Britain was at the head of the revolution which took place in agriculture over the course of the 18th century. It brought to the sector such cutting edge practices as crop rotation as well as new equipment like horse-drawn seed presses and ploughs. These rapidly spread throughout the world. More recently, as the importance of ‘green’ practices came to the forefront periodically, research done on cultivation methods achieved a 100% rise in wheat yields.
That leads us to the present day. Agricultural technology (known as ‘agri-tech’) is a growing industry whose goal is to completely overhaul traditional farming practices with the use of cutting edge technology. The sector is in good health and, worldwide, the UK is regarded as a hub for innovation.
Agritech and associated industries generate around £14 billion for the economy and over half a million people work in the sector. Although Brexit has cast a shadow over what condition UK agriculture will be in once it no longer receives EU subsidies, the government has continued to invest steadily in the sector.
The current state of UK agri-tech investment
The World AgriTech Innovation Summit took place in London in October 2019, focusing on two areas (plants/crops and livestock). The main thrust of discussions is how best to leverage the findings emerging from the UK Agri-Tech Centres and their highly-experienced R&D capabilities and unique facilities accessible from each Centre.
A large chunk of the UK government’s investment has gone into funding these four Agricultural Technology Centres (Agri-Tech Centres):
- Agrimetrics – the centre for big data usage across the agri-food sector.
- Agri-EPI – the centre for precision agriculture and engineering
- CIEL – the centre for innovation and excellence in livestock management
- CHAP – the centre for innovation in crop health and protection
The overarching principles behind these centres are productivity, sustainability, enterprise, and leadership, thus covering both business and farming management. Their activities are taking place against a backdrop of ongoing challenges around climate change and the viability of smaller farming concerns.
The future of agriculture is full of eye-catching inventions. There are smart greenhouses operated solely by sensors. There are geothermal energy and solar cells to provide renewable energy, and when it comes to financing, there is increasing use of blockchain technology for supply chain efficiency.
We mentioned start-up activity and this is a very encouraging trend in the agri-tech industry. Here are three brief examples of these smart start-ups.
Rootwave has produced a method of killing weeds without the use of noxious herbicides. Its handheld device fires an electric pulse at weeds, which ‘boils’ the plant from the roots. This counters the threat noxious chemicals pose to the ecosystem as well as the growing issue of herbicide resistance in many strains of weeds.
Earth Rover has looked to space for inspiration. This small company has developed autonomous farming robots with the same space technology used for exploring Mars. The devices are specifically designed to be simple and robust.
Lettus Grow has a corny name, but this company is developing ground-breaking irrigation and aeroponic technology for indoor vertical farms. Their patent is still pending, but the company claims that crop yields are 70% greater than when using hydroponic (soil-less) growing methods.
Naturally, there is a long list of further developments, such as:
- Robotic tractors using A.I. systems similar to those in driverless cars
- Telematics systems for extracting and analysing data from all areas of the business.
- Vertical farming guidance systems using Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA) technology, with artificial control of gases, humidity, light and temperature.
- Drones for aerial farm, crop and livestock management
All in all, ideas and applications are flowing from laboratory to field and farmhouse. The promise of further investments like the Strategy for Agricultural Technologies (£160 million over the next five years) gives a very strong impression that the UK is taking these disruptive changes in agriculture very seriously indeed.