From grass roots to blue skies: a vision for agri-tech

Posted on: 27/09/2017

Agri-Tech East has launched a report identifying a number of levers where agricultural productivity, sustainability and profitability can be improved.

A vision for agri-tech that will help underpin a profitable and sustainable industry was presented by Agri-Tech East at the House of Lords last week (19th September 2017).

Agri-Tech East is an independent membership organisation that brings together farmers with scientists, technologists and investors to bring fresh thinking and new expertise to the challenges of production and land management.

In just three years it has stimulated a number of initiatives that have enabled innovative producers to meet non-traditional players and collaborate in new ways. This experience is captured in its new report: “From Grass Roots to Blue Skies: a vision for agri-tech”.

Dr Belinda Clarke, Director of Agri-Tech East, says: “We are concentrating on what works well, perhaps in other industry sectors or geographies, and seeing how it can be applied by some of the UK’s most skilled farmers.”

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The results have included projects such as: improving forecasting of demand for lettuces to reduce waste and release resources for alternative crops; the development of a digital platform that makes data from multiple sources, including international markets, accessible to farmers; alternative methods for storage of potatoes that overcomes the withdrawal of current treatments.

Dr Clarke continues: “Our approach is to put the person with an intractable problem in contact with people that might have solutions. The key is to help all parties frame their challenges in a way that the others can appreciate.

“Farming is actually a complex business. By encouraging people with different perspectives to participate in workshops and networking events as a community we have been able to identify where innovation is needed.”

This grass roots approach has been welcomed by John Shropshire, who runs a family farm, and is a Director of G’s Growers, based at Soham on the Fens, one of the largest producers of salad and vegetable crops in Europe.

He says: “Across the UK, the yield and quality of crops varies greatly between farms, but even within an individual field or crop there is quite a lot of scope to improve efficiency. New technologies will enable us to do that.

“For example, the demand for iceberg lettuce is 24/7 and we overgrow by 30 percent to make sure we have enough. Agri-Tech East introduced us to an ecologist at Microsoft to look at new ways to solve the problem. Sophisticated monitoring technology has allowed us to identify key growth stages in the lettuce and also to collate data on weather and microclimate. We are now able to predict demand better than the retailers and to adjust our production schedules to mitigate against potential shortfalls, reducing waste.”

The agri-tech cluster, nurtured by Agri-Tech East, has also fast-tracked the growth of early-stage companies including spinouts from research institutes in the region. It is also attracting members from overseas.

Dr Clarke concludes: “UK farm output has stagnated for 30 years as technology has allowed us to do more with fewer people. Now there is a huge opportunity to look at production and land management from a different perspective and introduce new business models and technologies that will improve productivity in a sustainable way.

“Good science is vital to understand the big questions. Innovation is needed to solve today’s challenges and this can come from unexpected places.”

The report can be read here.

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