Despite food manufacture’s far greater importance to the UK economy than other manufacturing sectors such as automotive and aerospace, it continues to be under resourced when it comes to public sector research funding, they claim.
Speaking at a seminar on the priorities for growth in the UK food and drink industry, organised by the Westminster Food & Nutrition Forum recently, Food and Drink Federation (FDF) director general Melanie Leech highlighted the fragmented nature of the UK’s food and farming sector. Many small companies lacked the resources to carry out their own research and development, she said.
“This also makes it very difficult for any single part of the chain to fund work to benefit the sector as a whole,” said Leech. “So there are few mechanisms for collaborative funding in other parts of the chain [outside farming] in basic science and new product development and the transfer and uptake of existing and new technologies.”
Leech recognised why government had initially focused on agriculture, but she felt more needed be done for the sector that added value to farmer produce: “That’s why the FDF argued for the creation of an Agrifood strategy. We said that only a strategy for the whole chain would drive the hoped for benefits for UK plc.”
She added that such an approach would also help to improve the public's acceptance of new technologies in food production and what benefits these have to offer them.
“Furthermore, we advocated a framework to better facilitate access to private funding and encourage the development of new public-private partnerships, which with the present split of responsibility between a large number of departments, research councils and other bodies, makes it difficult to put in place,” she added. “Sadly, the government didn’t take those views on board.”
The FDF has been working with the Food Knowledge Transfer Network of the National Technology Platform and others to develop the vision for product and process innovation in the food chain.
Unlock our potential
“We are clear about what we need to unlock our potential as a sector and we are continuing to discuss with politicians how we create the optimal policy and collaborative framework which joins all of this up,” she said.
In response, Tim Render, deputy director for food policy, competitiveness and growth at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, explained the government thinking behind the Agritech strategy.
“Yes, it is right that there isn’t a single, overarching food strategy in England that is a deliberate choice to focus on the area of highest need and opportunity. Partly it reflects the success of the industry, but also doesn't mean that there is nothing going on: there is a huge amount of government engagement and support.”
Render referred to “substantial government financial support for food and drink development going beyond the Agritech strategy”. As an example, he mentioned the £90M available for the Sustainable Food Innovation Platform run by the Technology Strategy Board.