Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Improving knowledge exchange in arable farming

Sean Ryan, Defra’s lead on the Agri-Tech Strategy reflects on a recent workshop exploring knowledge exchange in the arable sector and how it brought new insights to his work
What’s the difference between knowledge transfer and knowledge exchange? Knowledge transfer is one way – someone has a bright idea which then needs to find its way into practice. Knowledge exchange assumes that everybody in the supply chain – farmers, researchers, agronomists, suppliers - has valuable knowledge and experience; the flow of knowledge is much more multi-track than the idea of knowledge transfer would allow.  It sounds much more appealing, doesn’t it, particularly in the world of agriculture where practical expertise is so important.
A well-run workshop is a great way to understand the current debates and concerns in a sector and knowledge exchange certainly comes into that category.  So I was delighted, to receive an invitation from the Agricultural Industries Confederation to a workshop in Peterborough on knowledge exchange in arable farming on 23rd September.
I work in Defra on the Agri-Tech Strategy ( which is about promoting technology and innovation to make farming more productive and sustainable. The workshop brought some new perspectives about how our work relates to other activities that are already encouraging innovation in the sector.
We got off to a good start by working in groups on mapping knowledge/information flows. This provoked a lively discussion in the group I joined which had agronomists, academics and other experts. In fact this was so absorbing that our facilitator forgot to write anything down so we had a bit of a scramble at the end of the session.  After some scene setting presentations, there was further discussion about possible ways of improving knowledge exchange, helped by an illustrious panel from Newcastle University, Innovate UK, Rothamsted, HL Hutchinsons, Syngenta and AICC.
One theme that came up several times was that the link between commercial research and the farmer worked satisfactorily because there are commercial and/or contractual  reasons for that to happen. However, there were issues with public sector research. Some people thought that that the gap between farmers and researchers had got wider in recent years. Others thought that there were some signs of improvement. There were already positive changes in the way that research councils and institutes were already trying to engage with farmers. The Agri-Tech Strategy is about joining up academics and farming businesses. Some people thought that the Centres for Agricultural Innovation that are being set up under the Strategy should have knowledge exchange built into how they operate.
We also talked about involving farmers in commissioning research and the role of levy boards both in terms of their efforts to ensure the research they support is relevant and in involving them in prioritising research.
For me the main benefit of the workshop was that it helped me understand better the contributions that different types of organisations make to knowledge exchange and the challenges that each faces in doing so.

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