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Agri-TechE members make connections to the Netherlands around robotics

Agri-TechE

The Netherlands is the second largest exporter of agri-food products worldwide. Innovation and smart technology drive sustainable agricultural production in the Netherlands. 

Between 10-13 July this year, a delegation of Dutch technology companies, knowledge institutions and representatives of the sector and government, visited England to explore possibilities for cooperation in technological innovation for outdoor vegetable and fruit production. 

This Outdoor Hortitech Innovation Mission was organised by The Netherlands Enterprise Agency and the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in the UK in close cooperation with Agri-TechE and the enterprise cluster ‘Growing Kent & Medway’. 

The fruit and vegetable growing industries in the Netherlands and the UK face common challenges: labour shortages, the need to reduce water and chemical use, high input costs, improving biodiversity and managing the impacts of climate change. The Innovation Mission aimed to provide Dutch delegates with an awareness of developments in UK outdoor vegetable and fruit production and to identify opportunities for cooperation in agritech research and innovation.

The delegation visited Agri-TechE member vegetable and fruit growers and an agri-robotics start-up and the University of Essex. Agri-TechE also invited a number of members with specific interests in robotics and automation to a meet & greet session with the Dutch visitors, followed by a tour of NIAB’s facilities.

Delegates met members of Agri-TechE and Growing Kent & Medway, and representatives of the Agri-Tech Centres. The Dutch Embassy hosted a round table meeting to wrap up the Mission, with participants from Growing Kent & Medway, Innovate UK, BBSRC, Defra, and the Agri-TechE.

Opportunities for NL-UK Cooperation 

The Innovation Mission encouraged further dialogue between Dutch and UK stakeholders about cooperation in hortitech innovation focused on automation and precision applications. Participants recognised the commonalities between the UK and Dutch growing industries, such as similar agri-ecological and climatological conditions and disease pressures, as well as the comparable barriers to scaling-up innovations. 

The UK is a key strategic innovation partner for the Netherlands, as digital farming is becoming a reality. A diversity of technology and service providers are already in place, and UK farmers and growers are open to precision agriculture, autonomous weeding robots and other innovative technologies. This offers several opportunities for cooperation. 

Becky Dodds, Director of Communities at Agri-TechE: “Bringing our members together with new connections with common interests is what we do and events like this are exactly what they are looking for.

There is a real sense of openness and willing to work together among the group to improve the resilience of our food systems, and by also ensuring the right decision makers were involved. I think the outcomes of this visit will influence our joint way forward in a very positive and effective way.”

Dr Nikki Harrison, Director at Growing Kent & Medway: “The Dutch innovation mission provided an incredible opportunity for Growing Kent & Medway and our UK network to connect with our North Sea Neighbours. It is clear that collaboration and innovation is crucial to addressing some of the most pressing challenges facing our horticulture and fresh produce sector.

By working together, we can speed up research and innovation to deliver the critical solutions needed to support a healthy and thriving food system,  and create lasting international partnerships and networks for the future resilience of our sector.”

A broader look at the Dutch Agri Strategy

The Dutch Ministry of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality aims to consolidate the Dutch agricultural sectors’ leading international position, strengthen the link between nature and agriculture, and improve the economic situation of farmers. At the heart of Dutch agriculture, innovation plays a vital role in addressing the challenges in the sector. 

The Ministry seeks international partnerships of businesses and knowledge institutions to support the transition towards sustainable and climate-resilient food production. 

The Agriculture Team at the Dutch Embassy in the UK

Representing the Dutch Ministry of Agriculture, Nature and Food Quality (LNV), the Agriculture Team at the Dutch Embassy in the UK is dedicated to further developing the already strong ties between the UK and the Dutch agricultural sectors through organising exchange visits and seminars. The Agricultural Team supports Dutch institutions and businesses interested in forming partnerships and doing business in the UK.

‘Moonshot Approach’ to Innovation needed to address labour shortages

Agri-TechE Article
Agri-TechE

Defra responds to John Shropshire’s Independent Review into Labour Shortages in the Food Supply Chain.

The role of automation and new technology in addressing the issues of labour shortages in the food chain cannot be overstated, according to an independent report produced by a committee chaired by John Shropshire OBE, chairman of G’s Fresh Limited. However, the report warns it is vital not to underestimate the investment required, both in capital and human terms, to realise its potential.

The expert panel concluded that there is a real risk that over-reliance on the promise of technology can deflect attention from the pressing need for immediate, practical actions to address workforce challenges. It also highlighted that the cost of innovative technology is the major barrier to adoption and support is required to help the food chain to make the necessary investments.

Creating a resilient food supply

The recommendations covered recruitment, retention, skills and automation and stressed that the themes are interconnected and should not be viewed in isolation.

John Shropshire in his foreword comments: “Through collaboration and concerted efforts, we can overcome the challenges faced by the industry and create a resilient food supply chain that provides high quality and affordable food for British consumers. I trust that the findings and recommendations presented in this review will serve as a catalyst for meaningful change and support the continued growth and development of the food supply chain.”

John Shropshire
John Shropshire

The report has been presented to the UK Government, which issued a response today (30th June). The Farming Minister Mark Spencer had been at the Agri-TechE Innovation Hub the previous day to see emerging agri-tech aimed at improving productivity.

He says in a statement: “We’re supporting the sector to harness new opportunities through funding for the development of automatic and robotic technologies on farms, as part of our wider £270 million Farming Innovation Programme.

“Automation and robotics has huge potential to improve productivity and sustainability and by supporting some of the most promising ideas to get off the ground we are investing in a successful agriculture and horticulture industry for generations to come.”

Mark Spencer MP with BBRO
Mark Spencer MP (second right) with Belinda Clarke, Director of Agri-TechE (middle) and Mark Stevens, Simon Bowen and Vicky Foster of BBRO in the Innovation Hub at the 2023 Royal Norfolk Show.

Moonshot approach is needed to accelerate innovation

Much of the technology that could reduce reliance on workers in the food supply chain is not yet commercially available. There needs to be a moonshot approach to innovation funding to help accelerate the development of new technologies. Recommendations of the report include:

  • The need for a coordinated, cross-industry approach to knowledge-sharing and promoting the adoption of automation which eliminates existing barriers and simplifies access to new technologies.
  • To create a more joined-up approach to food supply chain automation across government departments.
  • The Food and Drink Sector Council (FDSC) should act as the initial forum to establish the best way of bringing this project to life.
  • Collaboration is needed between the government, industry, universities and research funding bodies to:
    • identify opportunities for new technologies
    • provide new revenue streams to target specific innovation solutions
    • support the wider adoption of automation to improve food production
    • resolve longer-term aspects of labour shortages
    • help achieve net zero ambitions.
  • The FDSC should lead in convening the key stakeholders and driving this forward
FOTENIX shows their tech to ITV in the Innovation Hub at the 2023 Royal Norfolk Show.
FOTENIX shows their tech to ITV in the Innovation Hub at the 2023 Royal Norfolk Show.

Read the report

The full report can be accessed here: Independent Review into Labour Shortages in the Food Supply Chain

Transformational automation – agri-robotics gaining traction

Agri-TechE Blog
Agri-TechE

Agri-robotics and automation are potentially transformational to help improve efficiency and safety and help tackle the widespread issues around labour in the industry. But what is still needed to help the UK’s innovation pipeline realise its full potential and become routinely deployed in commercial settings? And, crucially, by when?

A new report into robotics and automation in horticulture has recently been published by Defra.

per plant weeding with agri-robotics
Ben Scott-Robinson, CEO and co-founder, Small Robot Company with the ‘Dick’ non-chemical weeding prototype:

Led by Prof Simon Pearson from the University of Lincoln, with contributions from across the industry, the review outlines the journey to widespread adoption and exploitation of these technologies across horticulture.

The report has helped whet our appetite for our Member Exclusive event in September where we’ll be hosted by the senior innovation team at G’s Fresh to network, learn and compete in the Agri-TechE Salad Rig Challenge – more of which later.

UK agri-robotics in the field

The good new is that the UK’s agricultural robotics expertise is emerging and vibrant. In the Agri-TechE network we have companies such as Small Robot Company, Muddy Machines and Antobot that are developing commercial services and working with farmers in the field.

You may also remember Dogtooth Robotics and Crop Hopper from the REAP conference Start-Up Showcases in 2016 and 2019 respectively.

Many of the companies have been successful in raising finance from eager investors (indeed Muddy Machines has just closed a major round led by Regenerate Ventures). The potential for return on investment is likely to be greatest where the cost of automation is low, or the crops are high value.

Obstacles for wide scale adoption

The more sobering news is that more time is needed to get some of these solutions into widespread commercial adoption.  The review calls for efforts to develop the future training and skills pipeline to address issues such as the lack of skills to help maintain and manage the machines.

Other recommendations include:

  • Focussed effort around robotic crop harvesting solutions
  • Review of the funding available to support agricultural automation
  • Creation of a cross-industry consortium to accelerate knowledge transfer, enhance collaboration and improve adoption on farms
  • Convening a working group to consider and share best practice
  • Better representation of those involved in agricultural robotics on working groups associated with wider regulation across the industry.

None of this will be fast – in fact it is likely to be 2030 before much of this is impacting on farms.

agri-robotics and automation from Schneider Electric
Louise Liddiard, Schneider Electric, talks automation at the Innovation Hub

But in the shorter-term, the review advocates a Long-Term Seasonal Workers Scheme to help farm businesses secure the necessary human labour in the edible and ornamental horticulture sectors as we transition into a more widespread use of automation.

As Louise Liddiard, Head of Marketing at Schneider Electric, reflected: “The use of robotics and automation within the horticulture industry, can help overcome current labour and sustainability challenges. This could be as simple as sensors for environmental monitoring to Delta Robots for efficient pick and packing processes. The key is to utilise the next generation of automation to accelerate growth while reducing the waste of produce and energy.”

G’s Fresh discusses the harvesting challenge 

The need for greater automation in lettuce harvesting is discussed by Anthony Gardiner, G’s Fresh in an interview ahead of our Member Exclusive event on 13th September, where there will an opportunity for an immersive experience on the rig and to walk a mile (or maybe less!) in the shoes of a business heavily reliant on human labour.

Expect discussions around the future of the industry, the route of adoption of new technology, innovation pathways for farm businesses and even some insights into conservation agriculture. Places are free to members, but are limited so book here now to secure your place.

John Shropshire to head up Independent Review Into Labour Shortages

Agri-TechE

George Freeman MP, Belinda Clarke, Lord Sainsbury of Turville, John Shropshire WEB
George Freeman MP, Belinda Clarke, Lord Sainsbury of Turville, and John Shropshire launching Agri-TechE’s ‘From Grass Roots to Blue Skies’ report at the House of Lords in 2017

Agricultural veteran John Shropshire OBE has been selected to chair an Independent Review Into Labour Shortages in the Food Supply Chain. John is Executive Chairman of the G’s Fresh Group, a major horticulture producer.

He will be supported by an expert panel that draws in expertise from across the farming, fisheries, processing and manufacturing aspects of the supply chain.

John comments: “Our farming and food supply sectors are facing multiple challenges, and labour shortages are contributing to this. This review will help us understand how we can address labour shortages and boost productivity in the food supply chain.

“I’ve worked in the horticulture industry for many years and, along with the panel of experts supporting the review, I hope we can make some clear recommendations that will have a long-term impact on reducing pressure on farmers and increasing food security.”

G’s Fresh Group was founded by Guy Shropshire, John’s father, and it has won several national industry awards recognising its progress in technical and product innovation, exports and environmental management.

Improving productivity in agriculture

G’s was one of the early members of Agri-TechE and John helped to launch its report ‘From Grass Roots to Blue Skies: a vision for agri-tech’ at the House of Lords in 2017.

The application of machine learning, robotics and automation to agriculture are key themes within the Agri-TechE ecosystem, which is continually looking for innovation to boost productivity and sustainability within the sector.

Agri-TechE Director Dr Belinda Clarke comments: “We very much welcome the independent review into this critical bottleneck for the industry which we hear about constantly from our farmer members.

“From crop harvesting to veterinary supervision in abattoirs, we know that people are the lifeblood of agriculture and horticulture. Of course we hope and expect automation and robotics to play a major role in easing some of the huge demands on human labour, however for an efficient and profitable industry, people and machines will need to work alongside each other.”

Agri-TechE members Muddy Machines and Small Robot Company have recently announced plans for commercial deployment of agri-robotics.

More about G’s Fresh Group.