Farming today: microchipped slugs and high-tech drones

There’s a barley field in Shropshire where the crop has been cultivated using robots and drones, without a human setting foot in the field. This is an exemplar for the future of farming but it also represents an important test for the government’s industrial strategy. If the UK can replicate the key elements that made the world-first ‘Hands Free Hectare’ project a success, it could help us achieve an important national goal.

The industrial strategy is not short on ambition for agri-technologies, which will form part of the grand challenge of achieving ‘clean growth’. A focus on producing more from less, and an eye on keeping UK agriculture sustainable when the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) is replaced, has inspired the objective to, ‘put the UK at the forefront of the global move to high-efficiency agriculture’.

The resulting Transforming food production: from farm to fork programme, with funding via the industrial strategy, will have an emphasis on precision technologies to increase crop yields, protect the environment, further improve farm animal welfare and reduce food waste. It means that the industry will need highly skilled people to manage rapid technological change and to address a shift to a farming system based as much on digital infrastructure as manual labour.

A new Food & Drink Sector Council is also proposed, to forge a partnership between government and businesses across the agri-food chain, and to lead the development of a food and drink sector deal.

All of this represents a welcome focus on the agri-food industry, which plays a huge role in the national economy, contributing £110bn GVA and accounting for one in every eight employed people in the UK, according to official reports.

So what must we do to achieve the industrial strategy ambitions? Three actions are key.

Championing, valuing and investing in applied research

In his recent book, ‘A University Education’, David Willetts explains how since the 1980s the demise of agricultural public sector research establishments was a prime example of how research and development policy took a wrong turn. These bodies, coupled with university research efforts, provided a vital final stage of an R&D pipeline able to ‘transmit the results of research to thousands of farmers’, allowing efficient and innovative agriculture to thrive.

While other countries maintained a strong focus on the translation of research into agricultural practice it was left, in the UK, to a few independent research organisations, and universities adept at applied research, to support this vital sector.

To rectify the imbalance, Willetts established an ambitious agri-technology strategy, based, in part, on the ground-breaking work of the 2011 Foresight Panel on Global Food Security.

Launched in 2013, the strategy led to a wide-ranging applied research programme and, in 2015/16, the creation of four centres for innovation, in crop health and protection, livestock production, agri-informatics, and engineering and precision farming. Operated by consortia of member businesses and universities, the centres are beginning to act as a focus for translational research activities to help boost agricultural productivity.

A goal of the industrial strategy is to see the UK become a leading player in the next agricultural revolution. But to do this we have to ‘join-up’ our efforts to continue to support the emerging agri-technology sector. By working with the four centres for innovation, which will provide the means to connect the research base to industry, and harnessing the new ‘Transforming food production’ programme, there will be much to be gained from research collaboration that will bridge the gap between basic and applied research in our food production systems.

In applied agri-tech research, the UK can, and must, lead the way.

Engaging SMEs

The agri-food industry is highly fragmented, with a range of large companies but also many SMEs, spread thinly across the rural economy. The industrial strategy concepts of places, business environment and infrastructure, will need to be flexible enough to work in concert with the dispersed nature of the industry, and future agricultural support mechanisms, to deliver anticipated productivity gains in agricultural yields as well as new international markets for UK produce and greater profitability in primary food production.

The rewards could be significant. The application of data analytics, coupled with smart machinery able to better target fertilisers and herbicides at individual plant level, will allow us to tackle stalling crop yields and improve soil health. Data collection from an array of sensors, combined with a greater understanding of animal behaviour, is already leading to a new appreciation of how farm livestock respond to their environment and better ways to manage their health and welfare.

The Hands-Free Hectare project, backed by Innovate UK, and run by Harper Adams and Yorkshire-based SME, Precision Decisions, provides another good example. This collaboration generated ground-breaking agricultural system research, which has already attracted the attention of researchers and businesses in the USA, Canada, China and India, and has been covered in news articles in over 60 countries.

The new sector council will have a critical role in engaging agri-tech SMEs and start-ups. It will also need to consider how the whole food chain can work together to identify and implement technological advances that will be beneficial to primary food producers, cost effective and acceptable to consumers

The sector council should therefore seek out university expertise in social sciences to provide independent assessments of the benefits, and costs, of technological innovations in our food production systems.

Reimagining farming

At Harper Adams, we are microchipping slugs. Our entomologists aim to understand how these crop pests behave, above and below the ground, so that preventative measures can be better targeted. Already, farm machinery uses sophisticated data collection and analysis systems, while agricultural drones have evolved to be able to undertake field tasks, not just take images.

But the application of high-tech systems such as these is far from the public perception of agriculture. Imagine the future of cutting-edge digital technologies and you probably think of self-driving cars, or companion robots that can help around the house, rather than modern farming practices.

There is a critical role here for higher education in raising awareness of the challenges we all face in meeting the nation’s future food requirements, and the wide range of careers that this will offer future graduates.

Some of these roles will be new – involving skills in areas such as information science and mathematics – and nothing like the stereotypical image of farming often portrayed in the media.

It is vital that the industrial strategy focus on STEM subjects and technical education is able to reflect the rapidly changing nature of food production. The agri-food industry will also have to work hard to appeal to a new cadre of ‘smart agriculture’ specialists, who can work with the farming sector to help deliver technological innovations.

The agri-food industry has already welcomed the recognition given in the industrial strategy to food production, and how this can be better managed in the future to help protect our environment. The Cabinet reshuffle left in post the architect of that strategy, Greg Clark, and the Environment Secretary, Michael Gove, who advocated the adoption of new technologies in food production at a recent Oxford Farming Conference. 

This is a moment where the industry, and Government, understand that with our departure from the EU we have to reimagine farming. Universities, through their research and education, will have an important role to play in that task, and the industrial strategy must provide the means to achieve it.

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