The UK is investing in a pioneering £160m initiative to boost farming productivity and food exports with a specialist team of “matchmakers” whose aim is to encourage the use of innovative cross-over technologies from other sectors.
Government-funded agencies, already investing more than £450m a year in UK agriculture research, last summer earmarked an additional £160m to boost farming growth by harnessing breakthroughs in many related areas such as nutrition, informatics, satellite imaging, remote sensing, meteorology and the so-called “precision farming”.
The vision of the new strategy, says Janet Bainbridge, Head of Agricultural Technology at UK Trade & Investment, “is for the UK to grow as a world leader in agricultural technology, innovation and sustainability”.
The Agricultural Technologies Strategy has two objectives: first, to invest in cross-sector technologies that will strengthen the productive efficiency of UK farmers in exploiting a growing export demand for British food; and second, to reduce environmental impact and resource use as regulations governing the deployment of chemicals become increasingly restrictive.
The Strategy’s measures include:
• World-class: £90m to fund the creation of world-class Centres for Agricultural Innovation with additional investment from industry. This includes up to £10m for a Centre for Agricultural Informatics and Metrics of Sustainability using data from farms, laboratories and retailers to drive innovation right across the food and farming supply chain.
• Innovation: £70m to fund an Agri-Tech Catalyst initiative to help commercialise UK agricultural innovation. Co-funded with industry, the Catalyst will specifically support small and medium sized enterprises. The investment includes £10m to boost the transfer of technology and new products to developing countries.
• Leadership: the creation of an industry Leadership Council “to unify the agriculture technology sector and make the UK more internationally competitive”. This includes the launch of Bainbridge’s Agri-Tech team to boost exports and overseas investment in the UK’s agricultural technologies.
“Our strategy responds to a clear global demographic challenge,” says Bainbridge. “With an increasing and ageing population, the key question is how we’ll be able to feed the world in 2050 and beyond. And it responds to a parallel environmental challenge: climate change is having an obvious impact on the supply chain, not least in terms of the need to control newly-emerging diseases.”
The UK already has a strong reputation for agricultural R&D. Norwich Research Park is Europe’s largest single-site specialising in agri-food, health and environmental sciences. Its John Innes Centre is internationally recognised for its research on plant science and microbiology, contributing £170m-plus annually to the UK economy, according to 2013’s Brookdale Consulting analysis.
Bainbridge is excited by the growing opportunities to exploit countless “cross-over” technologies not traditionally considered by farmers. In aquaculture, for example, companies growing salmon, bass and shellfish in tanks, are faced with the disposal of the debris and dirty water from these tanks. One solution, she says, lies in hydroponics – using “vertical agriculture” structures to grow plants in the nutrients of the fish-tank waste and cleansing the water in the process.
“In more conventional hydroponics we’re getting six crops of green beans a year in the UK using vertical agriculture,” she says. Uncovered, bean crops grown in the traditional manner would yield one or two harvests annually.
She sees other opportunities to bring together divergent sectors, helping companies working in such arenas as satellite imagery, electronic sensor technology or data management to spot potential for their products in agri-tech markets.
“Sustainable agriculture means getting smart about how and where we use chemicals,” says Bainbridge. “A farmer with concentrations of weeds in a field won’t need to spray indiscriminately in future. Satellite technology will advance precision agriculture to pinpoint patches of weeds and direct a robotic spreader to apply the minimum herbicide for maximum effect.”
Another example, from the developing world, is a solution to the problem of rats chewing through vital irrigation pipes. Working with a Japanese manufacturer of polymers, UK scientists have helped develop a hosepipe trickle irrigation system with rodenticide engineered into the polymer.
“I'm really excited about talking to people who we wouldn't normally consider themselves to be part of the agriculture supply chain,” adds Bainbridge. “Our team is made up of specialists in crop production, animal health, precision agriculture, trade and other areas. We’re talking to companies outside agriculture, introducing them to the idea of research capability and investment opportunities.”