This was another of the events held on line by the Thames Valley branch of the Institute of Agricultural Management (IAGRM) over the last year or so, with this time our guest speaker being Belinda Clarke, the CEO of Agri Tech E. Belinda gave us a wide ranging talk on the current and future role of agri tech in the UK and international faming and food sector - before engaging in a lively and open Q & A session.
We couldn’t have had a better speaker on this subject. The organisation Belinda heads up is a membership organisation, supporting the growth of a world leading network of innovative farmers, producers, scientists, technologists and entrepreneurs - who all share a vision of increasing the productivity, profitability and sustainability of agriculture.
As well as being CEO of Agri – Tech E, Belinda is also a Trustee of the Royal Norfolk Agricultural Association and a Non-Executive Director of Agrimetrics, one of the UK’s 4 Agri-Tech Centres.
Agri tech applications have been seen in the use of drones, precision based livestock farming, the use of so called “Big Data”, robotics, “smart farms” – but there is much more to it than just this, it seems…….
Belinda covered a staggering amount of ground in the hour or so that this session lasted – it would be impossible to mention everything she touched on, but some of the most interesting points (to me anyway!) seemed to be:
- the whole term of “agri tech” can on its own be a bit misleading. It covers both traditional farming technology in areas such as seeds, machinery and other agri inputs, but the sector is now looking to bring in expertise from other industries. These include mining, the maritime sector, construction, AI, robotics and the use of remote based systems to act as an enabling technology - all with the aim of making farming more productive, sustainable and ultimately, profitable
- agri tech has potentially huge applications in both crop and livestock farming - in the livestock sector, much of this will revolve around better animal welfare and nutrition, as well as the development of alternative proteins and the reduction of carbon emissions
- in crop production, agri tech will manifest itself in the form of advanced plant breeding, “smart” irrigation, the use of drones, vertical farming, the increased use of hydroponics and the development of robotics for harvesting and the use of smaller machinery
- these are all very pertinent to the UK farming sector, but also apply internationally too: in regions such as Africa and Asia, there has been the phenomenon of “technology leap frogging” and the use of smart phones has seen farmers being able to access finance, agronomic advice and blockchain technology (amongst others) – a real game changer
- the UK has a strong agri tech offer - and punches above its weight on an international basis, but we still need to capture more value from the numerous innovative ideas/interesting projects being run in the UK
- the influx of investment into agri tech is often driven by the desire of investors to support “green and clean growth”. We need to ensure that there is a strong pipeline of potential investments for these “hungry investors” over the next 5 years and more. This pipeline has, though, strengthened considerably in the last few years
- the UK government is supportive of the agri tech sector per se with numerous funding sources available, such as the development of the Agri Tech Centres, the Industrial Challenge Fund and a major agri-food programme in Kent and Medway via the Strength in Places Fund . The role of technology and innovation is at the heart of government strategy
- Brexit and COVID have both acted as an accelerator of the agri tech sector. There is a huge amount at that agri tech can offer in areas such as mitigating against climate change, food security, the move to a net zero carbon economy, increased productivity of farming etc.
- there is a need to still increase the interaction between farmers and the R & D sector and Agri - Tech - E has a raft of programmes in place to encourage this - not least paying attention to the role of the Next Generation who are coming in to farming
This was a fast flowing evening. Belinda covered so much ground in an impressive manner. We were fortunate that she could join us in what is her own very busy schedule.
No one who attended this event cannot have gone away better informed as to what the future role of agri tech is going to be. And with us all being involved in the management of farms in some way, through our involvement with the IAGRM, that is surely what we need to be going forward: well informed.
As Belinda herself concluded: “there is on one single technology out there, no magic silver bullet to solve all our challenges, but agri tech has so much to offer”. Thanks for joining us Belinda. We loved having you as our guest for the evening.
John is a Divisional Director at Promar International, the value chain consulting arm of Genus plc. He sits on the National Council of the IAGRM and is involved in the Thames Valley Branch of the same.
This isn’t an agri-tech fund as such – but there is a big agri-tech project which has been funded out of it.