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Opinion: Technology is key to transforming post-CAP agriculture

As the clouds of uncertainty around Brexit clear, it is obvious that the future of farming will lie in adopting many of the advantages that science and technology are now bringing to the industry.

Taking pioneers like Bakewell and Townsend as examples it could be said that this adoption of new techniques and practices has been central to farming profitability for hundreds of years.

But now in the 21st century, the pace of change has speeded up to the point where hardly a week passes without some innovation promising to make agriculture more productive, more environmentally friendly and generally more efficient.

We are definitely on the cusp of major change brought about by a whole range of scientific discoveries.

These developments be they based on gene editing, artificial intelligence or sheer computer capacity will not come as a giant parcel in 2021. But they will arrive as a tidal wave of new technologies that can transform agriculture in the coming years.

We are about to jettison the old systems of support linked to the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). It will become a memory; one that may have ensured financial survival and the production of food, but which also stifled innovation and efficiency.

For the past 40-odd years under various versions, many farmers planned their cropping and stocking on how to maximise their support payments. Absurdities such as trading quotas being more profitable than actually producing milk and shrewd cookies making money out of scraps of paper saying Single Farm Payments are now part of the unlamented history of CAP.

The pressure to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and farm in a more environmentally friendly way is now on us and we need new schemes based on more efficient farming.

We, in the UK will not be part of it but the latest version of the CAP which will run until 2027 requires 40 per cent of its budget to go towards meeting climate change targets. This has still to be agreed by the member states but it shows how serious the EU is about tackling the issue

The devolved parts of the UK are formulating their own plans for dealing with climate change, with the Scottish Government now having set up four groups to look at how specific sectors – beef, dairy, arable and hill – can tackle the issue.

Although these groups have still to report, it is a safe bet they will recommend utilising science as part of the solution on climate change while still trying to retain the actual production of food.

The critical difference in setting future policies for farming this time around are the giant advances available to the industry from recent scientific and technological advances.

But the future of scientific research and the ability of UK farming to tap into it is far from a given. Leaving the EU distances our institutes from collaborative work carried out in Europe and this might take us away from the cutting edge of research. Major pieces of research nowadays require lots of collaboration.

Another possible handicap to maximising research is the fact that all of Scotland’s research stations are operating on reduced levels of funding, a point made recently by Ian Duncan Miller chairman of the Moredun Research Institute when he revealed that financial constraints were now so severe that some work might have to be set aside.

The promise of funding for the Barley Hub at the James Hutton Institute (JHI) may sound tremendous news but beneath the headline, the reality is the timescale for it actually happening is still somewhere out on the horizon.

Then there is the “head in the sand” attitude of the Government to genetic modification. Work is progressing at JHI on producing potato cultivars resistant to late blight while their next door neighbours at the same research station are looking at raspberry varieties which have been bred with genes resistant to root rot; a disease that has decimated the industry in the past three decades

The Roslin Institute outside Edinburgh is a world leader in avian research and has already achieved major break throughs through gene editing in combating diseases in poultry.

These, and many more examples, will be jeopardised unless the politicians change their attitude to gene editing.

It hardly needs to be mentioned but the life saving vaccine countering Covid has been produced via a gene-edited foetus. I wonder if the politicians dare reject this scientific breakthrough when they are personally offered the vaccine?​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​

About the author: Andrew Arbuckle is a Journalist for The Scotsman.


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