Support can secure the UK’s food supply chain

By Rick Pendrous

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Food supply chain Food

Support can secure the UK’s food supply chain
One of Britain’s most eminent food scientists has called for a far more co-ordinated approach to central government funding of technology transfer...

One of Britain’s most eminent food scientists has called for a far more co-ordinated approach to central government funding of technology transfer from academia to industry. He claims that this would enable the nation to ensure the security of its food supply chain in a rapidly changing world.

Professor Peter Lillford - visiting chair in public awareness of science at the University of York and chairman of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) Advanced Manufacturing Link research programme, which funds collaborative research between academia and industry - said there was now an ideal opportunity to provide this essential support. But if missed, he warned, the nation would suffer badly.

“Things seem to be turning the corner,” claimed Lillford. “But we still don’t know and I still haven’t seen a really concerted plan of what government intends to do in support of our national food production chain … in terms of organisational structures and money to spend, we are a long way off.”

Fears have been expressed recently by many researchers that food manufacturing research was being abandoned by government​ as co-ordination of central funding was transferred to the Technology Strategy Board (TSB). They argued that TSB had little interest in funding food manufacturing research. However, Lillford reported that the TSB had now accepted that some research in this area was necessary, although the precise details were still sketchy.

“TSB is considering an innovation platform for agri-food and agri-non-food, but it does mean that the nature of government-industry contact is going to change both in personnel, money and strategic intent and direction,” said Lillford, who has been actively lobbying government to retain research activity that he considered critical to the national interest. He added that DEFRA had also committed to retaining a “limited set” of Link schemes.

Lillford did, however, express serious concern that the opportunity could still be missed and admitted that funding was unlikely to match that of earlier Link schemes. He was highly critical of DEFRA’s failure to communicate properly the proposed changes with the food industry. But Lillford, who retired as chief scientist (foods) in 2001 after working for Unilever for 30 years, also reserved criticism for the food industry for failing to make its research needs clear to government.

“The structure of the (food) industry has moved on,” said Lillford. “The really big multinationals are now global companies and more interested in growth in south east Asia than they are in R&D investment in Europe - especially an offshore island called the UK.”

But, he warned: “I would not want to see the quality of the thing we do with our UK industry and our UK research fall away and decline … The big boys will change by making more of their money in south east Asia. But what is the position of the food chain which is nationally based, nationally owned and produces nationally? For no ministry to have responsibility for that seems to me to be very, very short-sighted and very wrong.”

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