Ag-tech - big data, artificial intelligence and the transformative bio-economy - set to be prioritised for government support for Northern Ireland agriculture.

Agriculture Environment and Rural Affairs Minister Edwin Poots' Innovation Strategy sets out how the department plans on encouraging the adoption of technology within the sector over the next four years.

The plan sets out the target that 50% more businesses will harness the prioritised technology by 2025.

A UK-wide survey estimated Northern Ireland was the least innovation active country in the UK during 2014-2016, leading to the Northern Ireland Executive setting a target for Northern Ireland to be ranked in the top four of the 12 UK regions by 2025.

What does the Innovation Strategy propose?

The innovation strategy sets out how the department will use cutting-edge technology to address key societal and environmental issues within the sector such as climate change and ensuring sustainable food production.

The department will begin engaging with stakeholders over the summer to identify trends and new technologies, and explore key issues and opportunities.

A task force will be established over the next few months to inform policies and support packages.

Over the next two years work will also be underway to establish agri-technology and innovation courses and knowledge transfer programmes at the College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise (CAFRE). All DAERA run knowledge transfer programmes will also be adapted to include an ag-tech element.

The department will also look into setting up an innovation support network or service similar to Scotland's Rural Innovation Support Service (RISS).

The service would facilitate the provision of professional support, through facilitation, to groups of like-minded individuals from sectors under DAERA’s remit, who want to test new ideas and find feasible, sustainable solutions to common challenges.

DAERA will also commission a report, which is to be published by next spring, reviewing barriers to innovation for the sector locally.

'Critical to issues such as climate change'

Launching the strategy, Minister Poots said: “Innovation drives productivity, attracts international investment, aids resilience and lays the foundations for our future.

"The development of this strategy is therefore critical as we seek to address issues such as climate change and the sustainability of food production. It is vital that we explore and exploit innovation to help us drive our response to these and other local and global challenges.

“The Covid-19 pandemic has shown us how vital innovation is when it comes to reacting and adapting quickly to transformation and challenge.

"This important Strategy has prioritised the exploitation of opportunities relating to digitisation within our sectors and the transformation of the bio-economy and will help us deal with the many new technologies emerging globally that have the potential to benefit DAERA and the areas for which it has responsibility.”