We need to take action on regulation and R&D to realise the potential of our homegrown crops
This is an exciting time for UK agriculture. With the opportunity to export our world-class food produce to new markets, and the government pioneering new technology, we have the ability to capitalise and unlock the true potential of homegrown food and drink.
Sugar beet, which grows in my North Norfolk constituency, and indeed across East Anglia, the East Midlands and Yorkshire, is one example. The world-leading British sugar beet industry supplies more than 50 per cent of the UK’s sugar, supports 9,500 UK jobs, and has delivered a 25 per cent increase in crop yields over the past 10 years.
The industry is also well placed to support our transition to net-zero. British Sugar’s Combined Heat and Power plants export enough electricity to power 160,000 homes, and the business also operates what was the UK’s first bioethanol plant, producing 70m litres of renewable fuel.
Its circular production process means nothing goes to waste; instead, other valuable products are made including fertiliser, animal feed and topsoil. Remarkably the business generates less than 200g of waste for every tonne of sugar produced.
As a member of the Environmental Audit Committee, I am keen to see industry embracing innovation, acting as a catalyst for rural solutions to decarbonisation and the move away from natural gas.
Yet, the industry faces significant challenges which are limiting its agricultural potential, and the economic potential of the hugely valuable east of England region. Due to crop diseases, we’re not yet able to unlock the yield performance we know to be possible on our Norfolk farms, including sugar beet.
Legislating for genetic editing in the UK would ensure the resilience and viability of many crops
This is why, alongside farmers in my constituency, I urge the government to seize the opportunity to introduce robust regulation to support investment in new plant breeding techniques. Legislating for genetic editing in the UK would ensure the resilience and viability of many UK-grown crops. This would safeguard domestic food security, create a raft of new specialist jobs, and position the UK as a global agri-tech leader at the forefront of modern agriculture.
By developing disease-resistant crops, we can also reduce our reliance on imports, expedite agricultural development, and reduce the need for pesticides. It is my firm belief that investment in regenerative agriculture techniques around soil management, water use and integrated pest management will support homegrown produce, reduce costs, and improve farm profitability. All while supporting net-zero.
A key component in achieving this will be the more effective collection of data, so farmers can compare yields and share best practice. Using the example of the homegrown sugar industry, the British Beet Research Organisation regularly collects information on soil type and weather to help growers minimise losses and protect and restore soils. The Beet Yield Challenge – where crop progress is monitored throughout the season via soil analysis and satellite imagery – helps inform on the factors influencing yield performance.
Data sharing like this must be encouraged and incentivised across the sector, to help growers maximise potential and, in turn, Britain’s opportunity to sell its high-quality products globally.
From big strides on net-zero efforts, to investment in innovation to help put local food on Britain’s tables, we have an agriculture industry to be proud of. And it’s right here on our doorstep. But to truly unlock its potential, business and government must come together to invest in the modern farming and technological practices that will deliver the full potential of our homegrown crops, supporting local farmers and the rural economy, while also fulfilling ambitious decarbonisation and waste reduction. This will go a long way in cementing Britain’s deserved position as an agri-tech pioneer.
Duncan Baker is Conservative MP for North Norfolk
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