It was fantastic to have been asked to contribute Innovative Farmers' perspective to this episode of Countryfile, which was discussing the state of our agricultural R&D. As farmers are facing greater uncertainty around the future of the UK’s agriculture post-Brexit, greater collaboration between farmers and researchers is needed now more than ever.
The first experimentalists
Farmers know, better than anyone, the problems they face. What’s more, they are great natural experimenters. They experiment all the time - trying new varieties, tinkering with equipment to fit their needs, and testing ideas to reduce costs, increase yields or improve soil health. Part of the job description involves responding to environmental uncertainty and regulation changes, making swift management decisions based on an unrivalled knowledge of their land and livestock.
This spirit of experimentation can only be good for agricultural research; bolstering robust academic investigation with hard-earned practical experience and innovative ideas from the ground-up.
Agricultural R&D in the UK
However farmer-led research is not commonplace in the UK. The public sector spends around £320 million on agricultural R&D with an estimated private sector spend of £496 million. As Bill Gates agreed on Countryfile on Sunday night, the UK’s academic credentials are excellent – our research institutes have an exemplary reputation internationally for agricultural science. But perhaps as little as 1% of the public funding in agricultural R&D is spent on farmer-led research, which is not surprising, as funders have not had an easy way to support grassroots approaches.
Expensive academic research of this kind can be a traditional linear model: knowledge moving from scientist to user. Science takes time, necessarily so, in order to provide precise, robust evidence. The progress is often at a distance to farmers, with learning kept under wraps until the analyses are completed, usually years later.
Additional barriers are then faced by farmers in accessing the information that is frequently held in pay-walled journals, or require some translating before they can be applied usefully on-farm. Farmers need to react quickly to challenges they face, such as a newly emerging disease, or unpredictable climate, and these timelines often do not match up.
The private sector has greater engagement, routinely having farmer groups involved in trials within their R&D departments. But research is usually conducted behind closed doors to keep competitive advantage, and often collaborations are focussed on product development.
Significant effort is focused on translating research into advice, such as through AHDB and Agricology, that can be taken up more easily on-farm. While the information exists, transforming it into action on the ground is difficult: farmers must first seek out the research when they are already incredibly busy, not to mention they are managing highly complex systems - every corner of every field is different, no two animals are the same, so it can be extremely challenging to decipher often reductionist research findings into something you can apply immediately on-farm.
Put frankly, there is no substitute for understanding something that you have tested and seen for yourself, in your own fields or animals.
UK’s productivity plateau
So, if there is clear investment in our first-rate research, and translation services out there to help disseminate learning, why has the UK’s agricultural productivity growth slowed compared other countries such as the US, France, Germany and Netherlands? Academic funders may well find this frustrating as they genuinely care about their grants having impact on the ground. Research departments are subject to the Research Excellent Framework which is the UK’s system for assessing the quality of research and helps inform how the estimated £2 billion per year of public funding is allocated – this assessment explicitly states that “impact beyond academia” is one of three evaluation areas.
Could a scientist achieve greater impact working directly with farmers, on their priorities and seeing findings immediately taken up on-farm? I think so. This approach would be rewarding for all – scientists want their work to matter, farmers want to collaborate and be more resilient, and the funders want the public purse to facilitate real change.
Farmer-led research in action
This is why Countryfile spoke to us about Innovative Farmers. Here, farmers and scientists collaborate to design “field labs” – on-farm trials that are very practical and can be set up quickly, so farmers can get to work straight away on finding interesting, sustainable solutions to the challenges they identify. The collaboration is effective - the farmers ensure that the field lab is practical and is going to make sense to their business. The scientists give it some important rigour, help with a simple yet effective trial design and analyses that will yield results you can have faith in.
This collaboration can bear fruit beyond the field lab in developing larger research proposals based on real challenges and strong industry-research relationships. The model's flexibility gives it breadth and appeal - more than a thousand farmers have been involved since it began running field labs in 2012, investigating over fifty topics on things like targeting mastitis treatments in dairy cattle, and alternative techniques to glyphosate for terminating cover crops.
What started as a programme funded by the Prince of Wales’ Charitable Foundation, through the sales of Duchy Organic products in Waitrose, to help farmers become more sustainable through proactive research, has gained considerable recognition across the farming sector. The network is a partnership between LEAF (Linking Environment and Farming), Innovation for Agriculture, the Organic Research Centre and the Soil Association, and most of the UK’s top agricultural research organisations have registered an interest in working on field labs. Many agricultural companies are seeing how these proactive field labs can benefit their farming groups too.
The principal public funder of agricultural research, the BBSRC, sponsors the programme alongside the AHDB, the largest agricultural levy body in the UK. They see the potential of nurturing farmers’ experimentalism and how this can positively feedback up through research.
An ‘innovate or die’ attitude
Most farmers I talk to are not interested in standing still and waiting for government to sort itself out over Brexit. Whilst much of the R&D spend is fixated on technological advances, however important, it is not the whole picture. Many individual farmers can’t sit and wait for new tech to be on the market, they have issues they want to tackle now.
I have seen how interested farmers are in foundational improvements they can implement, such as improving soil quality, but they want to get it right because it is risky. This is their livelihood and failure matters. As users of research and technology, farmers don’t want to feel locked in to a product or system but rather have more knowledge and ‘tools in the armoury’ so they can be adaptable to whatever gets thrown at them from the weather, disease or regulation.
Farmers think in the long term and fundamentally want their businesses to be more sustainable - if they are an integral part of developing research and innovation, then they are much more likely to implement change in farming, in ways that really benefit themselves and all of society. Therefore, it makes sense that if we want to make our agriculture more productive, sustainable, self-sufficient yet internationally competitive, in a post-Brexit world, then we must look to our farmers.