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Julian Sturdy - Strong Voice for York Outer

Julian Sturdy

Member of Parliament for York Outer

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Julian’s York Press Column – Science, Technology, Farming, and Our Economic Future

August 24, 2017

Over the last year in Parliament I have acted as Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Science and Technology in Agriculture. This might sound like a dry subject, but it in fact directly relates to huge national and international challenges of the global economy, world hunger and climate change. The use of science and technology in farming affects the quality and price of the food we buy, and the state of the environment and countryside, and is therefore of significant importance to our part of North Yorkshire.

The application of the latest innovations to food production is a good example of how science and higher education can be utilised to support business and economic growth for the benefit of everyone. Use of the latest methods can allow for more sustainable use of the land, ensuring farming and conservation can proceed hand in hand. Likewise, affordable, wholesome food is essential to keeping down the price of the family shop, and makes a vital contribution to public health and wellbeing. Agri-science forms a crucial part of the UK’s science base, and will be a source of many of the high-skill, high-productivity jobs our future prosperity must be built on.

Nowadays, there is increasing talk of the negative impact of technology, for instance the threat automation poses to jobs. Agri-science and technology provides an alternative, positive vision of the huge opportunities new advances offer, allowing us more control of our physical environment in order to banish problems of crop failure, food insecurity, and environmental degradation that have oppressed previous generations worldwide. Agri-science has the potential to make a massive contribution to international aid efforts, for example, as well as economic growth here in the UK.

During 2016-17, I have led the All-Party Group in discussions of how to preserve thriving wildlife alongside productive agriculture, GM crops, and what the UK can learn from the amazing progress Brazil has made in this field. Brazil has achieved agricultural productivity growth of around 40% per decade for the past 30 years, a rate of growth the OECD expects to be maintained for the next 10 years. This compares with growth forecasts of 16% for the USA and just 4% for the EU over the same period.

Whatever one’s view of the EU, I feel these figures are an important reminder that Europe does not have all the answers when it comes to building an innovative economy. Although the EU has done many good things for the environment, which we must preserve, it has also acted as a brake on agri-science development, contributing to the widespread view that Europe is “the museum of world farming.” Brexit gives us the opportunity to reshape environment and food policy so as to better embrace solutions offered by science. Britain’s ability to thrive outside the EU as a dynamic trading nation will also depend to a very great extent on the strength of our science and research base and our ability to export high-value goods and knowledge, and agricultural science and technology has the potential to be a major part of this.

However, alongside these opportunities, Brexit inevitably brings challenges, but nothing that cannot be overcome by determination and goodwill. One issue I have recently been dealing with as Chair is the attempt by the European Commission to prevent UK centres from undertaking testing on crop varieties to establish their European plant variety rights beyond the date of our exit. This threatens pillars of the UK science base like NIAB (National Institute for Agricultural Botany) the pre-eminent centre for plant variety testing and crop research in both the UK and the EU, and could have damaging knock-on effects on UK science and agriculture. Having lobbied Ministers on the issue, I have been pleased to see the clear opposition to the EU Commission’s move from agricultural producers in Europe, who wish to continue collaborating with British expertise.

Perhaps there is a wider lesson here for the whole Brexit process and our future economic relationship with the rest of the world; people everywhere in Europe and beyond want to cooperate to build future prosperity, and applying the latest science to how we produce food from the land is essential to achieving this.