Industry warns of crop expert shortage

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags: Agriculture

A lack of government funding and a weary image threaten to cause a
widespread shortage of British crop production experts, says one
industry body, warning the problem may bring serious disruption to
UK grain and cereal processors within the next decade, reports
Chris Mercer.

In many specialist areas within British agriculture there are few deputies emerging to replace those currently regarded as leading experts, according to a recent report from the Home Grown Cereals Authority (HGCA).

Graham Jellis, HGCA director of research, said the industry was having particular problems attracting new recruits into crop science and production to learn about important practical processes such as grain storage, drying and disease control.

He said young people had been put off going into agriculture by bad press the sector has received over issues such as genetically modified crops and environmentally damaging fertilisers. And many young scientists that were available were more interested in areas with a more innovative reputation like molecular biology.

Jellis also blamed a severe lack of funding from the government. "There's no more money going into the system now than there was 10 years ago,"​ he said, adding that 12 per cent of Britain's GDP goes into the food industry yet only one per cent is spent on agriculture.

The HGCA research director accused the government of neglecting British agriculture as a low skill industry and said the problem could spiral down the food chain, impacting firms operating in the UK if more grain and raw materials are sought from abroad.

"If we erode agriculture, this raises questions of food security when there is a feeling that we should be having more local markets for local products,"​ added Jellis.

In contrast to this, John Garstang, of agricultural research group ADAS, said that the current rationalisation of the UK's agriculture industry might bring pain for some in the short-term, but "in the future it will give a very robust industry"​.

Garstang agreed there was a shortage of people coming through the system to manage crops, but said that the industry was still getting the people it required and that the issue was no great cause for concern just yet.

Dr. Stephen Ramsden, agriculture specialist at Nottingham University's Biosciences Department, also said he thought the pool of people with agriculture-related degrees was getting smaller but that his department had seen steady numbers of new entrants over the last few years.

Ramsden added that more students were now choosing to study Applied Biology and then taking agriculture management modules within that. "Once they do it they realise they are interested in it,"​ said Ramsden.

However, the HGCA report argues that a main problem is that despite strong agricultural/applied biology courses in the UK, "graduates either move out of the field or into more basic research"​. The group said crop production specialists were already being brought in from elsewhere in Europe to fill gaps.

As a result, the HGCA has agreed to fund a limited number of PhD's itself in order to get more young people involved.

ADAS consultant Garstang said the agriculture industry needed to more publicly emphasise positive factors such as rising wages and the chance to get involved in a changing industry with plenty of research opportunities.

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