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Scotland offers model for innovative EU agriculture, SAC tells House of Lords

A House of Lords Committee has been told that the Scottish model for applying the latest scientific research has distinct advantages for promoting innovation in European agriculture.  Addressing the Lords EU Sub-Committee for Agriculture Fisheries and Environment, SACs Professor John Oldham stressed, however, that greater recognition of the value of applied research and more effective public engagement are essential if innovation is to help agriculture rise to the challenges it faces.

Professor Oldham was invited to Westminster as part of the Sub-Committees inquiry into how innovation in EU agriculture can be encouraged in the context of new challenges such as climate change, water scarcity and the need to encourage sustainable improvements in output. SACs Rural Policy Centre also submitted an official consultation response in support of the inquiry.

In giving his evidence, Professor Oldham said that innovation – such as biotechnologies, the use of new machinery or commercial decisions to plant new crops -is critical to the growth and sustainability of European agriculture.

He said: Faced with the likelihood of reductions in European support to agriculture in the long term it would make sense for European support to be used now to help foster innovations that will be needed for long term health and competitiveness.

Professor Oldham criticised the current research culture in the UK, saying, While top quality basic research has, rightly, been valued, especially through University Research Assessment exercises, useful, applied research has not had the same recognition. This is wrong and unhelpful.

While the next Research Assessment, the Research Excellence Framework, will give more weight to valuing research impact, it will not take place until 2014. Meanwhile many good scientists continue to be dissuaded from engaging in applied research for agriculture because funding for such research and career track opportunities are governed too much by the emphasis on academic quality as assessed only by fellow academics rather than assessed for practical value by user communities.

Speaking of the need to ensure that public perceptions about innovation are accurate, Professor Oldham said: Innovations are often seen as having hidden dangers, with a perception that older methods of production are somehow more wholesome.  The stand against GM, objections to intensive farming practices and objections to the use of poly tunnels are all examples.

Programmes that involve the public and raise awareness of the benefits of some of these methods, perhaps in terms of food affordability, reduced carbon footprint per tonne or the safety record of modern pesticides, would be beneficial in reducing the braking effect that public perception can have.

SACs Rural Policy Centre examines the impact of current policies on rural businesses and communities and aims to provide the knowledge required for developing of future rural policies.

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