Sometimes you need to change agricultural practices to make them suitable for automation and technology, not try to invent tech that makes an incremental improvement. This was the clear message from major fresh produce suppliers who joined us recently as part of a mission from the west coast USA.
The delegation from the Western Growers Association talked to UK agri-tech innovators in robotics and decision support about the challenges they were facing from extreme weather and availability of labour and the need for harvest automation. The innovations needed to address these issues often require regulatory approval – to ensure safety of humans working alongside robots, or to stop drones conflicting with air traffic. New varieties of crop, more suitable for harvesting by machine, may also fall within legislation on genetic modification.
This started us thinking about innovation and its drivers, and the role of regulation in accelerating or hindering change.
Does regulation drive or inhibit innovation?
One of the main levers of Government (along with taxes, funding and incentives) is the legal landscape. Regulations around a sector or technology can make or break its potential commercial impact and Lexington Communications will be providing some thought provoking input on this subject at the next Agri-Tech Express event.
With the UK’s departure from the EU, two key pieces of legislation are under consideration with significant potential impact on the sector:
The Oxford Farming Conference saw the announcement of a consultation around gene-editing, as announced by George Eustice, Defra’s Secretary of State. Since 2018, gene-editing has been considered by the European Court of Justice to be “genetic modification” and hence subject to the same regulation about development and release of material engineered in this way.
For some, this regulation has been seen as inappropriate, given that gene-editing is a different process and consider that it should therefore be regulated in a different way.
The start of 2021 saw the conversation begin to change around the UK’s position on how gene-edited organisms are regulated. For many, this is the start of a long-awaited shift with the potential to provide an uplift in productivity and reduction in use of ag-chem. A new approach to regulation may also open the way to making the UK a more attractive market to develop and innovate.
Different methods of growing plants may well require different traits, for example in vertical farming the plants gain nutrients through sprays, mists and deep water hydroponics, what implications will this have on production? Controlled Environment Agriculture is changing the way we traditionally think about growing crops and advanced breeding techniques will have an important role to play in this sector.
National Security and Investment Bill
This is a major piece of legislation which impacts agriculture – and indeed many other sectors. The National Security and Investment Bill aims to have stricter screening of overseas investment into the UK. The aim of this Bill is to ensure overseas companies don’t undermine or usurp UK business interests and reduce their competitiveness on a global stage.
This Bill also has implications across the board for innovation, given that R&D is often a global, collaborative endeavour, and that international insights and technologies advance the body of knowledge and accelerate products to market.
There is a potential risk that the UK will be seen as a less attractive market in which to partner with innovators and do R&D. The implications for developments in Artificial Intelligence and robotics, in particular, are causing concern.
Balancing innovation and regulation
Rarely do innovation and regulation keep pace with each other – often innovators and even end-users are frustrated at the apparent lack of pace of lawmakers to ensure appropriately robust, but suitably enabling requirements.
But similarly, law-makers need those in the innovation community to provide them with high quality insights, information and data to help the legislation stay abreast of the fast-moving pace of technology development. Also to consider the wider ethical and social consequences of new technologies.
Legislation around technology is likely to be moving fast over the coming months and years. By engaging with policy-makers, providing open and transparent information and ensuring there is good awareness of the potential implications, we can all help ensure the UK continues to build its reputation as one of the world’s leading places for innovation.