In Parliament

Mid-Norfolk MP George Freeman cantered through the last presentation at the two-day Oxford Farming Conference and sent delegates riding out of the flooded town on a wave of excitement for technological revolution, reports Catherine Paice.

A 15-year career in biomedical venture capital before he entered Parliament in 2010 endowed the Tory MP with strong support for technological revolution, the UK science base and the potential for the Government’s £160 million agri-tech strategy. Annual expenditure of £450m on agri R&D is clearly not to be sneezed at, although Mr Freeman berated inefficient utilisation, coming as it does out of almost 20 “pots” with “no joined-up thinking”. But the pace of development, he said, will be “utterly breathtaking”.

It will also lead ultimately to the end of cheap food. The thorny issue of the historical link between sharply rising food prices and social unrest was largely avoided. But Mr Freeman’s enthusiasm was infectious. Even in the past decade “when government has been trying to hold us back”, innovation in engineering in the fields had been extraordinary, he said.

The future, according to George Freeman, involves no CAP – Pillar 1 or 2 – and three types of farming: large scale intensive or niche producers, and landscape managers. Routine work will be done by robotics/automation, and everything will be measured throughout the supply chain.

Precision farming will prevail. Land, labour, and inputs costs will continue to spiral but farm labourers will have PhDs and £100,000+ salaries. The cost of land will mean more “out-of-soil growing”, such as hydroponics, and every farm will be a mini-power station. Pharma and agri-foods will converge, and the NHS will be prescribing healthy diets. Economically viable farming and environmental sustainability will no longer be at odds with each other.

Having found that Qatar’s huge budget to buy into agricultural technology around the world did not involve the UK, Mr Freeman is now waving the British flag more vigorously. “We need to go out to the oil-rich countries of the world and knock on their doors,” he said, flagging up the value of UK agricultural products and British knowledge, technology and agriculture leadership.
Mr Freeman cited G’s investment in mushroom growing at a time when the UK imports 75% of its needs, and its automated lettuce planting at the rate of a million seedlings a day.

The Tory MP also made headlines last week by publishing a report for the European reform project, Fresh Start, in which he berates a rising tide of “anti-biotech” legislation. “-Increasingly institutionalised prejudice against the appliance of science and biotechnology in key sectors of medicine, food and agriculture risks condemning Europe to a new ‘dark age’, cut off from playing a potentially major role in helping to help feed, fuel and heal the developing world,” he said.

Not dissimilar, then, to the sentiments strongly expressed by both Secretary of State Owen Paterson and Irish Agriculture Minister Simon Coveney at the Oxford conference.

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