Birmingham University is leading a Europe-wide research project called iSense and Conservative MEP Anthea McIntyre recently visited the University’s Physics Department to learn something about their work with cold atom quantum technology.

Accompanied by Kai Bongs, the Professor of Cold Atom Physics, Anthea toured the lab and said:

“This is an amazingly technical specialism but my lay-man’s understanding is that the most accurate measuring devices work by observing how atoms transfer between various quantum states. By observing cold or ultra-cold atoms the transfer takes longer and therefore the measurement is more accurate and can be performed with small, portable equipment.

“This technology has many potential applications including navigation on earth and in space, telecommunications, geological exploration, and medical imaging. In practical terms, that means for instance that it would be possible to accurately map underground pipes and cables, archaeological sites and so on.

“As a non-scientist, I admit that much of the work was totally new to me but the evident dedication and expertise of Professor Bongs and his colleagues made the challenge of grasping the concepts involved in their work thoroughly rewarding. I am very grateful to him and all his colleagues who helped make my visit possible and so informative.

“We should all be pleased that Birmingham University is at the forefront of innovation and research and that it is recognised as one of Europe’s leading research institutions.”

 

(Photograph shows Anthea McIntyre with Prof. Kai Bongs at Birmingham University)

Speaking at the NFU Conference in Birmingham, Anthea McIntyre MEP, praised the British farming industry for its resilience, adaptability and massive contribution to the UK economy.

“Farming is a growth industry that has weathered the recession, responded to changes in consumer tastes, harnessed technological developments and produces affordable, high-quality foodstuffs whilst protecting and enhancing the countryside.” said Miss McIntyre.

“I am particularly pleased that the industry has given my report, “The future of Europe’s horticulture sector – strategies for growth”, such a warm and positive welcome.  The report, the first of its kind, highlights both the challenges and opportunities for this sector of the industry and proposes an number of positive steps to allow it to flourish.

“There is tremendous scope for British farming to increase production, create new employment opportunities and to help further boost the UK economy – few other industries are as well-placed as agriculture to deliver.

“Too often we, as consumers, take the work of the farming community for granted and forget the huge effort and sacrifices that are made day-in day out by so many to deliver fresh produce of all types to the shops and supermarkets.”

 

(Photograph shows Anthea McIntyre with (left) Dan Dalton, No. 3 on the Conservative Candidates List for the West Midlands and (centre) John Mercer, NFU Regional Director)

Over the last ten years Graduate Advantage have been helping recent graduates to “Shape career dreams into reality”.

The organisation, which is part-funded by the EU’s Regional Development Fund and supported by a consortium of universities and university colleges, is based at Aston University.

To mark its first decade of helping recent graduates gain the experience that is so vital to stand out in today's competitive job market, Graduate Advantage invited local MEP Anthea McIntyre to their celebration event held in Birmingham.

 “I was very impressed,” said Miss McIntyre, “This service is unique to the West Midlands and a great means of linking graduates with firms looking for fresh ideas and talent .”

All the internships are sourced locally from West Midlands' employers and can vary in length up to 12 months. Internships are available in all types of business sectors including: Marketing, Management, Design and Engineering, IT, and many, many more. Most are paid and could lead to permanent positions.

 

Link to Graduate Advantage:  www.graduateadvantage.co.uk

 

(Photograph shows Anthea McIntyre MEP and Peter Shearer, Director of Aston University’s Business Partnership unit.)

 

Questions:

 

Generally speaking, what are the main barriers to the development of the horticulture sector?

There are many challenges facing Europe’s horticulture sector; from adapting to the effects of climate change, to feeding a growing global population with less environmental impact.

The effect of increased temperatures and CO2 will mean the range of current crops will move northward in Europe. Horticultural crops are more susceptible to changing conditions than arable crops. Water deficits will directly affect horticultural production.

Horticulture is reliant on a variety of plant production products and I have great concerns over the European Commission's hazard-based approach to pesticides rather than a risk- based approach. Our decisions must be based on proper scientific evidence. No farmer will use more chemicals than is absolutely necessary. Banning the use of some pesticides before ecologically sound alternatives are developed threatens our food security as well as the livelihood of 1000s of SMEs involved in the manufacturing of these products.

Growers today are operating against a backdrop of diminishing profitability and escalating farm gate costs. Current challenges arise mainly from long-term structural changes. Consumers increasingly demand convenience in food purchasing and preparation, taste and variety, and are increasingly concerned for food safety and quality. Supply chain relationships within the fresh produce sector have become increasingly complex with sales being controlled by fewer and fewer retailers. At the same time, the fresh produce supply base is declining in many Member States, or is losing considerable market share to imports from competing countries within Europe and globally.

This problem has been further exacerbated by the global economic crisis which has caused consumption levels to fall. In more than half of European countries the intake of fresh fruit and vegetables is still below the World Health Organisation’s recommended minimum level.

Lack of trust and confidence within supply chains is arguably the most significant factor impacting on the fresh produce sector. It is often clear from discussions with growers that a lack of confidence, together with low margins, is resulting in low levels of investment within the growing base, which is then translated into lower efficiency and reduced competitiveness.

 

Innovation in this sector requires investment. Regarding the current crisis (with particular economic weaknesses in the Southern countries), how can innovation be financed in a transversal way across EU?

Investment in research and development is absolutely essential if EU horticulture is to remain ahead of its global competitors; translation of this research into practice is particularly important and must be given priority in EU funded research programmes. With a budget of nearly €80 billion, Horizon 2020 is the biggest EU research programme yet, and one of the biggest publicly funded ones worldwide. In times of austerity, it is also one of only very few programmes in the next EU budget to see a strong increase in funding, a nearly 30% jump in real terms over the current programme. My report calls on the Commission to use this programme to fund applied research that supports, in particular, the development of integrated strategies for pest, disease and weed control. Consumers rightly expect food that is safe, healthy, nutritious and convenient, but without new advances in technology these expectations will become increasingly difficult to meet. In view of this, the Commission should prioritise horticultural crops for funding and research using new and innovative plant breeding techniques. Renewed attention must also be given to the floriculture and ornamental plant sector with the use of Horizon 2020 funds for 'protected cultivation'.

 

Still regarding investment needs, the report states the importance for retailers to reinvest a proportion of their profits into the sector.  What is the assessed economic impact of this measure? In your opinion, do we need larger regulation in the relationship between producers and retailers?

It is difficult to assess the economic impact of this measure. However, with public sector funding for horticultural research under budgetary constraints in Member States, it has never been more important to encourage more sector-led research, and for retailers, as direct beneficiaries of new product research and development (R&D), to reinvest a proportion of their profits from the fresh produce category back into the sector.

Joint investment in research into new varieties, production techniques and products that consumers want to buy will enable EU growers to retain a viable production base and successfully compete in world markets. The translation of research into practice is of particular importance and is essential if EU horticulture is to remain ahead of its competitors.

Codes of Conduct agreed by all actors in the supply chain, backed by a legislative framework and overseen by a national adjudicator in each Member State, as in the UK, can give producers the confidence they need to invest. In the UK, until recently the farmer had to go to the compliance officer of the retailer and people were afraid to do that. What has changed is that they can now make an anonymous complaint. Under the UK Groceries Adjudicator (introduced this year), punishments for breaching the agreed code of practice range from forcing supermarkets to tell their customers about what they have done to, ultimately, fining them. It is early days, but retailers are already beginning to change their behaviour.

Ultimately, the role of any groceries adjudicator should be to talk to the retailers about what they are doing and iron out any bad practices. The first step is to recommend what they can do differently. Then comes the naming and shaming part where you can make them put adverts in national newspapers about what they have done. The last resort is the fine.

 

You support the importance of Producer Organisations.  So far, what has failed in the proper functioning of these entities?

The Fruit and Veg Regime has really helped growers become more market-orientated, it's encouraged innovation, and increased competitiveness through the support to Producer Organizations. But now after 15 years, we still have more than half of all the EU growers not belonging to a PO. Even in Mediterranean countries, which produce large amounts of fruit and veg, still the uptake is relatively low, and I think the membership ranges from about 11% to 46%, so under half.

The Commission has already indicated the need to simplify the rules governing POs, as detailed in its public consultation on the Fruit and Vegetables Regime. The wording in both the Council and Commission Implementing Regulations has led to problems of interpretation at Member State level and to increasing levels of disallowance or suspension as determined by the EU auditors. Some of the problems include:

  • Audits and clearance of accounts
  • General recognition criteria and the failure of the rules to take into account different market structures across the Member States
  • Outsourcing and levels of control
  • Environmental measures
  • Administrative costs of managing the Scheme

 

This is why in paragraph 7 of my report, I've particularly called on the Commission in its review of the scheme to look at the work of the Newcastle Group, and to produce some clear and practical guidelines on what we should be doing on the future of POs. Strengthening the position of growers through increased collaboration, better internal organisation and a more professional approach to management will help ensure that growers receive sufficient returns when negotiating contractual arrangements with major purchasers and retailers.

N.B. The Newcastle Group is an open group of Member States that met for the first time at Newcastle in 2012 with the aim of improving the EU Fruit & Vegetable Regime, and in particular improving the wording in Implementing Regulation (EU) No 543/2011 concerning simplification and recognition criteria. Membership initially tended to be northern European Member States, but increasingly the southern Member States have come on board. Regular attendees at meetings now include the Scandinavian countries, UK, Ireland, Belgium, France, Germany, Spain, Hungary, Portugal, Poland and Romania – so there is a good coverage across the Union.

 

Also important is the need to attract skilled workers to this sector and the need to increase the demand of horticulture related courses. How could this be achieved?

The need to attract skilled workers is particularly important. The careers and the employment opportunities in the horticulture industry are great, and yet we have a huge shortage of skills - plant pathologists, plant scientists - you name it, there's a long list where we have real shortages of skills. And yet in our schools and educational establishments, not enough stress is given to the career opportunities in this sector. So I really hope that we can point the way in saying how valuable these skills are, how much we need them, and how a very worthwhile career can be developed. Too often the professionals that advise our youngsters on careers denigrate horticulture, and in fact all forms of agriculture. This is a huge mistake, and I really hope that in my own country in particular we do a much better job of careers advice and telling our young people what opportunities are open to them.

 

What are the next procedural steps for this report in the EP? Overall, what has been the general position of AGRI Committee regarding the horticulture sector?

I presented my report to the Agriculture Committee of the European Parliament on 17th October and the report was well received. My report takes a sector-wide approach to the barriers facing EU horticulture and is the first of its kind. A number of suggested amendments have been made to my report and I am now working with the committee's shadow draftsman to look at where we can find agreement. The committee will vote on my report the end of January before being voted through Parliament in the spring.