Agri-Tech Catapult is a sensible move - but it must learn from past mistakes
Professor Tina Barsby OBE
Science for Sustainable Agriculture
Merging three of the four UK Agri-Tech Centres into a single Agri-Tech Catapult makes sense, but there are significant lessons to be learned from the past 10 years if it is to deliver meaningful improvements in the translation and uptake of new farming technologies and innovations. With a return on investment of just 0.6:1, the Agri-Tech Centres have not delivered value for money, constrained by a risky ‘capital-only’ funding model, and lacking a core focus on genetic innovation, the single most important factor driving on-farm productivity gains, writes plant scientist Professor Tina Barsby.
In writing this article, I feel rather like the lone child pointing out that the Emperor is wearing no clothes. Nor would I wish to dampen down the wave of enthusiasm which greeted last week’s announcement that three of the four Agri-Tech Centres - CIEL, CHAP and Agri-EPI - are to be merged into a single Agri-Tech Catapult within Innovate UK.
Bringing the three centres under a single management structure makes sense, as does the model of a Catapult to provide R&D facilities and support to entrepreneurial agri-tech businesses, with a focus on cross-cutting themes such as climate change, disease mitigation and environmental sustainability.
That said, however, I do feel it is important to point out that the legacy of the centres of innovation is not one of unmitigated success, and that there are significant lessons to be learned from the past 10 years if we are to deliver meaningful improvements in the translation and uptake of new farming technologies and innovations in the future. That was, after all, the original objective of the Agri-Tech Strategy, and the establishment of the Centres, unveiled by Ministers in 2013.
Suggestions last week from Innovate UK that “to date, the Agri-Tech Centres have played a vital role in translating agricultural innovation into commercial success, both at home and on the global stage,” or that they have “bolstered food security, reduced our carbon footprint, and enhanced the productivity of our crop and livestock production systems,” are simply not backed up by the evidence.
In the 10 years since the Agri-Tech Strategy was launched, growth in UK agricultural productivity has continued to fall behind other countries and progress in reducing the UK farming industry’s carbon footprint has remained stubbornly slow! It is important that we learn lessons from this experience because the challenges facing global agriculture are becoming more urgent all the time, and the UK, with its world-class research base in biological, engineering and data sciences, has a critical contribution to make.
Personally, I would struggle to name specific projects where the three centres have translated agricultural innovation into commercial success over the past decade. Maybe there are some – but are they sufficient to justify the considerable government spend which the Centres have had access to? And does this bode well for a Catapult? I wish the very capable new CEO success in these important issues.
Having served as a member of the original Agri-Tech Strategy leadership council, I believed from the outset that the ‘capital only’ funding model was risky. It relied on industry stepping up to fund projects in the new capital facilities, which has only partly been successful. (It is important to remember that Agrimetrics was under no such restriction on spend, being the only Centre with considerable revenue funding).
Restricting their ability to invest in anything other than equipment, capital and basic running costs meant that the centres were entirely dependent on attracting investment in research projects from commercial (or other) partners, or on absorbing fledgling projects initiated elsewhere which needed capital investment.
Rather than establishing a new suite of agri-tech capabilities, identifying and plugging gaps in the existing R&D landscape, or developing new models of working between Government, academia and industry – all objectives set out under the Agri-Tech Strategy - the Agri-Tech Centres have struggled to establish a unique proposition or selling point. Current interactions suggest they had come to see themselves as ‘convenors’, pulling projects together to bid for government funds.
The economic impact of the centres tells its own story. According to their web-site, in 10 years they have translated investments totalling £162m into projects worth £99m to the agri-food sector, a return on investment of just 0.6:1. (Over the same period, the Centres created 280 jobs at a rate of £578k per job).
In view of Innovate UK’s assertion that the Agri-Tech Centres have played a vital role in translating agricultural innovation into commercial success, it is worth setting that 0.6:1 return on investment into context.
In 2020, I commissioned an independent assessment of the value of translational crop science research taking place at NIAB, which identified an 18:1 return on investment to the wider UK economy, for example through improved production efficiency and economic growth.
Earlier economic impact research, conducted for the British Society of Plant Breeders (BSPB) in 2010, showed that UK plant breeders delivered an impressive 40:1 return on investment over the previous 20 years, with benefits ranging from increased yields and input savings at the farm level through to import substitution, export earnings and enhanced processing efficiency within the food and drink manufacturing sector.
This points to the second and really important fundamental lesson to be learned from the Agri-Tech Centres to date. They were established to drive improvements in productivity and efficiency across UK farms, and yet the single most important factor in driving on-farm productivity gains – genetic innovation – was not a core focus for any of the centres. And consequently, the John Innes Centre, our flagship genetic institution, has hardly interacted with the Centres at all.
In May 2021, a study by HFFA Research GmbH concluded that improved crop varieties accounted for two-thirds of the productivity gains in UK arable crops from 2000-2020. Without plant breeding, UK crop yields would have been 19% lower, and 1.8 million hectares of additional land would have been required to meet our food needs.
Despite this, two separate reviews of UK plant science, the first in 2004 led by Professor Chris Gilligan, and the second, in 2021, led by Professor Jane Langdale, both highlighted the need for a more joined-up R&D pipeline for crop genetic innovation to transfer promising early-stage discoveries from lab to field.
Professor Langdale explained: “The modest and relatively inelastic income from seed royalties limits commercial plant breeders’ ability to invest in more speculative or long-term targets. Because of this, and the lengthy timescales involved, the current system for financing near-market and applied R&D is not working, and opportunities to exploit major advances in our understanding of plant science are being lost.”
So, the same hiatus in funding of translational research activity identified by Professor Gilligan almost 20 years ago remains a major barrier to progress in the one sector confirmed as the main driver of productivity gains in UK crop production.
Professor Langdale’s 2021 report also highlighted the need for a ‘critical review’ of the Agri-Tech Centres, precisely because of their failure to address this widely acknowledged and potentially dimension-changing gap in translational research effort and funding.
As priorities for the new Agri-Tech Catapult are developed, it seems unthinkable that the importance of translational research in the context of crop genetic innovation could be overlooked yet again.
Let’s hope that the lessons learned from the first 10 years of the Agri-Tech Strategy will help to build a more strategically targeted approach, and a focus on tangible, deliverable outcomes, for the next phase.
Professor Tina Barsby OBE is a plant geneticist and a former CEO of NIAB, where she led the implementation of innovative approaches to plant breeding, including the first public-good wheat breeding programme in the UK since the privatisation of the Plant Breeding Institute in 1987. She was awarded an Honorary Professorship in Agricultural Botany by the University of Cambridge in 2021.