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The Role of Agritech

As arguably the oldest industry in human history, it’s a little surprising to see how forcefully agriculture is still driven by innovation. The global population is heading toward 10 billion within just a few decades, and the sheer mathematics of that continual growth is behind much of the pressure building on Agritech to offer new products, processes and – perhaps most importantly – new thinking.

Sustainability is the key – and we’re talking about more than just the environment here. The amount of farmland we have to work with is finite, as are most of the resources we’re consuming to farm it. Agriculture is leaning into new technologies, whether that means putting drones in the fields or developing software built to handle Big Data. Those tools are allowing us to do more with less waste, leaving a shallower footprint in terms of energy consumed and environmental damage done. At the same time, Agritech is tackling tough and critical challenges from poverty to starvation, pulling some of the world’s most vulnerable people and communities back from the brink.

To keep the all-important innovation flowing, we have to build the sustainability of the businesses putting all that work in. The National Farmers’ Union supports a goal of a “net zero carbon” agriculture industry by 2040. That’s an ambitious target, and no single measure is going to get us there. Moreover, it’s not the only goal we’re pushing toward. Climate change becomes a more urgent concern with every passing year, and Agritech is adjusting its focus accordingly. It’s not enough to hope the worst of the damage can be avoided. Now we have to find ways to live with the damage that’s already too late to prevent.

Innovations to watch

From commercially produced bee populations boosting fruit yields and weight by as much as 30% to hydroponic and vertical farming techniques expanding our understanding of what “farmland” even looks like, Agritech innovation is moving us toward a more productive, sustainable, and profitable agriculture industry.

Examples of what can be accomplished are numerous and inspiring. Just to pick out a few intriguing examples, PBD Biotech was recently shortlisted in the British Farming Awards’ Agri-Tech Innovator of the Year category. Its work on new rapid test, Actiphage, has serious potential in the fight to wipe out bovine tuberculosis and Johne’s Disease. Meanwhile, developments like Cambond’s carbon-neutral adhesive made from brewing waste and Agrigrub’s animal feed derived from black soldier fly larvae are showing exactly what can be accomplished when the conditions for innovation are there.

What’s being done to encourage innovation?

One of the key challenges of Agritech is that it can take a long time for innovation to bear fruit, whether figuratively or literally. From monitoring technologies to gauge the acidity of soil to field sensors reporting real-time data on light conditions and rainfall, Agritech is innovating toward an increasingly agile sector, capable of on-the-spot assessments and adjustments. Even so, innovation carries risk, and that risk needs to be measured and managed for the industry to sustain itself.

 The 2021 AgriTech Hackathon has set its sights on showcasing developments in autonomous farming vehicles. This relatively new field of “safe-tech” will only increase in importance with time, with the security of crops, workforces and livestock to consider. The Hackathon is about pooling ideas and discoveries from a range of disciplines, including robotics, machine learning and even Artificial Intelligence. As always, it’s vital to understand that innovation only works when ideas are shared.

Sharing knowledge is also at the heart of Soham’s £1.25 million Agritech hub, which first opened in 2015. Run by Cambridge’s National Institute of Agricultural Botany, it specialises in supporting start-ups and SMEs focused on reducing and repurposing waste in the sector. At the same time, it forges close ties with the local farming community to ensure that the spotlight remains fixed on practical solutions to real-world problems.

On the 8th and 9th of March 2022, the National Agriculture and Exhibition Centre will be hosting the Low Carbon Agriculture Show. The event will highlight the importance of innovation and sustainability in agriculture, with presentations, workshops and demonstrations covering renewable power, eco-friendly vehicles and other vital topics. The overall point is to help the sector make the most of new developments, through practical guidance and expert advice.

Beyond running events and supporting start-ups, there have been calls for a new approach to Agritech regulation. An obstacle faced by many innovators in agriculture is the lack of a common understanding and “language” of Agritech. Testing and validation of claims can only be effectively managed through broadly accepted testing and measurement methods. In relatively new fields like “nutraceuticals”, that common understanding is still developing. As MP George Freeman describes it in an interview with Food Manufacture, the UK’s nutraceutical sector has vast potential, but the regulatory framework surrounding it is lagging severely behind. Fixing this “patchiness” would mean seizing a tremendous opportunity to boost Agritech innovation.

Growing Businesses as Well as Crops

Agritech is innovation in its purest, most essential form. By creating the climate for a more plentiful, sustainable, and profitable agriculture sector, we’re literally sowing the seeds of our own survival.

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