Two days, 63 speakers and 160 delegates drawn from 16 countries. Such was the Global Agri-Tech Investment Summit 2014 in London, where discussions covered the transition from “precision agriculture” to “decision agriculture”, the role of Big Data and whether “ultra fresh, ultra local” is going to be the compelling new brand for fresh produce.
Agri-Tech East was delighted to be speaking on the topic of creating a global innovation hub for agri-tech, and even more pleased to be name-checked by Lord de Mauley (Parliamentary Under Secretary for Natural Environment and Science) in his welcome address as an example of a world-class UK agri-tech cluster.
The importance of collaboration was the under-pinning theme to all the discussions – with Dow Agrosciences going as far as to state the critical success factors for partnerships. These included identifying shared objectives, agreeing a clear strategy, and early involvement of the right people, as well as making sure each partner will contribute something distinctive and unique to the consortium.
The relationship between farmers and city and rural planners is an important one, and no more so than when trying to grow food vertically, or in an urban environment. From state-of-the-art designs of fully integrated urban vertical farming systems, to growing fresh salads and herbs in reconfigured shipping containers behind our local supermarkets, the ability to “do more with less” might hail the advent of new ways of putting “ultra fresh, ultra local” produce on the shelves within just two hours of harvest.
With lots of companies, large and small, developing technologies to help with soil mapping, yield mapping and variable rate application of inputs, the big question was how to make these innovations user-friendly to farmers, growers and agronomists. Pictures of the growing crop are easy to get – but using imaging to enable smart analysis to support on-farm decision-making is the key, or, as Steve Keyworth from URSULA Agriculture put it, providing “state of the crop intelligence” to those who need it.
Big Data and New Technology
Big Data is the buzz-word of the moment, with opinions flying about what it is, how to define it, and how it can really benefit farmers. The questions being tackled by those who are collecting data from farmers are how to reward and incentivise growers for their data, and what level of data sharing is acceptable (answer – in general, aggregate data about productivity or diseases within a certain local area is OK, individual farm performance data is not!).
Another recurring theme was the importance of ensuring new technology is relevant to farming systems. There were few ideas as to how this consultation with farmers and end-users across the supply chain should happen, but it was a great reinforcement that our Pollinator network meetings and Special Interest Groups to help connect farmers and innovators are the way to go!
Investors were equally clear on the need for agri-tech entrepreneurs to show they have understood the business of agriculture. In a discussion led by John Hamer, Monsanto’s Investment Director (who oversaw their $900m acquisition of data company The Climate Corporation) all investors agreed that entrepreneurs need to demonstrate the practical “usability” of their technology by end users. Surrounding yourself with the thought leaders in your target market was another tip – earning the respect of these key opinion leaders will build confidence in investors.
Closing thoughts from investors outlined the priority innovation areas they are seeking to support. Unsurprisingly, the greatest opportunity was seen in ways of increasing crop yield per acre, especially for developing nations. Precision agriculture tools using affordable sensors that don’t need too much bandwidth or energy would also get your business plan a second glance, as would new ways to measure “sustainability” in a meaningful way. And if anyone’s got any cool ideas for new cover crops, they like those too!