Soaring population numbers in global urban areas in the coming years will place severe strain on worldwide food supply streams – a significant challenge that will require innovative solutions. Cityscape delves into the world of agri-tech
When former secretary of state at the Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs (Defra) Theresa Villiers took to the stage at the Oxford Farming Conference on 8 January this year, an alarming number of uncertainties faced the domestic farming sector. Greater instances of extreme weather – and the wider crisis of global warming – are driving farmers to become more agile and energy-considerate in managing their farms; the UK’s fading status in the EU will mean that farmers will feel the impact of Brexit with our withdrawal from the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP); and farmers were still in the dark over what the long-awaited Agriculture Bill actually meant at the ground level in terms of tackling the web of challenges facing British farming.
Less than a week later, when the Agriculture Bill was officially announced in full detail – and, despite concerns remaining over key points (such as a lack of binding commitment to prevent future trade deals allowing the import of food produced to lower standards than what British farmers must adhere to), several government policies that have been long sought-after were welcomed by the farming industry. Highlights included what Defra considered “greater flexibility” by financially rewarding farmers and land managers for improved ‘public goods,’ such as better air and water quality, contrary to the traditional EU system where farmers received subsidies based on the amount of land farmed. Additionally, the new legislation introduces an England-only multi-annual budget, setting out a financial assistance plan for farmers for at least the next five years. And considering that half of the food consumed annually in the UK is imported – with Brexit inevitably to make an impact on that – the Bill introduces the requirement for the UK Government to regularly report on food security and areas of potential shortages to manage what is a surging food demand, particularly in urban areas around the country.
We’re focusing strongly on investment into sustainable productivity, to get technology out to farms and into the field
One of the most notable areas of interest was the government’s focus on investment in technology in the sector. Known as agri-tech, the £14.3bn industry currently employing more than half a million people in the UK has taken the country’s historically traditional sector into a new world of innovation, utilising a variety of smart capabilities to meet some of the biggest food challenges in the coming decades. “We’re focusing strongly on investment into sustainable productivity, to get technology out to farms and into the fields, by offering competitive grants to support investment in equipment and infrastructure, more precise application of nutrients, and greater use of robotics and energy-efficient machinery,” Villiers told delegates at the conference in January.
Building on foundations
Villiers’ insistence on supporting disruptors and innovators in the domestic farming sector is the latest in a clear direction from central government to invest in agri-tech. In 2015 and 2016, the UK Government’s innovation arm, Innovate UK, launched four centres of agricultural innovation, ploughing £90m into them so that they could lead on R&D as well as developing emerging technologies in farming. More broadly in the sector, research councils such as the BBSRC and EPSRC, under the banner of UK Research and Innovation (UKR&I), have been feeding the innovation pipeline, with Defra itself keeping these tech-centred conversations active.
When there is a mutual benefit, they will partner together, allowing them to get more funding. You can get more investment together, so it’s really important to create these spaces where people can get together
At the ground level, innovation ‘incubators’ and networking groups are connecting farming entrepreneurs and the supply chain in a bid to foster the passion and creativity that budding farming professionals are showing in the UK. “There’s definitely value in building a network of entrepreneurs where they can meet each other at close quarters, because at the end of the day, there isn’t that much support for agri-tech. It is quite lonely,” said Luke Halsey, director at Farm491, a technology incubator and innovation space based at and owned by the Royal Agricultural University.
When asked about the value of incubators themselves and whether the birds-of-a-feather theory applies to entrepreneurs in farming, Luke pointed out how business leaders by nature look to collaborate, share best practice, and learn from mistakes. “It’s really important to create spaces where these entrepreneurs can get together and learn from each other, ask questions with each other, and find mutual benefit, because that’s how you get more successful companies,” he explained.
The Small Robot Company, an autonomous robotic farming firm, for example, collaborated with weed-zapping company Rootwave in a partnership scheme, Luke said: “That’s quite a common thing: when there is a mutual benefit, they will partner together, allowing them to get more funding. You can get more investment together, so it’s really important to create these spaces where people can get together.”
Through Luke’s professional experience and the stakeholders he talks to on a daily basis, entrepreneurs in agri-tech still have farming at heart, but with a more commercialised focus. The Farm491 director previously worked in California investing in environmentally impactful tech firms – a large chunk of which was based around agri-food – initially through the investment firm owned by Google chairman Eric Schmidt’s family. Launching Farm491 in 2016, the incubator is now the largest network of commercial organisations for early-stage agri-technologies in the UK. Most recently, the innovation space joined forces with Rothamsted Enterprises, a research and science-based firm, as well as collaborating with UKR&I and Defra on food strategy.
Commercialising cutting-edge farming
This melting pot of science and business skills in the sector is one of the key selling points of incubator hubs, in Luke’s opinion. “The reason why Rothamsted wanted to partner with us is because they had this internal knowledge,” he said. “If you’re an agri-tech entrepreneur, there are a lot of people who can give you advice as to how a technology company works, or maybe they’ve worked in arable sectors and know how farming works – but there aren’t that many people who have direct experience of agri-tech itself. I think that is a really valuable resource which would actually realise something that we really want to build on.
Farming is quite a fragmented industry
“Entrepreneurs, by nature, are quite collaborative. Sometimes there are areas of direct conflict, but at the end of the day, we’ve found that a lot of the value is gained from companies actually talking to each other about the different approaches to their business model, or about how they get their technology funded and so on,” said the Farm491 director.
Dr Belinda Clarke, director of Agri-TechE, a membership organisation bringing together farmers, tech developers, and researchers in the UK, echoed Luke’s sentiment. Outlining some of the key challenges for UK farming innovators, Belinda said whilst domestic agri-tech is growing in public awareness, challenges remain regarding interoperability of new innovations due to the vast differences between various types of farms. “In the UK, farming is quite a fragmented industry,” she told Cityscape. “You have everything from very large estates to smaller farmers managing a couple of hundred acres. When you’re trying to bring through a new innovation to the industry, that makes things quite challenging, because how would you possibly be able to talk to all of those farmers in the industry?
“They also have different appetites for doing things differently. This is changing, but historically it has been quite a traditional industry; the farmers that we work with are hugely innovative with a great appetite for change and improvement, but like all industries, everybody isn’t on the same trajectory in terms of their appetite to adopt new things.”
Dr Clarke noted how in the industry you could be dealing contextually with traditional farming methods in broadacre, arable, and livestock farming, all of which have to deal with varying climates, but even in controlled-climate farming – such as vertical farming, the practice of growing crops in vertically-stacked layers in controlled environments – you’re still dealing with a natural biological issue, which can be “quite challenging” to manage and codify.
“What works on one farm with one particular soil type or one particular breed of animal may not necessarily translate directly, with the same results, to another farm,” she suggested. “It’s not easy, but then I don’t think it’s easy in any industry to get new things adopted quickly, unless it’s a smartphone or [a company like] Facebook.”
In measuring how the UK stacks up internationally, then, what lessons can the national industry learn from food industry titans like the United States and China? And how can domestic firms encourage corporate investment into their technologies, the likes of which invested $11m into Kentucky-based agri-tech firm AppHarvest in its latest funding round in January?
Belinda argued that the UK’s geographical limitations reduce the scalability of certain technologies on the British Isles, but there remains potential for certain innovations in the sector. “The difference in scale does make it quite a different beast in the UK, and the ability to use automation – you don’t have to turn corners quite so quickly when you have very large fields or very large cattle lots – makes it easier to do that,” the Agri-TechE director noted.
“One of the seminal differences is the amount of private investment going into the innovative companies developing these technologies – we don’t have that scale of investment in this country. It then becomes quite a difficult business model for some of the companies, because they need to work with the farmers as co-development partners, but they also need to generate revenue as well.”
Certain emerging technologies in the UK, such as vertical farming for example, could provide immediate value to the global food supply chain. In December, a study by academics at the University of Göttingen estimated that global food consumption could rise by 80% by the end of century – with much of the demand surfacing from urban and metro areas, 60% of which would be due to population growth. Surging demand in built-up areas could result in full-scale vertical farming rolled out in the UK in between two to three years, Belinda claimed.
“The phrase I always use with vertical farming is, ‘it’s around appropriateness.’ There are places where perhaps there isn’t land to cultivate – Singapore being a brilliant example. Singapore has almost no land to be able to grow crops on, so they are real pioneers in vertical farming, and they’ve really gone out with the approach of: ‘We can’t grow things outdoors, so we’re going to bring it indoors,’” she outlined.
“I think vertical farms do offer a really valuable niche, for example by being able to modify flavours or even other naturally-occurring chemicals to benefit health. The potential to do that is just extraordinary, and I know that we already have one fully controlled environment farm in Scunthorpe, the Jones Food Company – which is a massive, high-quality, cutting-edge facility.
“There are others being built as we speak. I think it will not replace broadacre farming, but it provides a really interesting and valuable addition to the food system in areas where there isn’t cultivatable land.”
Climate change, energy consumption, and cost: how do farmers find the balance?
Whilst exciting new applications may make a significant impact in helping to meet food demand around the world, managing farms through the climate crisis – and ensuring that their technologies don’t continue to expand their carbon footprint – is at the forefront of the agenda for UK innovators. In controlled-environment farming, for example, the use of LED lights 24 hours a day can have a profound impact on both a farm’s carbon emissions and its running costs – adding an economic and environmental element to an already tempestuous issue for farmers trying to make a livelihood.
“The industry is massively concerned [about energy consumption],” Belinda lamented. “It’s a major limiting factor to a number of things, both in controlled environments and in broadacre.
“When you’re setting up a vertical facility, the energy equation is critical, because that’s where so much of your costs are. There’s a big capital outlay anyway when you’re setting up a facility like this; you need to think hard about where your energy is going to come from. Even with low-cost LED lighting, the energy equation can be the dealbreaker – so yes, there’s a huge amount of concern.
“In farms, all of these new devices and all the rest of it are going to need energy to power them, through battery technology for example. We need ways of being able to manage energy much better and much more efficiently.”
Land use, which includes agriculture, forestry, and peatland, accounted for 12% of the UK’s emissions in 2017, third-highest behind transport and energy & housing. From Farm491’s perspective, cultural changes in the farming industry will be key to reduce the sector’s net emissions to meet the National Farmers’ Union’s (NFU’s) carbon neutrality pledge by 2040.
“To help with that, we’re helping companies think through their strategy by making sure they’re running a strategy that is shifting more towards a carbon-zero, renewable energy solution. We’re also working with a few renewable energy companies: as members, they’re the ones which are focused on the rural economy – so providing on-farm renewable energy,” Luke explained.
Taking a wider perspective on the future of food and digital farms, the Farm491 director echoed Belinda’s point on cost limiting the scalability of smart farm capabilities. “Farm491 has three core values: environmental sustainability, farm equity, and consumer equity,” he explained. “It’s not just an environmental issue; it’s a cost issue as well, because a lot of the reasons why [so many of] these technologies don’t work when scaling up is because the energy cost is too high.
“Equally, one of our principles is farm equity – it’s all very well trying to say we’re going to be net-zero tomorrow, but you have to find ways of transitioning people as well, so that they’re empowered and so you’re not causing more issues by what you think might be a solution because people can’t adapt to it. The adaptation and the behavioural change to adopt a net-zero strategy is important as well.”
What is success?
With clusters of innovative farms springing up around the UK, especially in the southwestern and East Anglian regions, and with the UK Government’s Agriculture Bill seeking to create greater certainty for farmers in the coming years, 2020 looks like it could be a turning point for British agri-tech’s status in global markets. But what does success look like to those in the industry? And how exactly do we get there?
From Belinda’s perspective, giving farmers the clearest information possible on the plethora of technological solutions on offer will go a long way in catalysing farms around the country.
At the moment, the UK hasn’t had a true success story. In the next five years, we have to have one
The Agri-TechE official joked that her vision for the networking organisation is that, one day, there will be no need for one – because the farming system will be so well-connected and integrated that a membership platform like hers would become redundant. “At the moment, farmers have this avalanche of new technology coming their way – which is a great problem to have, but it’s still a problem: how do they distinguish between this one cloud-based platform that’s monitoring your soil and your water and your vertical facility, and another one?
“On a less flippant note, this business is about helping growers – whether they’re traditional farmers, have vertical facilities, or whatever it is – by helping them understand and triage this wealth of exciting technology that they’re being presented with. I would like to see that, and government is already in discussion with the levy board [the Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board] and the NFU about it. It’s currently called the Evidence for Farming Initiative, which is almost like a Which? guide or a way of having some independent testing, trialling, and validation of technologies, so that farmers can trust the investment that they’re about to make in some of these systems or platforms.”
For Farm491’s Luke Halsey, progress for the sector may come in a more feel-good form: “We work in the business of forecasting what the future will be – and I think that, at the moment, the UK hasn’t had a true success story. In the next five years, we have to have one. Where it comes from, we just don’t know.”
More specifically, he argued that urban agriculture is “likely to succeed quite quickly” in areas such as vertical farming. “At the end of the day, the UK has quite a lot of smaller farms – and I do think technology plays a role in changing the dynamic of how smaller farms work, so they can actually be profitable without necessarily compromising their values,” he concluded.
Centred around two core technologies that secured £2.35m in seed funding earlier this year, LettUs Grow, a vertical farming start-up founded by Bristol University students in 2015, seeks to meet spiralling UK food demand through innovative solutions. It designs modular, aeroponic irrigation and intelligent control technology that can improve the efficiency, sustainability, and cost-effectiveness of indoor farming, all while delivering an impressive increase in growth rate across a range of crop species compared to hydroponics.
The inspiration behind LettUs Grow came from the sheer amount of waste in the food sector, with 1.9 million tonnes of food thrown out by the industry every year in the UK. At the other end of the spectrum, in 2018 the UK’s summer heatwave was the joint hottest on record, leading to a major shortage of lettuces and resulting in unprecedented imports from the United States at huge costs.
“Our main drive was in fact food waste, because we wanted to put farms closer to the consumer. At the moment, most people live in cities, and urban farming is very difficult – there’s not enough land available to feed the people there, so at best you usually have a peri-urban environment to feed those cities,” explained India Langley, communications lead at LettUs Grow.
“What we found when we made [our] technology was that the crops grow so much faster and so much more reliably, that it has different impacts we didn’t foresee before we started getting into it. As the climate starts to get more unpredictable, you’re seeing more of these crop losses.”
On the company’s novel tech offer, India told Cityscape: “These controlled-environment farms are centred around two core technologies, one of which is an aeroponic system.
“In a traditional hydroponic system, you would have the roots hanging down into a nutrient solution. Instead, what we’ve done is removed them from the liquid so we’re suspending them in the air – they’re held on a matting made of hemp or coconut or something along those lines – and then we provide them with a mist instead. In that mist you’ve got the water and nutrients, but they also have access to oxygen and carbon dioxide.”
This innovative aeroponics technology better mimics the way plants would perform if they were to be in soil, India explains, giving them everything that they need to thrive. From LettUs Grow testing, the team discovered that plants cultivated in the aeroponics system grow on average around 70% faster than those in other environments. “It’s just because you’re giving them their ideal scenario,” India said.
Aeroponics as a system has been around since the 1980s, when it was invented by NASA to assist in growing food in space. “This essentially created an aerosol, where you would have a series of nozzles with very tiny holes, and you would fire the nutrient solution through it at very high pressure. What tended to happen was that these tiny holes would get clogged with plant debris, similar to limescale that has been created from a nutrient solution, and that would block the small holes,” explained India.
Because you’re firing at a high pressure, it creates significant problems in the system without having anywhere for the debris to go. “It would break down the system; because you would have all of these breakages, it meant that they couldn’t be modular, and you would end up with quite a lot of crop losses,” she said.
LettUs Grow’s novel system, which cannot be fully disclosed due to commercially sensitive information, removes the nozzle system completely, eliminating the potential of a clogged system and bringing mist through to the crops efficiently.
Making things easier for the sector
LettUs Grow’s second technological solution is an aeroponic system control software called Osatra. Osatra collects data on the plants which team members can then use to create better plant recipes in the future. “It oversees all of the inputs into the plants: the mist itself, how much mist there is, how long it’s on for, the intensity of lighting, the different types of lighting that we have,” India outlined. “And then we’ll also control the climate: temperature, humidity, airflow, and all those sorts of things within the chamber, so we can control everything within this environment.”
Data scientists can then trace the crop’s history from seed to sale, creating efficient operations for farmers and freeing up manhours. For farmers who may be hesitant to invest in a technology which they might not be fully capable of using at first, this plug-and-play type of system has removed obstacles for people taking up aeroponics, and has given farmers another avenue of agriculture to invest in without straying too far from the arable, broadacre, and livestock types of traditional farming.
“We’ve been to a number of events to do with farm diversification and future farm technology, and people will come in thinking that maybe they’re going to get shepherd’s huts, or they’re going to do ‘glamping’ or set up an Airbnb on their farms,” India said. “Essentially, then, it’s taking them away from the industry that they’ve grown up with, a family business that’s been handed down the generations. It’s actually quite sad for farmers needing to not farm in order to allow them to farm, if that makes sense.
“We’ve been canvassing around the sector and one of the things we’ve seen is farmers wanting to diversify, and then being offered something that allows them to do so but [that still allows them to be farmers] – so they can keep farming in the family, and it can futureproof them: if they have crop losses in the field, then they know they have a guaranteed income in the barn.”
Tackling the carbon issue
Despite the clear benefits of vertical farming, the issue of energy consumption is still something controlled farming firms have to navigate. LettUs Grow, for example, is partnered with Octopus Energy, a 100% renewable energy supplier, to use a method called ‘vertical power,’ made specifically for vertical farmers using agile energy. In this process, Osatra can be used to modulate the amount of energy used at any given time, thus expending less energy when costs are high and more when costs are lower.
Anyone who was just in it for the money would still go renewable because it was cheaper. You’ve just got to make these things as easy as possible for people
“It’s an amazing thing,” India claimed. “If you’re going to be saving money, you might as well use renewables, even if that’s not your vibe. Anyone who was just in it for the money would still go renewable because it was cheaper. You’ve just got to make these things as easy as possible for people.”
Is the future vertical?
Internationally, North America is ahead of us in the vertical farming sector, claims India: “America has much wider adoption of vertical farming than we have here in the UK – they have big aero-farms based over there. They are supplying to wider masses than we are over here.”
The UK is not far behind, however: in 2018, the Jones Food Company launched the UK’s first full-scale vertical farm in Scunthorpe, and stakeholders like Innovate UK are driving the momentum to encourage greater investment into the sector. But what help can vertical farms get from the main food supply chain so that shoppers at the likes of Tesco, Asda, and Aldi can buy vertically-grown produce?
“One of the things that could benefit the industry and the country as a whole would be better integration between vertical farming and off-takers – so supermarkets, for example, having vertical farms within their system. That would enable a reliable supply of food into these shops so we wouldn’t have crises like what we experienced in 2018, where we incurred huge costs in shipping lettuces into the country,” India answered.
One of the things that could benefit the industry and the country as a whole would be better integration between vertical farming and off-takers – so supermarkets, for example, having vertical farms within their system
“Having that integration so they know there’s going to be a reliable stream – there’s fantastic data on how much is going to be needed at any given point – and having that information plugged into vertical farms would be fantastic.”
Launched in 2012 as part of a family business, RootWave uses electricides – a term used to describe the use of electricity to organically and environmentally kill weeds – to effectively boil weeds from the inside out, killing the plant and allowing it to return to its natural state as compost.
Born out of a need to move away from agrochemicals which, despite being effective and inexpensive, raises questions about the environment and public health, RootWave was set up as a new focus on weed control. Its technology is chemical-free and does not disturb the soil. In January, the company secured €6.5 million in a Series A investment round, in addition to collaborating with the Small Robot Company to combine autonomous farming with the weed-killing technology.
According to Andrew Diprose, CEO of RootWave, the key challenge for every agri-tech start-up in the UK is finding initial investment and fundraising for their technology. “In the UK, fundraising is difficult enough, but in agriculture in the UK, it’s extremely difficult – with very few players in the space in comparison to somewhere like America,” he told Cityscape.
Andrew maintained that while Innovate UK’s grant process is slick, there’s still a long way to go in the process of taking technologies from trial to market: “Innovate UK funds cutting-edge R&D, but to commercialise the technology, a lot more capital is required,” the CEO argued.
For his business and others in the weed-killing sector, what Britain does after leaving the UK is vital. The NFU will be potentially banning a significant proportion of agrochemicals over health and environmental concerns – and from a commercial perspective, Andrew would like to see the UK Government follow suit.
A shift towards more environmental and sustainable practices has to happen if we’re going to continue growing food. At the current rates, we are damaging the world
At the ground level, Andrew commented, the idea of farmers being averse to new technologies is a misconception. “People get what we’re doing quite quickly, and I think farmers are quite tech-savvy nowadays,” he explained. “The big issue for them is whether they should invest in these new technologies; they only have limited budgets.” As a result, farmers are “more risk averse than most.”
“If it’s going to push the world and this country to a more sustainable future, the government needs to fund these new technologies to give the farmers the ability to buy a technology that can solve their problems, and then it needs to assist them in actually buying those technologies,” he stated. “A shift towards more environmental and sustainable practices has to happen if we’re going to continue growing food. At the current rates, we are damaging the world.”
Precision farming with the Agri-EPI Centre
Recently valued at a whopping $3.92bn, precision agriculture – a farming management system that deploys a wide array of applications including GPS, sensors, robotics, soil-sampling systems, and autonomous vehicles, amongst several other capabilities – is truly at the forefront of agri-tech.
Agri-EPI Centre, one of the four centres of innovation launched by the UK Government in 2015, canvases precision engineering technologies across the food supply chain – everything from broccoli to fish, according to CEO Dave Ross. The team at the centre look at technologies that may have a useful application in the livestock, arable, dairy, and precision agriculture sectors, as well as in the post-farm gate supply chain, both UK and internationally.
It monitors both the crop and the soil characteristics at a precision scale, every 15 minutes, 24 hours a day
“Our technologies can be described as being agnostic in some sense,” Dave explained. “The central plank of our target is to look at, examine, and monitor the variability and production of these biological products we call foodstuffs that are grown in a natural or semi-natural environment pedigree, and the things that influence that variability that increase the optimisation of that production.”
The centre has four major sites across the UK: in Edinburgh, Shepton Mallet (south of Bristol), Cranfield (in northwest Bedfordshire), and the Midlands Innovation Hub in Shropshire. “In our southern hub, which is based at Cranfield, our focus is mainly on crops and high-value crops – so the focus is on sensor technologies, which align with some of the other capital investments we have there,” Dave told Cityscape.
The Agri-EPI team also share a joint and globally unique facility with CHAP – an innovation centre you will find more about later – that incorporates measurements of crops in a plant community, growing them in an environment that is controlled and monitored at a community level. “By community, I mean a large area and sown with commercial machines,” the CEO explained. “It monitors both the crop and the soil characteristics at a precision scale, every 15 minutes, 24 hours a day.”
A trained engineer with more than two-and-a-half decades’ worth of experience in agri-technology, Dave is well suited to identify the turning points in the industry that unlocked precision farming – and wider agri-tech capabilities – to British agriculturists. Amongst many developments in technology allowing for wide-scale precision farming, Dave emphasised that the value of air observation techniques, yield-mapping tools, and satellite constellations is now far more intense than it was 20 years ago. “That has unlocked precision-scale monitoring of agricultural fields right across the UK and across the planet, and allowed us to monitor our crops,” the centre’s CEO said.
In southern Africa, for example, GRID, a two-year Agri-EPI-backed tool, allows users to monitor the outcome of their crop yield by accessing advanced agricultural satellite mapping and analysis backed by independent agronomic advice. The project, which ended in November last year, consisted of a Crop Growth Index (CGI) for a variety of African crops. The CGI was modelled on a crop-specific basis utilising Synthetic-aperture radar (SAR) data, optical satellite data, and precision local weather information.
“It assists with small landholders and provides mobile-phone-communicated agronomic assistance,” Dave told us. “For people who farm small areas, that information is very valuable. Even at that scale, it’s cost-effective for them to get the service and get added value from it.”
In the last 10 to 15 years, Dave says, there has also been a rise in precision technologies such as self-steer on tractors, a staging post to full autonomy, making it more efficient for a tractor and implement to traverse a field and provide a treatment. “It can be pre-programmed to only treat certain areas of the field and doesn’t overlap (hence overtreat), whereas a human being might overlap by 5% just because of the human eye error,” he explained.
The impact of emerging technologies
Most recently, the branch of robotics – such as robotic milking technologies – has attracted increased interest amongst the farming sector, sometimes for very human reasons. “The pressures there are mainly two-fold,” listed Dave. “One is the less-skilled labour in the marketplace, and in a number of instances the labour market of the husbandry of the dairy cattle has been increasingly more reliant on Eastern European labour. That has had an effect over the last 18 months or so, and may continue to have an effect going forward on the availability of that labour.
5G has the ability to plug the territorial gaps that the other mobile phone operators may not have had the commercial incentive to cover
“Farmers need to insulate against those risks: robotic milking is a capital investment, but it’s almost a win-win when the labour requirement changes. There’s a lifestyle advantage as well: traditional dairy farmers are up at five in the morning every day, whereas we have an autonomous dairy farm down in the south west, near Bristol, that can operate 24/7.”
Agri-EPI’s involvement in the 5GRuralFirst consortium, spearheaded by Cisco, has also led to the creation of the Me+Moo phone app, which uses 5G connectivity, Internet of Things (IoT) collars, and leg sensors to gather data on key animal metrics such as their feeding, sleeping, and milking patterns. It allows the user to track their performance on a minute-by-minute basis via a ‘moonitor’ dashboard, giving, say, children the chance to engage with the industry in an almost gamified format – where they’re able to see live data from the cows and play with real data in a herd management role.
Though just an ‘engagement tool,’ as Dave put it, the project can have far-reaching implications for agri-tech – especially once the capabilities of 5G are fully realised across UK networks. “I’ve been trying to promote 5G in the UK agri-tech sector for a number of years now, because I see the failings in 2G, 3G, and 4G in terms of actual coverage. Through shared spectrum and possible use of “white space” spectrum, 5G has the ability to plug the territorial gaps that the other mobile phone operators may not have had the commercial incentive to cover,” Dave explained.
If we’re getting an explosion in IoT devices and wearables, you can imagine in future that cows in a remote environment then become “subscribers” of a 5G communications service, the Agri-EPI boss explained. “The commercial value of that service may not be equivalent to a mobile phone contract, but it’s certainly one – and if there’s a thousand cows there, you have a thousand subscribers,” he added.
“Your subscription is not limited by the human being and their location; it’s limited by what I call the remote asset and their location – although the farmer is the one that transacts to get added value from that. He or she gets value from that through 24/7 access to animals and their health and welfare.”
With emerging technologies giving farmers a wide variety of tools to use in precision farming, it’s important to understand the biggest challenges facing agri-tech and agri-food in the coming years. From the Agri-EPI Centre’s perspective, there are two critical areas that will need to be mastered in the UK: the challenge of food productivity with limited land resources, and the elephant in the room of climate change and greenhouse gas emissions.
“These are the challenges I foresee in the next five years. I think they will evolve, but the key challenges will remain. We’re on a trajectory for a 9- to 10 billion-strong population in 30 years’ time, and there will be global impacts and potential shocks on commodity prices and on food,” Dave commented.
“The UK is exposed in some ways, in that we only produce about 60% of the foodstuffs that we need. The question politically is: do we remain exposed and become increasingly exposed, or is food security for the UK a political agenda item that will increase to reduce our level of risk?”
To meet skyrocketing demand, Dave predicts that the food industry will have to get creative. “I foresee novel proteins such as insects being perhaps part of the human diet in substantial proportions, or at least fed to the livestock which then becomes part of the human diet, and taking the pressure off commodities like imported soya, for example, that have environmental consequences elsewhere,” he said.
According to a 2019 UK Government report, agriculture is responsible for a tenth of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change. It’s no wonder why the topic of sustainable farming and carbon-consciousness was high on the agenda of the Agriculture Bill released in January; Dave believes the industry will need to turn to renewable and green alternatives to power some of the emerging farming technologies reaching the market.
And, whilst controlled-environment farming methods can provide value especially around urban areas, it still has its shortcomings: “If you’re taking the examples of companies like LettUs Grow and Advanced Growth Solutions, you’re looking at an industry in its infancy in terms of vertical farming,” the CEO continued. “Looking at aeroponics, hydroponics, and aquaponics as the three main options, you’re looking at an industry which currently struggles to stack up against the Mark 1 sun and Mark 1 soil in terms of economic viability, but which is good for high-value, niche crops and fast and repetitive growing cycles. The LED technology and energy systems are constantly improving, and the energy intensity will continue to be reduced so that they become head-on competitive.
“However, if that energy could be extracted from waste products on farms through digestion and anaerobic digestion, and if the energy is harvested that way from the by-product, it starts to make a lot more sense as an integral part of mainstream, existing farming systems – investment permitting.”
In his experience in the agri-food sector, chief product officer at Agrimetrics Dr Matthew Smith recalls that it has traditionally been a hard slog convincing sector professionals that data is a valuable resource. Towards the end of his 11-year tenure at Microsoft’s scientific research department, one of his prime objectives was to find use cases for data in the field of agri-food, in a bid to demonstrate the value it can provide in an international scale.
“People on the ground need more evidence of how value gets realised using data in agriculture,” Matthew told Cityscape. “We were running a lot of different projects enabling people to make decisions about sugarcane management, tea management, or lettuce forecasting – but they were very much what you would call ‘innovation projects,’ where it’s looking for a proof of concept, and we’re still in that situation right now.”
Moving to Agrimetrics in October last year, Matthew joined a team whose ultimate vision is to show how farmers at the ground-level can realise value from data. Founded by Rothamsted Research and the University of Reading as one of the four innovation centres for agri-tech in the UK, the 30-strong team at the part-public and part-private Agrimetrics works with data providers and consumerso accelerate the prominence of data used by everyday farmers. “Our Data Marketplace is enabling data providers to generate revenue from their data, whilst providing data consumers with the information they need easily and cost-effectively,” Matthew explained. “The goal is to accelerate innovation, which in turn will improve the productivity and sustainability of the agricultural sector.
“The problem is that people don’t have the requisite knowledge of data to take advantage of it. They need tangible examples. People need more proof points as to how you derive value, and that’s our goal as an Innovate UK-funded accelerator: to show the way in terms of how value gets realised in this way.”
What data can do
On 6 February, Agrimetrics launched the agri-food sector’s first-ever Data Marketplace, a leap into the battle against agriculture’s “big data problem,” as CEO of Agrimetrics Dr David Flanders put it: “Agri-businesses are – often justifiably – reluctant to share their data. Meanwhile, organisations lack the information they need to build new solutions. This has prevented meaningful innovation.”
This gap in data sharing is one that the Agrimetrics team believe will be plugged with the launch of the marketplace – but through small, incremental changes, as opposed to full-scale transformation. “In terms of historical turning points, I think there have been a few, and it’s when someone has identified how to make the information actionable in a way that is convenient for the farmer,” Matthew commented. “Because farmers are working with such narrow margins, you need to be convenient so that they’re just doing their job rather than it being a fundamental transformation as to how agriculture is done.”
For fresh produce growers, a prime example of data-enabled value was through ease of access to weather information. “A farmer or producer could have on tap a variety of different weather forecasts, giving them an indication as to whether the crops are going to be early or late over the coming weeks and days, what their soil moisture is going to be, and things like that; that was a mini tipping point, and it exemplifies how the minute you make it easy to use, people use it.”
Elsewhere in the industry, BASF, a global chemical manufacturer, has used linked data from Agrimetrics’ Data Marketplace to bring a variety of data threads into one place. Developing a ‘water stewardship’ tool, data gives growers field-specific advice on whether to spray herbicides on their crops on a certain day or not, in the context of whether spraying herbicides can lead to chemical run-off into watercourses. A farmer or agronomist can go to the Agrimetrics online platform, select their location, answer questions on soil type and cultivation methods, and receive information over the next eight days providing a ‘yes’, ‘no’, or ‘caution’ status on whether to spray crops. The app uses a confluence of data from the Met Office, Defra, and the Environment Agency, combined with Agrimetrics artificial intelligence on soil and water safeguarding zones.
To achieve other global successes like the water stewardship tool used by farmers, the most immediate priority going forward will be squaring the “big data problem” in agriculture. “If you look up the dimensions of big data, you have volume, variety, veracity, and velocity,” Matthew said. “And the variety aspect is the issue. To make predictions of the likelihood of crop disease, you might combine satellite and radar data, imagery captured on a farmer’s smartphone, forecasted and historic weather, soil type, previous crop rotations, and the proximity of other disease outbreaks. It’s incredibly complex to harmonise these radically different data types, but also incredibly important.”
This where the Agrimetrics team believe the Data Marketplace, and the enhanced data-sharing derived from it, can have an impact. “It’s field-contextualised, actionable information. They won’t get it directly from us necessarily; they will get it from an organisation that provides that reliable information, that uses the field boundaries as well as the other information,” added Matthew.
“Rather than seeing information on what the weather is, where the field is, or what satellite data says is going on in the field, it will be: ‘this is what the crop yield is going to look like over the coming couple of weeks,’ ‘this is the estimated risk of a particular disease outbreak,’ or ‘this is an additional potential value I could generate in the field in terms of soil carbon or vegetation carbon, which I could make a claim for in terms of government payment.’”
The UK Government’s new Agriculture Bill, which intends to pay farmers for contributing towards ‘public goods’ – such as by capturing and reducing carbon or protecting endangered species – will also rely on quality data. “Being able to demonstrate, with data, that you’re doing this will be integral to the future financial viability of farm businesses,” the chief product officer noted. “It should be far more relevant and precise information in the language that the farmer cares about.”
There’s going to be demand for an accurate agri-food system data that indicates sustainability
The abundance of information on officer to agriculturists through the Data Marketplace can make a make the tricky task of sustainability efforts easier to deal with, adds Matthew. “Farmers are having to demonstrate that they are able to produce more sustainably; they’re being pressured to [produce] less waste and to be more intelligent and make sure that they’re not over- or under-producing. Data is used in order to reveal those insights,” he argued.
The opportunities raised by applying data to agri-food projects can ensure that farmers aren’t “haemorrhaging carbon,” as Matthew put it, or ensure that those trying to offset their carbon emission can do so in the right way. “Providing information into those dimensions of sustainability requires information from lots of different providers: it’s unsustainable in itself to think that that’s going to be provided by any one producer,” he explained. “That’s why you need a marketplace connecting multiple data providers with multiple consumers, such that that sustainability information can be evidenced.”
Looking into his crystal ball to predict what the future farming trends might be, Matthew sees sustainability as the “next industrial revolution,” in the same way productivity was the last. “You can’t grow your productivity unless you prove it is done sustainably,” he said. “And that’s whether you’re doing your individual activities on farm or selling your produce. That’s the key direction; there’s going to be demand for an accurate agri-food system data that indicates sustainability.”
Lessons going forward
In spite of the positive promotion of the value of data from Matthew and the Agrimetrics team, data pools in agriculture is still in a relatively fledgling state. How, then, can farmers consider data platforms as serious options for managing and getting the most effective production out of their fields? In Matthew’s opinion, a multi-pronged approach is needed to empower the regular farmer to embrace data.
“There needs to be a clearer value proposition to farmers,” he posited. In his view, the value proposition to farmers is “not at all clear enough” or compelling enough in certain circumstances. “Farmers need to see better examples of how they generate value from using data in their business. The way in which we make it happen faster is if farmers are empowered; if the value of farmer data is realised by it being useful in other areas of the industry – that is, if retailers are able to reward farmers on the evidence that they can provide, so that there’s greater incentives for collecting data.”
Greater support from the government, such as through financial benefits made available in public-sector schemes, could also make an impact. In the private sector, high-quality data could help farmers secure cheaper loans or better insurance deals. “That’s the secret to really enabling farmers to see the value of the data,” continued Matthew, “because suddenly they’re exposed to better and bigger markets, and to more market opportunities as a result of doing it in this better way.”
The team at Agrimetrics wants the Data Marketplace to facilitate the whole agri-food revolution, not just agriculture. “Our goal is to connect the entire supply chain,” concluded Richard Tiffin, its chief scientific officer and a professor of applied economics at the University of Reading, “retailers, insurers and investors, packaging and freight companies, and consumers. In manufacturing, data has helped ‘smart factories’ increase pro
duction by 50% and cut waste by 20% – imagine if we could bring these same benefits to our food system.”
Crop Health and Protection
The team at Crop Health and Protection Ltd (CHAP) had plenty of lessons to learn from their activity in 2019. Based at the National Agri-Food Innovation Campus at Sand Hutton in York, the company’s innovation lead, Dr Harry Langford, told Cityscape that crop-growers are facing mounting pressure from regulations and society more broadly in terms of the crop protection tools at their disposal. “A lot of them are being banned, and then conventional farming systems are being put under pressure by that,” Harry explained. Some previously legal pesticides are coming under greater scrutiny, with the Bayer-owned neonicotinoid pesticide called thiacloprid, for example, recently being banned under European Union legislation due to its role in bee deaths, water contamination, and human illness.
Harry and his colleagues at CHAP have received increasing amounts of correspondence from farmers around the country concerning this evolving crop health and protection challenge, “because a number of crops are becoming particularly difficult to manage,” Harry noted – particularly in commodities such as oilseed rape and carrots. As one of the four Centres for Agricultural Innovation, the team at CHAP are tasked with the aim of translating and promoting some of the innovative solutions that entrepreneurs and businesses in the UK are creating to deal with some of these challenges.
From a governance point of view, Harry said there have been industry calls for system reform to deliver ‘public good’ benefits associated with the new Agriculture Bill, as well as a revamped Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS) to tackle issues such as decades of soil degradation by making it a more hospitable, bacteria-dense place.
Now, with the release of the Agriculture Bill in January, along with a revamped ELMS, it’s an exciting time to be in the sector. “The new bill allows us to think about tackling key sector challenges using a system-wide, holistic strategy, with approaches like integrated farm management and integrated pest management becoming increasingly important,” the innovation boss said. “Challenges such as improving soil health and restoring biodiversity to the environment are proving excellent stimuli for agri-tech innovation across the sector.”
Crop management technologies
For Harry, emerging technologies such as robotics, sensors, digital platforms, and vertical farming will be key in assisting farmers over the coming years – in the meantime, the CHAP team, and the industry at large, are taking a “cautiously optimistic” approach. “The sector understands that a lot of this technology is still under development and currently limited in its scalability, but it’s working collaboratively across farmers, technologists, and academics to deliver solutions to some of those scalability challenges,” he stated.
The Small Robot Company, for example, was highlighted by Harry as an example of novel technology being developed in the UK – a lightweight robotic precision agriculture tool which can reduce pressure on soil and has positive effects on both compaction and tillage-based carbon release from the soil. Yet challenges remain for the technologists behind these budding solutions: in this instance, there are considerations relating to the charging and recharging of the machines, and in terms of the speed in which they can cover a designated land area. Harry noted that continual engagement with the supply chain will be key for firms to ensure that their products are being developed for the right markets and addressing challenges effectively.
Challenges such as improving soil health and restoring biodiversity to the environment are proving excellent stimuli for agri-tech innovation across the sector
Elsewhere in crop management, CHAP is partnered with a number of technologists and producers in the vertical farming industry, including LettUs Grow, Grow Bristol, and Liberty Produce, to name just a few. CHAP has a number of partnerships in that sector because controlled-environment production is not only an effective way to protect the crop and moderate the variable environmental conditions that affect yield, but it’s also “an effective way to manage pest and disease pressures, both in the field in terms of polytunnel, glasshouse, and greenhouse based systems, and in terms of indoor food production in vertical farming units.”
CHAP, via Innovate UK funding, has developed five exemplar R&D and demonstration facilities in Controlled Environment Agriculture, including two vertical farming units: one with Liberty Produce in Dundee, and another at Stockbridge Technology Centre near York. “These facilities are for the entire sector, to act as a focus for innovation and knowledge exchange,” Harry commented. “They will play a major role in optimising natural resource use, increasing crop yields sustainably, and ensuring food quality, helping us to meet the demands of future generations.”
One of the most exciting solutions in the crop management world is CHAP’s new greenhouse system, the Natural Light Growing (NLG) Centre. “This replaces traditional glass-based greenhouse construction with a lightweight ETFE membrane construction,” the innovation lead explained. “This flexible membrane, which is also repairable, reduces crop damage by extreme weather events, and also lets through the complete spectrum of light, including the UV [spectrum].” In other words, it is comparable to outdoor farming in terms of the light available, while maintaining the benefits of a controlled environment for crops.
The first-of-its-kind NLG Centre will act as a demonstration hub and experimental facility for horticulture, investigating the effect of full-spectrum growing conditions on crops in a protected environment. Using £500,000 of Innovate UK funding, over the coming months CHAP will be holding a number of open days for businesses to explore ideas for projects – with vertical farming considered one of the key developments that entrepreneurs will be looking to explore.
Domestic and global takes on crop farming
Last year, a CHAP team member headed to India to meet the national government’s agriculture officials, research councils, and agri-tech firms in a bid to find out more about international crop management challenges and how they might be addressed through novel solutions. “There is a great opportunity for some of the advanced and innovative solutions developed here in the UK to be translated into various international markets,” Harry noted. “We just need to understand those environments and systems in order to catalyse that.
These facilities are for the entire sector, to act as a focus for innovation and knowledge exchange
“In terms of what we can learn from foreign systems, I think that’s mainly around the technological approach to managing more extreme weather and environments. We have quite a mild and favourable environment here [in the UK], though that is beginning to change; in the likes of Western Australia and the Canadian wheat belt, the environmental drivers are a lot more severe, which has instigated better technology uptake – particularly around management practices such as controlled traffic and no-till agriculture.”
Dr Belinda Clarke from Agri-TechE emphasised how the tide is changing for international investment and interest in British agri-tech firms, but it’s still quite difficult for them to attract overseas investment. Harry agreed, but pointed out: “What’s perhaps more important than investment from overseas is actually the side-by-side assessment of UK and overseas technology, to bring together the best technologies and help them flourish. There are a lot of external pressures on the farming sector that are going to drive the need for system change in crop production, not least the climate emergency.”
Casting our eyes domestically, the UK has seen a greater number of ‘off-takers’ embracing technologies like vertical farming, which could help meet spikes in demand from the retail sector. Take the Jones Food Company, for example: the largest vertical farm in the UK is linked to the Ocado supply chain, with the online retailer ploughing millions of pounds into the Scunthorpe company in the hopes of being able to deliver fresh produce to customers within an hour of it being picked. A number of other farm producers are following suit by connecting with higher-end retailers like M&S and Waitrose.
To enable mass-market adoption across the wider industry, the operational costs associated with running a vertical farm still need to come down, meaning that it will probably still be some time before we see vertically-farmed foods sitting on popular supermarket shelves. “It’s primarily a cost thing, but obviously retailers take a number of factors into consideration; there’s the shelf life as well as the flavour and the consumer preference,” explained Harry.
“There are a number of factors at play, but ultimately, to compete in the long term against field-based agriculture in the UK and against imported produce – and particularly to compete over a wider range of crops, as currently vertical farming is limited to leafy green and herb crops principally, with some salad crops as well – there will definitely need to be a reduction in both capital expenditure and the operating expenditure that we get in vertical farms.”