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Accelerating innovation: how farmers can utilise agri-tech

Key takeaways
  • Investing in agri-tech could help create more productive, more competitive and more sustainable farm businesses
  • There is a potential role for robotics that should mean less working of the soil than there has traditionally been, leading to better soil health
  • The cost and capital expenditure of transitioning to a high-tech environment can seem prohibitive, so businesses need reassurance it will deliver the appropriate return on investment.

To be a farmer, you must be passionate about the industry – day-to-day farming is hard. The agriculture sector currently faces a perfect storm of environmental challenges, including climate change, soil degradation, water pollution and biodiversity loss. Availability of agricultural workers is also a growing concern for many farmers. Meanwhile, demand for food will continue to increase – the UN forecasts that, if current patterns of consumption continue, approximately 60% more food will be required to be produced globally by 2050.

In a recent webinar, a group of agriculture and tech specialists discussed how farming businesses can embrace innovation. 

Guest speakers

  • Ian Burrow, Head of Agriculture and Renewable Energy, NatWest

  • Belinda Clarke, Director, Agri-TechE

  • John Giles, Divisional Director, Promar International

  • Ian Isaac, Managing Director, Lombard

  • Jake Shaw-Sutton, Senior Technician, Robotics, University of Plymouth.

What role can lenders play in supporting farmers with agri-tech?

Through building relationships and working jointly on ideas for the future, we can offer clarity,” said Ian Burrow, Head of Agriculture and Renewable Energy at NatWest.

It is also important to have a trusted adviser to talk through risks – the costs versus the benefits of investing in technology to fulfil growth ambitions – and the different sources of finance.

Could automated technology replace seasonal farm workers?

 

For some crops, there are encouraging examples of technology working well – in soft fruit, for example. But, as Belinda Clarke, Director at membership organisation Agri-TechE, pointed out, it’s more of a challenge to put a robot on a muddy farm in the Fens when it’s lashing with rain.

Robots are used to great effect in many industries already, so farmers can learn from where they’ve been used successfully. But they do not necessarily solve labour shortages, and their benefits won’t be felt immediately..

Could robotics help with the transition to a low-carbon economy?

 

Farmers are always trying to balance the equation between producing food and doing so in a sustainable way. Policies are changing, encouraging farming that enhances the environment.

The CEOs of major retailers and food processing companies are also calling for a carbon neutral supply chain by 2030 or 2040. This commercial pull tends to lead to quicker action than a policy push from government..

What can agri-tech do for land use and soil health?

One challenge for farms is they need to produce large volumes of crops or produce from large fields. The emergence and application of technology allows for smaller, segmented areas; the whole field is not required for one thing.

A big change will be transitioning from heavy equipment – which will still have a place on certain very large farms that rely on it – to smaller platforms and sites with more custom farming and planting across fields.

There is a potential role for robotics that could and should mean less working of the soil than there has traditionally been. There is also an opportunity to harness technology and automation for the benefit of our ecosystems through the government’s environmental land management schemes (ELMs): the sustainable farming incentive, local nature recovery, and landscape recovery..

Humans are naturally risk averse. Some of the decisions and investments farmers are making are big bets, or big risks

Ian Isaac
Managing Director, Lombard
Where does robotic technology fit in without impacting jobs and livelihoods?

Agri-tech can be used in a positive way for jobs and livelihoods to aid the transition from one type of job to another. Belinda Clarke offered the example of a former forklift driver at a flower grower in Norfolk who is now managing the robot that operates the sorting and bundling of bunches.

“There’s potential for upskilling the quality and the types of jobs. I think  there will be much less working of the soil, and there should be much less working of the soil in the way that there traditionally has been," she said.

John Giles, Divisional Director at farm and food consultancy Promar International, agreed that some jobs in agriculture “can be repetitive, hard, dirty work and not particularly well paid”.

He acknowledged that there is concern about the impact of technology on rural employment and the social fabric of agricultural and rural communities.

What are the barriers to adopting agri-tech?

Attracting talent and skills to the agriculture industry could be one of the biggest barriers, said Jake Shaw-Sutton, Senior Technician, Robotics, University of Plymouth. “The technology is there, so why is it not out in the field?” he asked.

Currently, it’s because the industry doesn’t have the people to deploy and embed it. The robotics and software engineers tend to work in different industries.

Agri-tech is also a fast-moving space. There could be five different weather stations to choose from, or 10 different soil sensors. When a farmer is making significant investment, there can almost be too much choice, said Belinda Clarke.

Which system do they invest in? Is this going to be obsolete and overtaken in two or three years? This is where a support network comes in.

A support ecosystem between banks, financiers, suppliers, customers and farmers could drive a greater understanding of the risk and opportunities. It’s about how to understand, manage and mitigate those risks.

This material is published by NatWest Group plc (“NatWest Group”), for information purposes only and should not be regarded as providing any specific advice. Recipients should make their own independent evaluation of this information and no action should be taken, solely relying on it. This material should not be reproduced or disclosed without our consent. It is not intended for distribution in any jurisdiction in which this would be prohibited. Whilst this information is believed to be reliable, it has not been independently verified by NatWest Group and NatWest Group makes no representation or warranty (express or implied) of any kind, as regards the accuracy or completeness of this information, nor does it accept any responsibility or liability for any loss or damage arising in any way from any use made of or reliance placed on, this information. Unless otherwise stated, any views, forecasts, or estimates are solely those of the NatWest Group Economics Department, as of this date and are subject to change without notice.

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