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From agriculture to agri-tech, what’s in a name?

Agri-TechE Blog

Santa's presentsFather Christmas, Santa Claus, Saint Nicholas, Papa Noel, Babbo Natale, Ded Moroz, Pelznickel, or Kris Kringle. The much-anticipated festive gift-bearer goes by many names across the world.

But what is in a name and why is it important to get it right and in context?

From “agri-tech” to “agriculture,” discussions about definitions might seem like picky word-play, but sometimes there is more to a name than would first appear.

Agri-Tech goes beyond the Holy Trinity of genetics, machinery and ag-chem

One of the questions we are asked most often is about the size, dynamic, opportunities and challenges of the “agri-tech sector” in the UK.

A tricky one to answer, as agri-tech is actually a glorious collection of tech from a range of sectors, including the traditional “Holy Trinity” of genetics, machinery and ag-chem, but increasingly supplemented by tech from sectors such as defence, telecoms, automotive and others.

Agri-TechE’s membership is increasingly reflecting this diversity and heterogeneity – recognising that the Holy Trinity is likely to still underpin future innovation, but increasingly technologies enabling earth observation insights, robotics and automation, and on-farm connectivity solutions are being deployed routinely.

Santa's hat

Many of the companies with whom we work would hesitate to describe themselves as “agri-tech companies” – yet they are actively working with farmers and are developing or implementing effective innovations which are already making a difference to productivity, efficiency, safety or sustainability.

What’s in a name?

So why does this matter? A key factor is helping government – locally and nationally – benchmark the contribution made by different sectors to the economy. This in turn can help inform decisions such as funding support, training and skills needs, or investment into infrastructure.

Yet too often agri-tech is rolled in with “agriculture and horticulture” or – even worse – “food and drink.” Use of classifications such as SIC codes are the usual way for government to classify the economic activities of a business or region, yet increasingly fail to reflect the various sectors to which they might be contributing.

So for that reason, at Agri-TechE our definition of “agri-tech” will always be “a collection of enabling technologies underpinning the increased productivity, profitability and sustainability of agriculture and horticulture.”

And we welcome (and indeed need) businesses from any sectors to contribute fresh tech, new thinking, and different ways of working to complement agriculture’s traditional “Holy Trinity”.

When is it agriculture?

Santa Claus

Which brings us to the definition of “agriculture” itself. Historically defined as “the cultivation of soil, producing plants and raising livestock for human use,” more recent demands on the industry to provide natural capital assets are raising questions as to the relevance of this as a sector definition.

More broadly, where does this leave hydroponic or aeroponic vertical farms in the definition? Or fermentation systems using algae? Do insects count as livestock (we would argue yes!) Further, while we might argue that industrial crops such as Miscanthus are in scope, what about production of meats via so-called cellular agriculture?

Does creation of new woodlands, digging ponds, increasing biodiversity on farm technically count in the technical definition of “agriculture?”

For the purposes of legal documents such as farm tenancy agreements, this really matters. There is an argument, currently being aired with government, as to the validity of the historical legal definition of agriculture and whether it is fit-for-purpose for the industry of the 21st Century.

So what’s the impact of the Great Name Debate for our industry – semantic wordsmithing or a ready for a re-think? We’d welcome your views – and Happy Christmas!