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Comment: Technological opportunities for UK farmers will need both policy and financial support

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Michael Gove, the UK’s environment secretary, has hinted at the tantalising opportunities for British farmers and food processors post-Brexit in his speech at the Oxford Farming Conference. 

It is a long shopping list and inevitably it lacks granular detail at a time when UK agribusiness is facing uncertainty and challenges on several fronts, most particularly on the vexed question of migrant labour flows.

Technological change is a key area identified. Gove mentioned artificial intelligence, big data, robotics, blockchain, and gene editing in passing, without putting too much flesh on the bones of what “hands-free farming” might look like in actuality.   

“Accelerating change is the new norm,” Gove proclaimed today (January 4), without much of a specific road map of how to get from here to there.

Surprisingly, Gove did not mention the AgriTech strategy, launched by George Freeman MP, which although is inadequately funded, has at least made a welcome start in promoting sectoral innovation.

There are indeed opportunities for the UK to forge ahead on CRISPR technology for crops and livestock, for example, but the UK will have to decide where gene editing resides in terms of post-Brexit legislation, as this is still unclear at EU level.  

Also not featured in his speech inevitably was the vexed question of “frictionless trade” both for Ireland and future cross-border farm trade with other EU member states, where blockchain technology could help.

Gove conceded that the UK could not continue to depend on migrants for its farming labour, yet robotic solutions are still some way off, while even a sketchy scheme for seasonal workers post-Brexit has yet to emerge.

In conclusion, although Gove has committed to current levels of support for UK farmers post-Brexit, quite how the pie will be sliced up between existing commitments and the bright sunlit uplands of the technological future still remains unresolved.          

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