The start-up scene in the UK is city-centric, but there is one vertical that sprawls across the country’s fields and villages: agri-tech.
Global developments in agricultural technology are ambitious and far-reaching, encompassing a diversity of applications that includes imagery to predict potato yield, atmospheric models that forecast accurate weather, indoor LED farms, and robotic strawberry harvesters.
But here in the UK there is an elephant in the room (or barn?), which is – of course – Brexit. Even if we could park the uncertainties over subsidies and migrant labour (which we can’t), there are still other looming issues as the UK farm industry adapts to trading and selling outside the single market and boosting production as the cost of imports and exports increases. Reducing waste, logistics, and measuring environmental impact, as well as creating efficiencies and sustainable intensification, are to name but a few.
Can farmers rely on the UK government to innovate?
In 2013 the UK government launched its AgriTech Strategy, a £160 million initiative that aimed to ensure “knowledge and insight from the UK’s world-leading science base are translated into benefits for society and the economy at home and abroad.” In 2016 (pre-Brexit), four government-backed Centres for Agricultural Innovation were launched to “stimulate inward investment and help to revolutionise farming practices in the future [via] world-class laboratory equipment, IT hardware and software, and facilities to test and develop new agricultural technology and products.”
And yet, when the Government recently published its green paper, “Building Our Industrial Strategy,” there was no mention of agriculture, which for now puts the onus on the AgriTech Strategy to deliver, and soon. However, thus far farmers have seen little output from the Centres.
The gap between Government initiatives and practical applications
Jessica Sellick of Rose Generation believes there is a significant gap between what the Government is supporting and what actually reaches farmers and affects their day-to-day operations. “From an industry perspective, agri-tech is about more than Government policy or global factors,” she wrote on the Rural Services Network. “For me, the gap that now needs to be filled is around how ideas can be taken ‘from the laboratory to the farm’.”
And what about ‘from the farm to the laboratory’? The obstacles to this are somewhat obvious – most farmers are not developers or coders, nor do they necessarily have direct links to the entrepreneurial tech community. This goes someway to explain recent criticism from Professor Janet Bainbridge, Department for International Trade who, also speaking at Westminster Food and Nutrition Forum, who said that “the AgriTech community doesn’t take up some of the opportunities for funding.”
Addressing the ‘farm to laboratory’ imbalance
There are some initiatives aiming to address this imbalance. According to FG Insight, Tom MacMillan, director of innovation, Soil Association, “argued that more funding should be channelled at grass-roots, farmer-led research.” He manages Innovative Farmers, part of the Prince of Wales’ Duchy Future Farming Programme, an initiative that aims to provide an infrastructure for farmers to get support via collaborative “field labs.” However, these are more for experimentation in growing, cultivating and crop rotation than in developing technical applications.
Last year the Royal Agricultural University launched an innovation hub, which aims to “create 55 new agri-tech companies and over 200 new employees over the next 5 years.” The hub, called Farm491, includes high-spec facilities and 491 hectares of farmland for research and testing. It is now home to a small handful of start-ups.
But there is still more to be done. An ecosystem that brings together farmers and technologists to collaborate and innovate is not only the best weapon against Brexit, it is essential for the growth and prosperity of UK farming now and for future generations. But who will take this lead? Who will create and nurture such an ecosystem?
Are you an agri-tech start-up in the UK looking for ideas for funding? Get in touch with us – we’d love to hear from you.