britain funds agri-tech strategy to reinvent food supply chain

July 24, 2013 at 12:02 AM
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LONDON, July 24 (UPI) -- Britain says it will invest $245 million in a new agricultural technology strategy meant to boost the global competitiveness of its food production chain.

Science Minister David Willetts said Monday the new Agricultural Technologies Strategy seeks to make Britain a "world leader" in farming sciences and technologies in a future that's likely to see sharply rising demand for food grown in an unpredictably changing climate.

Other countries such as Brazil and China have taken the lead on developing such fields as nutrition, informatics, satellite imaging, remote sensing, meteorology and precision farming, and Britain needs major investments in agriculture research and technology to keep up, Willetts said.

"To get ahead in the global race, this strategy sets out how we can ensure that we turn our world-beating agricultural science and research into world-beating products and services," the minister said in a statement.

The new strategy earmarks $138 million for establishing a series of "Centers for Agricultural Innovation" to support the wide-scale adoption of innovation and technology across Britain's food and farming supply chains.

Meanwhile, $108 million -- co-funded by private industry -- has been budgeted for a venture capital fund to commercialize promising research, while $46 million will go to Britain's Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council to set up four agri-science research campuses.

It also includes funding for research and development of Britain's genetically modified farming industry, including a partnership with Swiss seed company Syngenta on developing pest-resistant wheat.

The move continues a push by the British government to counter opposition to GM crops within the European Union, where eight member states currently ban their cultivation as unsafe.

"We face a global challenge to feed the rapidly increasing population in a way which is affordable and sustainable," Rupert Ponsonby, science minister for Britain's Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, said in a statement.

"We are investing in technologies that will enable British farmers to meet these challenges and take advantage of the growing demand in export markets for British food."

The strategy also establishes a new Agri-Tech Leadership Council that includes members of Parliament as well as private food industry players such as Judith Batchelar, brand director of the Sainsbury's grocery store chain, and Ian Noble, a director of Pepsico.

Batchelar said that in conjunction with the government push, Sainsbury's has established its own funding program for agri-tech college graduate grants, as well as for the training of a new generation of farmers dedicated to improving the efficiency of the overall food supply chain.

"With the average age of a farmer being over 50, it's important to attract and train young talent to drive technical development in a sustainable way and build on Sainsbury's heritage in food technology and product development," she said.

Reaction from Britain's agriculture sector was mostly positive, the trade journal Farmer's Guardian reported.

The Agricultural Biotechnology Council, a trade group representing Britain's GM crop industry, said the country for too long has "lacked a strategic plan for agricultural science and technology, while countries such as China and Brazil have encouraged investment and have surged ahead."

But the Soil Association, a non-profit campaigning for sustainable farming, said the agri-tech policy reflects "ministers' unhealthy obsession with lobbying against the EU's precautionary approach on GM and pesticides."

The group added, however, that it also contains promising elements for farmers -- if they are given "a direct say in decisions about research funding" along with upstream supermarkets and food manufacturers.

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