Plans to support and develop glasshouse and vertical farm cropping in the UK were announced in October by new Defra secretary of state Ranil Jayawardena with the commitment of an additional £12.5 million for automation and robotics R&D.
Defra said the funding would be made available through the Farming Innovation Programme and comes ‘on top of the £70m already allocated to industry-led R&D’. Government research funding body UKRI will use the money to offer match-funding grants from January to collaborative projects involving companies and research organisations.
Mr Jayawardena said he would also appoint an industry expert to give him and his colleagues across the edible and ornamentals sectors a ‘clearer picture of the barriers and opportunities in controlled environment horticulture.’ A set of recommendations and policy interventions that the government could implement both immediately or in the longer term will be drawn up as a result. The appointee is expected to be named later this year.
The announcements followed a visit by Mr Jayawardena to the Netherlands, where he saw research on robotics at Wageningen University, one of the vertical farms developed by Smartkas, and chrysanthemum breeder Deliflor, to ‘learn more about high-tech greenhouses and vertical farming’. The visit has attracted some criticism for overlooking what businesses are already achieving here.
He said he is also contacting ‘a number of major growers’ in the UK to seek views on how the government can ‘best support the industry’s expansion and ensure its policies best reflect industry needs’.
Mr Jayawardena said the government had already signalled its commitment to include the sector in decisions about industrial energy policy and is reviewing the planning permission process to support new development. He also wants to look at incentives for growers to access waste heat and CO2 from other industries and to make more use of renewables.
Simon Pearson, Lincoln University professor of agri-food technology and co-author of the recent review on automation in horticulture, said this level of commitment to investment in the industry was significant and applicable to any size of business. “These kinds of projects are about co-operation and developing relationships between researchers and growers, so working with all kinds of growers is going to be important, both in terms of developing the technology and the business models that make the tech available,” he said.
Cucumber Growers Association chairman James Broekhuizen said he welcomed any positive inputs from ministers as horticulture had felt neglected for many years. “But as well as developments in high tech, they need to support all our modern progressive growers who are already producing efficiently and to great quality,” he said.