REAP Conference 2024 registration is open
Book tickets, feature in the technology exhibition or apply for a REAP bursary - available for farmers and those in full-time agriculture-related study

National Food Strategy highlights agri-tech as facilitator

Agri-TechE Blog

The much-anticipated UK National Food Strategy has landed, and beyond the headline-grabbing proposals of sugar and salt taxes, there is considerable content in the strategy that is beneficial to farmers and innovators.
Here we take a deeper dive into the prospects for our members and the wider network, taking in robotics, 3D printing, insect proteins and more.
The aim of the National Food Strategy is to set out a vision for a future food system that addresses environmental and health challenges, ensures the security of our food supply, and maximises the benefits of technology, with a plan for how to achieve that vision.
First of all, it’s worth saying that the report’s recommendations are just that – they aren’t set in stone (yet). Over the next six months, the Government will develop a Food Strategy White Paper informed by this independent review, the wider stakeholder community and other evidence. This is a tight timescale considering the complexity of some of the recommendations, and the implications for their implementation.

The strategy recommends several novel policies, including:

  • The world’s first sugar and salt tax – to disincentivise production and consumption of products that drive obesity and also to create a revenue stream for funding positive improvements to the food system.
  • A Land Use Framework aimed at supporting net zero ambitions by using land wisely. It makes the point that if the government is asking farmers to change they way they work for public good they need to be properly recompensed and protected from unfair competition.
  • £500m Innovation Fund for a ‘better food system’ – this looks beyond innovative ‘high technology’ and also includes ‘low tech’ such as changes in cultivation including regenerative farming.
  • Clarification of trade policy and food standards including laying out what those standards are and creating a mechanisms to enforce them.

A suggestion that provides additional complexity is the call for more joined-up systems thinking and that all Government departments with an interest in food, agriculture and health collaborate around a shared agenda and direction of travel.
This is notoriously challenging – it is nearly 10 years since three Departments jointly published the national Agri-Tech Strategy, but this has been beneficial, driving the development of many agri-tech innovations.

The role of innovation

Henry Dimbleby, the report’s author, has recommended an ambitious package worth £1.03bn, encompassing new funding for innovations into healthy and sustainable diets. He comments: “We cannot make lasting changes to the food system without innovation in its widest sense.”
Within this innovation strategy he highlights:
Data collation, visualisation and management – proposing the creation of National Food System Data programme. Many of our members are leading the way in this sector
Farmer-led innovation – recognising the role of people on the ground trying out new ideas.  This includes initiatives like the digestate project being pioneered with Innovative Farmers.
New food production systems – more research into alternative proteins and new types of cultivation systems including vertical farming.
Innovation in livestock production – including methane reduction. Although the report advocates reducing meat consumption there are still significant improvements to come from animal breeding, genome editing, tackling livestock diseases, new feed additives, new probiotics, and new feed sources, all of which will drive livestock farming towards Net Zero.
Other emerging technologies which the report recommends embracing include gene editing, synthetic food production and nanotechnology. The internet of things (IoT), robotics and sensors, 3D food printing and artificial intelligence also have a key role to play, according to the report.
Crucially, it also advocates ensuring long-standing agro-ecological approaches are also supported, alongside newer, “high-tech” solutions.

Fresh produce a big enabler for a healthy population

But the big star of the report is fresh produce. As the British Medical Association observes, the evidence suggests that as poorer families’ income goes up, they spend more on fruits, vegetables, and other healthy foods, while alcohol and tobacco expenditure decreases.
Increasing fruit and vegetable consumption – and therefore production – runs throughout the recommendations. Offering a great opportunity for UK growers, and one which no doubt will please many of our fruit (Berry Garden Growers, Bardsley England), vegetable (such as Allpress Farms, Frederick Hiam and others) and salad producers (such as G’s Fresh) and all those across the value chain including breeders (such as Elsoms and NIAB) and those doing primary processing, labelling and packaging and the wider systems management (for example, Consus Fresh).

Counting the cost and benefit

It’s heartening to see the report authors have attributed figures – costs and return on investment – to their proposals. With a far-reaching look across the agri-food chain, encompassing school meals, extending support for farmers to transition into the post-Brexit world, changes to procurement of food by the public sector, the government can be in no doubt this is an ambitious plan, and not without considerable costs.
But the size of the prize – the true integration of the “system” is significant and potentially impacts everyone in the UK.

Maintaining standards 

Threatening to undermine the success of the strategy, and indeed the very integrity of our food environment in the UK, are future trade deals following Brexit. As this report acknowledges, it is vital that any future trade deal does not mean a compromise on key areas such as food standards, labelling, sugar content, pesticides and antibiotics in foods, and the transparency of deals themselves. The protection of our children’s health should be a clear priority here.

Exciting potential 

The recommendations advocate the largest overhaul of the UK agri-food system since the Second World War. The report tackles complex scientific, socio-economic, political, commercial and behavioural issues. Solving them requires multi-actor collaborations and significant investment, as well as an understanding of the existing activities underway to ensure there is no throwing out of babies with any bathwater.
We await developments with interest.
The report – UK National Food Strategy – can be read here.