Defra looks towards farm-centric R&D

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Putting the farmer in the driving seat of RnD
Putting the farmer in the driving seat of R&D

Ensuring farmers are at the centre of agricultural R&D is a major driver behind a new approach from Defra. We hosted a consultation event at which Defra outlined how helping farmers prepare for a post Brexit world, improving productivity and making the most of new technology are key priorities and that it is encouraging the farming community to help define the innovation required to deliver these goals.

But this poses an equally major challenge, given that the cost of commissioning or taking part in R&D is often beyond the reach of most farm business. To tackle this Defra is consulting around a new innovation programme to be delivered as part of future farming policy, designed to represent a long-term commitment to agricultural R&D. The aim is to put farmers firmly in the driving seat, incentivising use of innovation on farms, and leading to increased sector productivity.

Three schemes are under discussion:

New look “Catalyst” programme

Similar to that delivered as part of the national agri-tech strategy, offering grants for collaborative R&D across different and cross-cutting challenge areas. These could range in scope from such diverse topics as soils health, safety and trust in the supply chain, genetics, plant breeding and animal health.

Innovation Accelerator projects

These would fund proof-of-concept testing for small scale research projects, aimed at de-risking development and adoption of new practices, products or services. Projects could range in cost from £10k-£100k and last for up to 2 years. The idea is that these are relatively short-term, and up to 2500-3000 projects are anticipated.

R&D Syndicates

These would allow a number of farm businesses to collaborate and co-invest in large scale R&D projects (up to £2M over 4 years) for their mutual benefit. This would allow collective investment at scale by farmers into R&D activities they otherwise wouldn’t be able to engage in. These are still very much at the conceptual and consultation stage, but the many events and discussions underway with the sector is demonstrating that Defra is seeking the views of its stakeholders.

Feedback from delegates

At our event, key issues raised included the so-called “intervention rate” – ie the amount of matched funding that will be required for the grant. Early indications are that syndicate projects could require 50% of matched funding, which can be a real issue for businesses if that match is required in actual cash. More flexible “in-kind” match funding, such as offering time, labour, use of land, managing plot trials or providing data is often much easier to generate than finding hard cash.

Linked to this is the thorny issue of what costs would be eligible to claim under any grant scheme. R&D projects are going to need academic input, and with Universities and research institutes under as much pressure as the rest of the public sector, charging Full Economic Cost to participate in research projects will be important to help balance the books.

Other challenges raised by our delegates included the need to manage duplication of projects across the UK (while maintaining any locally-relevant context of the research), as well as agreeing how publicly, and by what mechanisms the results will be shared and disseminated (should the syndicate be able to keep research outputs to themselves for their own competitive advantage, or should all farmers be able to benefit from the results?).

As ever, keeping the paperwork to a minimum, being agile, providing rapid responses and aligning with the seasonal nature of agriculture and horticulture feature high on the wish-list of any grant scheme. Also, using social science to properly ensure farmers really are getting what they want and need out of the projects is key. The scale of the investment also needs to be proportional to the scale of the challenge – and calculating that isn’t easy.

This is a huge opportunity for a culture change across the industry towards a more pro-innovation mindset, with the ambitious goal of enabling every agriculture-related business in the UK to tap into the funding opportunities. These now must benefit both business and academia if they are to succeed.

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