One encouraging observation from this challenging period has been the rapid response of the agri-food industry – it has kept things moving and the population fed.
Farmers have kept producing. Factories and processing plants have been kept running with skeleton teams, staff have seamlessly moved to working from home, supply chains have adapted to different markets by changing packaging and moving online.
However, the need for more automation, improved methods of forecasting and prediction that can cope with extreme conditions, and new methods of seeing the whole picture and managing the fine details beneath – have all become more clearly articulated.
Managing at different scales is to be the theme of our REAP 2020 conference.
Lockdown weather – sunny for some
Catching up with our members and others, in the zoom meetings that now have become such a feature of life, we have gained an interesting snapshot of the industry and how agri-tech is needed to address its current and future challenges.
Over recent weeks we have learnt that the farmers are working flat out to get the crops in the ground – but too wet has become quickly too dry and the logistics of recruiting and training British workers to replace experienced staff has proved challenging. Field trials and essential work in the plant houses is continuing but much of the lab work has been put on ice and research sponsors although frustrated are understanding. Retailers are seeing huge spikes in demand for unexpected products and experiencing shortages of others – who would have thought we were a nation of bakers!
In the main, the food supply chains have proved resilient and responsive.
The exception is where produce was destined for the catering and restaurant trade. A big driver of change over recent years has the increase in calories consumed outside of the home and this has created a parallel supply system, which has been exposed as vulnerable. During lockdown, produce such as prime beefsteaks and milk has been badly impacted but those able to sell direct to retail or the consumer have seen unprecedented demand.
Technology comes into its own
Technology as the enabling factor has come into sharp relief, while some say we are entering a new world; others see it as more that the trends are accelerating.
In recent years across the agri-tech cluster we have seen the emergence of platform technologies that simplify the capture of data from different sources and provide support for analysis; or for reaching markets. Being able to quickly assimilate information and communicate effectively with suppliers and buyers are characteristics of the businesses that are performing well at the moment.
Going forward, if the industry is to grasp the ambition of a carbon neutral world, the potential of virtual supply chains, and the competitive advantage of farming sustainably with lower inputs and higher quality outputs, then it needs good tools and best practice.
REAP 2019 – Moving towards One Agriculture
In REAP 2019 we took the theme of One Agriculture – examining how animal health, human health, society, the environment and food production are intrinsically linked creating a win-win for innovations that play to this bigger picture.
For REAP 2020 we are taking this system approach further and looking at what agri-tech is needed for One Agriculture to connect up the system at different levels, from the microscopic to the landscape.
The Agriculture Bill and the Environment Bill are potentially the biggest change to the UK agriculture industry in decades. Significant environmental targets to reach net zero now sit alongside the ever-increasing pressure to produce safe, healthy food in a cost-effective way.
Improved tools are needed to measure and monitor progress if improvements are to be rewarded.
If the indices are to include: carbon sequestration in fields; increase in beneficial insects in field margins; greater biodiversity in hedgerows; reduction in GHG emissions, then robust and automated methods are needed to measure the base-line and subsequent improvements.
REAP 2020 will explore the need to manage innovation at different scales, from molecular processes in plants, animals and microbes, through soil, field and farm level, to catchment level agriculture and landscape systems.
There are existing tools that aim to improve systems at all these different scales, but often they are not connected or integrated, and the interactions within and between the different levels are not considered.
Enabling farmers to understand the impact of interventions at a micro-level and how they can impact at a landscape level – and vice versa – is going to be key to maximising the potential for this approach.
REAP 2020 – From micro-scape to landscape: innovating at the frontier
As we announce the theme for REAP 2020, we are also issuing a call-to-arms to the researchers and technology developers to identify the emerging innovations that can be harnessed to enable the agri-food system to be managed at different scales, from micro-organism to macro-management of land.
A quick straw poll of some representative members has identified their priorities for the future:
- Carbon farming and carbon capture
- Diversification – interest in alternative crops such as legumes to offer plant-based protein, hemp for fibre and pharmaceuticals
- Sustainability and soil health
- Applying a systems approach to crop management
- Improving safety
- Achieving net zero
- Response to the Environment Bill, Agricultural Bill and Trade Bill
This next generation of tools must be user-centric and automate the capture the inputs that are needed for monitoring, measuring and managing.