Norfolk has a fine tradition of innovation in agriculture. From ‘Turnip’ Townshend’s Norfolk Four Crop Rotation system through to the new Beneforte Broccoli, a superfood that has put the focus firmly on the value of quality food.
The East of England has a rich blend of farmers, growers, researchers and technologists across a range of disciplines. This expertise and practical knowledge is being brought together under the umbrella of agri-tech, which has at its core sustainable and improved food production.
Agri-tech also encompasses non-food uses of plants such as the production of high-value chemicals, food, feed, fibre and fuels. It is now widely recognised that one industry’s waste product can form the raw material for another, so a key focus is to look at how value can be extracted from everything that agriculture can produce.
Additionally, new types of crops, perhaps grown on land unsuitable for food production, can also produce valuable organic compounds. This is creating new markets for agricultural production and potentially different supply chains.
But what does this mean on the ground? To help define and grow the opportunities presented by agri-tech, a new membership organisation called Agri-Tech East has been established. It aims to develop a cluster of interested organisations and individuals to pool knowledge and facilitate partnerships.
As the newly appointed director of Agri-Tech East, it’s been a hectic few weeks talking to as many potential stakeholders as possible.
Over recent weeks I have met with growers, processors and agricultural organisations to gain their insights and understand their expectations. It has been a pleasure to revisit many former colleagues and friends in the Norfolk producer and research communities.
The next stage is to pull this together into an action plan, which will underpin future activities, including the first one which is a strong presence at Cereals in June. As the leading technical event for the UK arable industry, it is a very appropriate platform from which to promote agri-tech and showcase the innovation that is happening across the region.
What makes Agri-Tech East distinctive is that we aim also to bring in entrepreneurial ideas from outside of the industry. Agri-Tech East, which is funded by the Gatsby Charitable Foundation, is being initially hosted by the Cambridge Network which has significant experience of growing successful knowledge-based clusters.
Already we are seeing the benefit of new technologies, with the emergence of companies such as Food Forensics, based on the Norwich Research Park. This analysis company can determine the origin of a food or beverage from its unique “fingerprint. Work on authenticating products will mean that it will be easier to protect British grown products and Norfolk brands.
My intention over the coming months is to map out the sector and identify the players. This will include researchers, farmers, producers, technologists, entrepreneurs and also includes organisations more “near market”, such as retailers and the wider ecosystem of government, associations and support networks.
There has been a proliferation of funding opportunities emerging in this space but they often require collaborations between different parties. We will be in a good position to showcase the opportunities that are available. There will be a key role here for growers to support trials of new approaches and technologies and to share in the outcomes.
I believe that there is also a role to create wider awareness of the contribution that agri-tech can make to the UK economy. In 2012, the UK exported £18bn of food, drink and animal feed making it one of the world’s top 12 exporters.
The UK is also a world leader in science and technology in this sector, and this attracts a significant amount of inward investment.
One of the challenges for Agri-Tech East will be to increase the profile of the sector both within the UK and with the international community and add value to all its players.