Leading-edge innovation in the agricultural sector is being developed in Norfolk & Suffolk and this, along with its clusters of excellence, make it an attractive location for businesses, says Director of Agri-TechE Belinda Clarke.
Tell us more about Agri-TechE
“We are a membership organisation bringing together farmers and growers with technology developers and researchers to build this innovation eco-system, which we think is the largest and longest established of its type in Europe. We have been going since 2014 and we exist is to help inform and accelerate the journey of new innovations into the field, whether that’s into crops, broadacre, protected crops, vertical farming, or livestock. It’s really about getting science, technology, innovation and research doing the job they were meant to do.”
Where would you say are the real opportunities, particularly in tech, for businesses that might want to invest here?
“In the new Agriculture Act, the Government has really prioritised so-called “ecosystem services”, giving farmers financial support to look after and improve soils, water, biodiversity etc. It’s been an interesting journey for tech because historically we have focussed very much on its role in improving productivity, yields and efficiency, and of course it will continue to do that. But technology is agnostic; it doesn’t really mind if it is monitoring crop yield, or butterflies in a hedge. So, given we have a significant shift in policy around the way land and animals are managed, and that farm support will be changing, there is an enormous opportunity to bring technology to bear on that situation. One example which is very important is natural capital accounting. Carbon is something everyone is trying to get their head round – how to measure it, monitor it, capture it, and store it – and that is one of the big opportunities now. The National Farmers Union has committed to the industry being net zero by 2040, so any technologies and practices in line with that agenda will be very welcome.”
Recruitment is high on the agenda of agriculture and other sectors right now. What is the region doing to ensure it can provide the pipeline of skilled workers it will need?
“Every sector post-pandemic has some major skills challenges and will be trying to make themselves as attractive as possible to bright young people who recently got their GCSE, A-Level and vocational course results. We have several Higher Education and Further Education institutions in the Norfolk & Suffolk area who are keen to work with employers, understand their needs, and develop courses that will ensure the workforce is equipped for the future. They are very much open for business and for those conversations with industry. One of the benefits in this region is the proximity of the supply chain. It’s quite a close-knit environment, people know each other, and it is easy to move around the area. It’s very easy for people to be able to move into and between roles, so it’s a very vibrant and dynamic sector.”
We have some well-established sectoral clusters and centres of excellence, as well as Enterprise Zones. Is that one of our real strengths when looking to attract investment?
“Despite what we’ve all learned through the pandemic about remote working and Zoom calls, there is still a very strong argument for that proximity of businesses to the supply chain and being alongside like-minded souls. The campus or enterprise hub model is tried- and-tested when it comes to increasing business success and research translation. Almost the entire workforce of one of the start-up SMEs on the Norwich Research Park are former academics who wanted to work in a more commercial environment. So, there is not only a skills and recruitment opportunity, but the chance for those collaborative discussions to take place, as well as the potential for collaborative projects between the businesses and the research institutes.”
Tell us about some of the leading-edge innovation happening here
“It’s really inspiring to see how the Norfolk & Suffolk area is almost the crucible of some of these really UK-leading and world-leading technologies. Tropic Bioscience, for example, in Norwich has set itself the challenge of aiming to save the banana. The global banana crop consists mostly of one variety which has a serious disease susceptibility and Tropic has set itself the task of developing a new variety using leading-edge technology around gene editing. In Suffolk, PBD Biotech has been developing a phase-based test for bovine tuberculosis and Johne’s disease, which is a major issue in cattle, thankfully not so much in this part of the world, but in the southwest of the UK and elsewhere internationally Some of the small businesses are leading the field in terms of the innovation they have developed and that’s without the research capability at places such as the John Innes Centre, which is world-renowned for its studies into plant and microbial biology.”
What other developments are taking place that will help agri-tech and agri-food businesses capitalise on future opportunities?
“What is really great about this area and the vision of New Anglia Local Enterprise Partnership is that it is focused on future-proofing. There are some sites that have been identified, supported and developed to make this region particularly welcoming for businesses, and we are lucky in the agri-food space that some have been specifically earmarked for agri-food, including several on actual farms. So, you can be in a very relevant geographical and local context where you are growing your business. There are also potentially fields that can be rented for crop trials in the setting of a working farm, so it’s like a mini eco-system. For example, at the Food Enterprise Park near Norwich, a business called Condimentum is being led by farmers and they are growing mustard and herbs. That is such a lovely example of where farmers have been able to come together, develop the innovation, grow the material, extract the material, and importantly sell it. Certainly, it has not been without a lot of work to get to this point and set these sites up so that they are open for business – but it’s been so exciting to see them gain traction and tenants and the level of interest in the area.”