How should agri-tech research for fresh produce function in a post-Brexit UK?

One area affected by the uncertainty around Brexit will be the ongoing development of agricultural technology, seen by many as essential to retain Britain's productivity and competitiveness in fresh produce along with other farming sectors.

Image: USDA
Image: USDA

Already this is an area in which Europe risks getting left behind. In the first half of this year, agri-food tech start-ups raised $770m (£585m) of investment, or just over one-sixth of the global total, while the average size of such deals was $1.2m, compared with a global average of $3.1m, according to data from US-based specialist investment adviser AgFunder.

"While overall investment in agrifood tech start-ups in Europe is on the rise, it’s slow going," says Thomas van den Boezem, programme manager at StartLife, a Dutch agri-tech incubator and offshoot from Wageningen University & Research.

The US, which by contrast was responsible for 44% of total funding, "simply has the competitive edge when it comes to square miles of arable land and size of consumer base within one country", he says. "US start-ups follow a well-trodden path from research or idea to commercialisation with the support of well-defined early-stage resources such as government grants, accelerator programmes and incubators."

However, innovation in Europe has been boosted recently by more homegrown investment funds, corporate incubators, accelerators and other resources and Government-sponsored programmes, he adds.

A report in August, Precision Agriculture & the Future of Farming in Europe, was presented to the European Parliament's Agriculture and Rural Affairs Committee by the parliament's Science & Technology Option Assessment body (STOA). It identities four key topics for Europe’s farms:

  1. Food security and safety.
  2. Sustainability.
  3. Social change.
  4. The need for new skills.

But it also acknowledges the diversity of EU agriculture in terms of farm size, methods, output and employment, and says policy measures should differentiate between member states’ "varying opportunities and concerns".

Welcoming the report, West Midlands MEP and member of the STOA panel Anthea McIntyre said technology is the key to sustainability in farming across the EU, for example by using lasers instead of chemicals to tackle weeds.

She praised Harper Adams University in her own constituency for its work on long-term traffic-control farming, which uses precision technology to minimise the impact of machinery on the soil, saying: "We should use EU research funds to create practical on-the-ground solutions, not just blue-sky thinking."

Last month, the Shropshire institution's Hands Free Hectare project — the first in the world to plant, tend and harvest a crop with only autonomous vehicles and drones — completed its first successful harvest of spring barley.

Also last month, a meeting of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Science & Technology in Agriculture, chaired by former Harper Adams student Julian Sturdy MP, focused on post-Brexit innovation in the UK fresh-produce sector, which attendees saw as having the potential to not only increase market share but also to develop export opportunities for research and innovation.

Need for research

British Growers Association chief executive Jack Ward says there has never been a greater need for innovative, industry-facing research and development in the fresh-produce sector to improve efficiency and meet changing consumer demands, pointing out that UK horticulture currently receives a very small proportion of overall agricultural support relative to its economic significance.

Describing the innovative research taking place at East Malling Research, now NIAB EMR, including in the rapidly developing English wine industry, NIAB commercial director Roger Carline said such research organisations are translating rapidly advancing knowledge in genetics, precision engineering and data science into practical innovation for British growers and an export market for UK research expertise.

Fresh-produce industry consultant Dr Ed Moorhouse said that while growers are improving productivity and resource use efficiency through robotics, automation, remote sensing and precision farming, all without high levels of market protection or taxpayer support, Brexit will introduce uncertainties into this, including the potential for trade disruption through diverging standards on issues such as food safety and pesticide approvals.

He added that support for the collaborative research, benchmarking and promotion taken by the UK’s network of producer organisations is "vital" for industry efficiency and development.

Following the meeting, Sturdy said: "The UK’s decision to leave the EU brings an inevitable period of flux and uncertainty over precisely what the future holds for British farmers and growers.

"Today’s meeting has singled out the critical role of technology and innovation in addressing post-Brexit challenges and opportunities within the sector, and the need to rebalance horticulture's share of public sector R&D investment from historically low levels."

Vision for agri-tech

Meanwhile, the Agri-Tech East consortium of East of England researchers and food producers last month published a "vision for agri-tech", which set out a production matrix in which it says a number of "levers" can be used to increase productivity, sustainability and profitability.

Its director Dr Belinda Clarke warns: "There is still a major need for innovation to close the productivity gap, increase farm profitability and enhance sustainable resource management. However, funding the full costs of development of an idea into commercial reality can be prohibitively expensive."

To address this, she says: "There is scope for de-risking adoption of technologies." She called for an "honest broker" for these, analogous to published recommended lists for new crop varieties, or NICE (the National Institute for Health & Care Excellence) within healthcare. This would, she said, "give confidence to farmers and growers about their efficiency, performance and, crucially, their economic benefits".

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How should agri-tech research for fresh produce function in a post-Brexit UK?

One area affected by the uncertainty around Brexit will be the ongoing development of agricultural technology, seen by many as essential to retain Britain's productivity and competitiveness in fresh produce along with other farming sectors.

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