REAP Conference: Farming is at a crossroads
How will agriculture use tech for fourth industrial revolution?
The REAP 2018 Conference took place last week against a backdrop of change as the UK’s system of agriculture, from seed to table, is reconfigured to address new challenges.
How best to make use of technology could be a vital factor in the future viability of an industry that employs half a million people, but government policy – whose competence has not been boosted by recent Brexit dramas – has also been enshrined in the Agriculture Bill now making its journey through the legislative process. The bill requires farmers to develop sustainable land policies just as Brexit, with its inchoate trajectory, threatens instability for the model that has subsidised farming in the UK for decades.
REAP organiser Agri-Tech East, which has 175 core members, aims to introduce fresh thinking into the challenges faced by agriculture and profile the technology, “both near-market and blue-sky”, that is emerging to address those challenges. The tone for the all-day programme began with the unveiling of the prototype of the world’s first digital planting robot for combinable crops. The driverless robot was unveiled by Small Robot Company co-founder Sam Watson-Jones and Agri-Tech East director Belinda Clarke.
“It’s our third robot,” Sam explained after the 9.45am launch. “It’s called Harry – the other two are Tom and Dick. It’s a multi-purpose robot, which is capable of seeding. It offers highly accurate digital planting, with variance and depth based on AI. The robot stores all the information about planting in the field from Wilma, the AI-driven operating system.”
Harry also obliges with non-chemical weeding and micro-spraying.
“Our AI-driven operating system will give farmers a more detailed knowledge of their crop and their land, allowing them to be more efficient and environmentally friendly,” added Sam. “This will entirely change what’s possible on the farm, and how we think about farming.”
The Francis Crick Auditorium at the Wellcome Genome Campus started filling up for the morning’s speakers. Chair of the Agri-Tech East Stakeholder Group, Richard Anscombe, welcomed delegates to the fifth REAP conference.
Reflecting on the last 12 months, he listed “the Beast from the East in February, followed by a very dry summer, continuing uncertainty over Brexit, plus the Agriculture Bill”. In the face of these dynamics, he said, “innovation should be prioritised”.
How to adopt new practices in agriculture was the topic for the keynote speaker, Dr Zhenling Cui, of the China Agricultural University in Beijing. The challenge of food sustainability is one that has historically troubled China’s leadership for generations.
“The dream is to feed China,” said Dr Cui of the challenge facing a country of 1.4 billion people. Of the 200 million farming households in China, 98 per cent cultivate an area of less than two hectares. One of the challenges – and China is not alone in this – is the wholesale migration of people to cities.
“Most younger people are going to the city to find a job so children and older people are running the farms,” Dr Cui told delegates. A decade-long trial involving 21 million Chinese smallholders has shown it is possible to significantly improve crop yields while cutting the use of nitrogen fertiliser by almost a fifth.
Adopting change is a huge task in agriculture and Dr Cui said that of 20.9million smallholder farms “less than 40 per cent have adopted the right practices on specific technologies”. The key for higher yields is now “integrated soil-crop management practice”. The conclusion of the study, which involved 200,000 parties, said Dr Cui, was that to create a level playing field, as it were, “we need a new revolution to raise production”.
Next up, Professor Gerard Parr, head of the School of Computing Sciences of the University of East Anglia, said that “future farms will be small and smart”. Despite the “mind-boggling” range of new hardware and software, “the main skill is domain knowledge which is handed down from generation to generation”.
Prof Parr is concerned about the industry being overwhelmed by data. “All this data is coming at us like a tsunami,” he said, “so you have to decide what is useful.” In the face of uncertainty he wants the industry to “come together and have one voice” using a “collaboration framework”, so for instance creating “Internet of Things test beds... for the benefit of the rest of the UK”.
“We have the capability, the technology and the thirst to do this,” he said.
The first discussion of the day was titled ‘Emerging Agri-Tech’, followed by ‘Accelerating Innovation’, which looked at the first Agri-Tech East hackathon earlier this year to discuss learning points.
The conference’s Start Up Showcase, the first afternoon event, featured eight young agri-tech companies, emerging from under the radar to reveal the next ‘big thing’ that will offer farmers and growers a competitive advantage. I spoke with two of them.
Jacqui Poon, CEO of Farming Data, is based at Allia FBC. Farming Data has a platform which works even on brick mobiles to “enable farmers and buyers to trade directly with each other” in rural parts of South America and Africa.
“We partner with different local organisations, they register, it’s an integrated platform so they can access it by SMS, text-to-voice or by Android app,” says Jacqui.
The organisation’s digital marketplace is being trialed in Colombia: hopefully we’ll report the results in due course.
Cambridge-based FOLIUM Science is leading the way in bioscience technology for the healthy biotic era. CEO Ed Fuchs – the grandson of Antarctic explorer Sir Vivian Fuchs – explains that the company “finds biological solutions for feed and the food supply chain, can focus on animal wellness, controls bacterial colonies and develops solutions to support and maintain healthy animals”.
“The service is a response to not so much a demand as a need,” says Ed. “We just did a proof-of-concept, the next step is product development, and we will be seeking regulator approval in 2023/24.”
The conference closed with a debate: how should we prioritise investment in agri-tech to reap the greatest rewards?
Chair of the debate, Mark Suthern, head of agriculture at Barclays, said: “In essence the question asked whether, to improve yield and quality, we use traditional, land-based agriculture or do we use agritech to change the way we farm, so for instance develop urban farming, vertical farming and reduce the environmental impact? The flavour was more ‘yes, let’s reframe it using technology’.
“It was a healthy debate. Personally, I’m agnostic, but there’s a great space for agritech in farming.”
The REAP conference brought together speakers and delegates from industry, research and government: there are competing interests – and concerns about future employment levels are very much on everyone’s minds – but it’s crucial for farming that consensus is reached, so congratulations to Agri-Tech East and all involved for setting the pace.