How Our Area Rises to the Challenges of Food and Energy Security

19 January 2017

Our Chair Barry Dodd CBE blogs about the challenges and opportunities associated with achieving food and energy security in York, North Yorkshire and East Riding and the role of the LEP in doing so.

drax renewable energy sign and engineer

”Many things about our future are uncertain. But we can be sure that people will still need food to eat, and we will still need to keep the lights on. These twin issues are both a challenge and an opportunity. I’d like to outline how we are addressing them in York, North Yorkshire and East Riding. In doing so I will illustrate what Local Enterprise Partnerships are for and how we work.

The ‘Local’ in Local Enterprise Partnerships is important. Currently there is much debate about the scale the public sector should organise itself. Whatever the scale, economic development needs to understand and make the most of local circumstances. Just as businesses need to understand and capitalise their USP.

Food and energy are vitally important to our area. Here we have four times more agricultural businesses than the rest of the country. This essential industry is the reason we have a far higher proportion of food manufacturers than the norm. We know this industry is important. We have already been working with growers and manufacturers to shape the future of the industry, through our £10 million Bio-economy Growth Fund.

The proposals from businesses in response to this investment fund include the manufacture of new forms of protein. This is a practical response to the challenge of feeding the global population, as increasingly affluent consumers in places like India and China drive a global shift towards diets that are richer in protein. We have also had investment proposals for the use of LED lighting for the growing of crops, as land for agriculture comes under pressure and distribution costs increase.

Business has always responded to challenges with innovation, as bids to the Bio-economy Growth Fund demonstrate. Our role is to help industry manage the risks involved with making new technology and processes profitable.
Just as a large agricultural base led to our area pushing the boundaries of food manufacturing, historic business connections lie behind our energy industry. The vast Yorkshire coalfield led to the building of power stations in what became known as Megawatt Valley, which went on to produce significant proportions of the UK’s electricity.drax engineer and biomass train

In recent times we have witnessed the dramatic demise of coal mining. This, along with action on climate change, is having a knock on impact on energy generation. Once again we see businesses innovating in response to the challenge. Drax Power embarked on a massive programme to switch to burning wood instead of coal, and the station is now Britain’s largest generator of renewable energy, supplying 20% of the country’s clean power. We are also witnessing the development of the world’s largest wind farm off our coast on Dogger Bank. These innovations will in future spawn new business opportunities.

The renewables agenda also relates to agriculture and food manufacturing. Agricultural produce and food waste is being used to create clean power, along with a variety of bio-based products. Over time, these will come to replace fossil fuel based products. Capitalising on these innovations will be a central part of our future economy, upon which jobs and livelihoods will depend.

Many of these businesses and processes are in their infancy. We do not have a silver bullet or cast iron certainty as to which will prove a commercial success. Risk is the essence of innovation, which means we must accept the possibility of failure. A difficult path to chart when investing public funds, which is why the LEP is a mix of public and private expertise.

The role of the LEP is not to make any of this happen. We will not create the economy of the future, that is the job of business. But it is our job to make the most of what is happening. We can enable connections between supply chains, helping businesses with waste products find businesses who can generate value from it. We can help connect businesses to institutions and ensure that knowledge is optimised. We can promote our strengths and build on them, attracting new industry and investment to further enhance our reputation and build clusters of industry that benefit each other. And whilst it is not our job to either innovate or fund pure innovation, we can help reduce financial risk as businesses get close to turning idea into commercial reality.

Our area is at the cutting edge, far from being the rural backwater it might appear to some. Projects like those I have mentioned cannot happen in an urban area. They demand space. They also require a supportive approach. One that celebrates and capitalises on our strengths. An approach that understands and engages with business. One that understands the importance of markets and takes a balanced approach to risk. That is what we do at the York, North Yorkshire and East Riding LEP.”