Accelerating AgriTech adoption in the UK
The Agriculture sector is often seen as slow in adopting new technologies.
With all the challenges currently facing the British food system (e.g. the recent substantial increases in prices of inputs such as fertilisers, labour shortages, reduced number of crop protection active ingredients etc.) this can be worrying. AgriTech may unlock the key to some, if not all, of those challenges, but without adoption, the industry will fall short in realising the potential that innovation can bring.
In October 2022, Innovate UK KTN brought together 28 members of its Animal and Plant Sector Advisory Boards, to understand the views of different stakeholders on what the barriers to adoption of AgriTech are and how they might be addressed. The board members are a mix of academics and representatives from multinational agribusinesses and agriculture SMEs. This in-person meeting was held at Newcastle University’s Cockle Park Research Farm. During the workshop we asked what end-users (farmers/producers), tech developers and funders are doing well, and what they could do better to improve adoption. By understanding the barriers and opportunities to accelerate technology adoption, we can inform innovators, funders, and policy makers as well as promote developments and future activity in this important area.
Barriers to AgriTech adoption
According to our board members the main barriers to adoption of AgriTech are:
- Lack of awareness of the available technology due to poor dissemination by technology developers and researchers.
- Lack of training on how to use new technology and its application on individual farms.
- Risk aversion when trying new technologies or simply having ‘innovation fatigue’ and being unsure which innovation out of a wide range of new products to put their time and money into.
- Scaling up of the technology. A product that has worked well among a few early adopters may not be suited to a more reactive mass market.
- Legislation and regulation may block users in the UK to use tech developed in other parts of the world.
- Difficulty in calculating Return on Investment (ROI), making it difficult for end users to understand the benefits of certain technologies to their business, which limits their willingness to invest.
Measures to overcome barriers to adoption
A series of measures to overcome these barriers have been identified and are described below.
Communication was shown to be one of the key ways in which adoption of AgriTech can be improved. Three-way communication between the funders, tech developers and end users (farmers, and other users of technology in AgriFood supply chains) would lead to effective early-stage planning/development and more joined up outcomes for both individual projects and whole funding schemes.
- Tech developers should communicate with farmers and other end users right from the start of their tech development ‘journey’. By getting the end users on board early (ideally at the design phase) and being ‘industry-led’ from the start, developers will be able to think about the benefits of the end product rather than just about its features. This will also give them a greater understanding of their market.
- Funders need to communicate more with both developers and end users. This should take place at the initial design phase of the application process and particularly in relation to the scope of any funding calls, where their input will make it more feasible for farm-led innovation.
- Farmers and other end users could provide key data (following appropriate data use agreements being in place) to help innovators understand the use and application needs (e.g., farm size, resources available, user requirements and limitations, seasonal variations etc). One suggestion to improve how farmers communicate with tech developers was to involve social scientists in projects to provide information on any psychological or cultural barriers that exist which would make the adoption of innovation difficult.
New technology that is implemented on farms will, more than likely, require workers to be trained in its use. Depending on the technology, training may need to be provided by the tech developers or external operators, possibly even the provision of an ‘adoption support officer’. If end users have been involved in the co-development of the technology, then training required would be more likely to be minimal as there would already be a certain level of knowledge of the tech.
Risk can be a major barrier to AgriTech adoption for farmers and end-users. Many will feel that risk should be taken by larger companies first and this may deter smaller sized companies or farms from being a part of a project. Funders could be part of the solution when trying to manage risk, by incentivising projects that may ‘fail hard’ but that are taking big risks. By enabling businesses to take risks but giving them the ability to ‘kill or evolve’ the product, they will be taking the risk factor away to a certain extent.
Tech developers need to consider scalability from the outset. One option to consider is getting larger companies on board from the beginning as part of the project consortium. These larger companies will have the capability to enable scale up, although any Intellectual Property (IP) issues will also need to be considered at an early stage.
Legislation and regulation
A number of issues with legislation and regulation can potentially affect the uptake of AgriTech. Collaboration agreements may favour bigger companies with larger legal departments and more experience. Protecting Unique Selling Points and Intellectual Property can be a ‘deal breaker’ for potential new project partners, and this can be a real deterrent, especially to young tech companies and SMEs. Other problems reported include legal and regulatory issues with tech that has been developed overseas but which cannot be adopted in the UK due to regulatory barriers.
Return on investment
End users can be discouraged from adopting new tech as they have no information on ROI. This can be especially true of tech outcomes involving emission reductions, biodiversity, and other public goods. This may be where relevant demonstrations could be done on a local, regional, and national scale to offer end users the opportunity to see the tech in action and to increase knowledge and awareness of any ROI.
This informal discussion between various stakeholders in the Innovate UK KTN’s Advisory boards was very informative. It was great to see that all stakeholders were open to a constructive dialogue to solve AgriTech adoption issues. Communication may therefore be the first and easiest hurdle to overcome.
Funders are now more aware of the need to include farmers/producers/foresters on their funding calls (e.g. DEFRA and Innovate UK Farming Innovation Programme), and the farmer lead Research Starter competition has been very popular.
The AgriFood team is committed to support the AgriTech sector to deliver the positive changes the UK food system needs.
If you are a technology developer, we can help you to find the best partners and funding calls to develop your idea into a successful product/service.
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