09 June 2016

Agri-tech innovation in the UK

Cross-over technologies that could drive food production efficiency in UK agriculture and beyond could help tackle the growing challenge of feeding the world.

With populations increasing and cities expanding, one of the greatest challenges facing the world today is feeding the planet. Estimates suggest that by 2050, the world will have 9.1 billion mouths to feed - an increase of 34 per cent from today.

The bare statistics suggest that global food supply chains will come under increasing pressure as producers need to find ways of producing more, while reducing their environmental impact.

UK initiative

In the UK , where food and agriculture is the largest manufacturing sector, the challenge is being tackled through a GBP160 million initiative to boost farming productivity and food exports. At the heart of the strategy is a team of "matchmakers" whose aim is to encourage the use of innovative cross-over technologies from other sectors.

The strategy aims to boost farming growth by harnessing breakthroughs in many related areas such as nutrition, informatics, satellite imaging, remote sensing, meteorology and so-called "precision farming".

R&D strengths

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.

However, work remains to be done as Janet Bainbridge, CEO of the Agricultural Technology Organisation at UKT I acknowledges.

"We're up there with the best and probably leading in Europe when it comes to our research base," she says.

"Where we're not so strong is translating that research up through the cycle to full commercialisation. That's why we have this strong focus on investing to get value out of that research base and bring it to the productive farmer."

Cross-over technologies

Bainbridge highlights the growing opportunities to exploit "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.

There are other developments that have arisen through the strategy, especially through the Agri-Tech Catalyst initiative designed to help commercialise UK agricultural innovation. Research and Proof of Concept projects underway range from innovative strategies to grow seaweed, to hydrophonics being used on city skyscrapers.

New opportunities

Bainbridge 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.

"This is about talking to people who we wouldn't normally consider themselves to be part of the agriculture supply chain, and introducing them to the idea of new markets, research capability and investment opportunities," says Bainbridge.

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Key takeaways

  1. The UK is working to exploit cross-over technologies to help tackle the global food challenges
  2. The UK boasts an excellent research for agriculture
  3. Opportunities exist to exploit that research to full commercialisation

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