The future of Scottish agriculture post-Brexit Contents

6Agricultural innovation

101.As we discussed earlier, Scotland’s agricultural land has the lowest productivity per hectare in the UK due to its challenging topography.206 One way to help address this is to use technology, innovation and automation to improve efficiency.207 During our inquiry we visited the James Hutton Institute, and heard impressive accounts of how technology ranging from robotic milking to vertical farming208 could transform the agricultural landscape. Innovation is not limited to technology however, new practices like benchmarking and data sharing can allow farms to can compare themselves to their peers and identify part of their operation that they can improve. However, while Scottish research institutes are at the heart of new research, there was consensus that more to be done to get new innovations adopted by farmers.209 We identified two main barriers to uptake:

i)Poor information sharing and a lack of knowledge exchange between researchers and farmers, and

ii)The cost of purchasing and training staff to use new technology.

Knowledge exchange

102.Most witnesses agreed that there was a lack of emphasis within agricultural research to get new research and technology implemented on the ground. Eleanor Kay, Scottish Land and Estates, blamed this on a “fundamental disconnect” between the research and farming communities:

I think a lot of farmers would actively want to get involved in research projects were they to know they were happening […] I hear a number of issues on a farm where I think, “There are seven-year projects going on about that. Why don’t they know the research is happening?”210

Kate Rowell, Quality Meat Scotland, said this was a “stumbling block” for the sector, with some farmers feeling isolated by the technological advances coming from Scotland’s research institutes:

As Eleanor said, it is getting that research on to the ground. Things like the James Hutton Institute are fantastic, but your average farmer looks at that and it is a different planet. It has nothing whatsoever to do with them. It is that connection that we really need to foster.211

103.Russell Smith, Scottish Crofting Federation, said this required a shift in the focus of agri-tech research, with a greater emphasis placed on who new technology will be used by, and ensuring it is tailored to their needs:

Farmers and crofters are very good at innovating, but they will only do it if it is proven that it is a benefit. Someone needs to get out there and say […] if you do such-and-such, then you will see these positive benefits and then people will do it.212

This view was echoed by Aoife Behan, Soil Association Scotland, who told us that the most innovative research tended to be led by farmers, easily integrated into farm practice and able to deliver results quickly.213 This is being supported in Scotland through successful knowledge exchange initiatives such as monitor farms; which bring together farmers and researchers to trial new technology and research methods around a nationwide network of host farms.214 Professor Julie Fitzpatrick suggested these should be established regionally making it easier for farmers to attend and allowing innovation to be targeted to the issues affecting a particular region.215

104.Knowledge exchange is a component of the UK Government’s agricultural RandD programme. Since 2013, £160 million has been invested over five years in four centres of Agricultural Innovation aimed at “improving the flow of ideas and solutions from laboratory to farm.”216 These centres have set up 10 “satellite” farms in Scotland to allow new farming technologies and techniques to be developed, trialled and shared in commercial farming settings.217 The Agri-Tech centres told us this had been an effective initiative and urged the Government to provide more resources for it to be expanded further.218

105.The UK Government has also made available funding via the UK research councils and its Industrial Strategy. In 2017, £90 million was announced in a Transforming Food Production Challenge aimed at promoting technology and innovation in the agri-food sector.219 When we hosted a roundtable with researchers at the James Hutton Institute, it was suggested that more could have been done to utilise these funds for knowledge exchange initiatives, such as ring-fencing funding for knowledge exchange and allowing farmers and farming cooperatives to bid for funding to trial new practices.220

106.The Rt Hon Michael Gove MP, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, told us he was open to the idea of incentivising farmers and researchers to engage in knowledge exchange initiatives, stating the Government was committed to helping farmers “embrace the opportunities that new technology might provide.”221

107.We welcome the additional funding the UK Government has made available for agricultural research; however, it must ensure that the outcomes of this research lead to technologies and techniques that are of practical relevance to farmers. We recommend that the Government stipulate that bids for UK funding for agricultural research must include proposals for how the outcome of the research will be shared with agricultural businesses, including proposals to trial or demonstrate new technologies where appropriate. We also recommend that groups of farmers and farming cooperatives be allowed to bid for funding to trial new practices.

Innovation grants

108.While knowledge exchange can help ensure farmers and crofters are aware of new practices and technologies, the cost of adopting these improvements can be a barrier to uptake. Willie Campbell, First Milk, said the need to borrow money to invest in new technology was a major obstacle:

There is no question that in the dairy sector there is huge potential for technology [but] the downside of it is the huge investment that is involved.222

109.Archie Gibson, Agrico UK Ltd, said this uncertainty around returns was a deterrent for his own business and their attempt to find an automated solution to picking and cleaning seed potatoes. He told us that introducing new machinery would require an up-front investment of over £100,000, with no certainty that it would do an adequate job or be more efficient.223 Jonnie Hall, NFU Scotland, said the UK Government could help farmers in these scenarios by incentivising the uptake of new innovation and technology.224 The Royal Society of Edinburgh suggested that farmers could be paid via rural development funding, which the UK Government has said will be merged into the Shared Prosperity Fund post-Brexit.225

110.However, not everyone favoured grants and government funded loans to encourage uptake of innovation. Soil Association Scotland argued that subsiding technology for all farmers could result in uptake that is not appropriate for all farms and could result in poor investment for farmers. Instead she argued funding should be focused on facilitating knowledge exchange:

it is not about targeting money at technology necessarily. It is about targeting money at facilitating innovation. That is absolutely key. How do we put farmers at the forefront of this innovation? Many of them do not have the time to stand back and look at things, but when we facilitate farmers getting together and give them access to academics or business expertise, innovation falls out of that.226

111.While the uptake of new innovations may not be right for all farm businesses the substantial costs associated with adopting new technology is proving a barrier to some. We therefore recommend the Government explore the option of using the Shared Prosperity Fund’s rural development budget to help farms purchase new technology and equipment through innovation grants.

Published: 31 July 2019