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Agri-tech outlook 2022, part 2: new technology to meet challenges

As part of a series hosted by the bank, agriculture and tech specialists met for a second online forum recently to discuss how farmers could boost their profits and get ahead of the competition by adopting new technology and automating tasks.

  • Tight labour markets are posing significant challenges for businesses across the economy, in particular the farming sector
  • Anything that can raise efficiency, boost production or lower costs will be a huge advantage for producers in the current economic environment
  • There is potential for new technology to play a role in addressing three of the major challenges in the agriculture sector
  • Any technological development must enable the whole farm to be more resilient 
  • Private investment in UK agri-tech has grown to around $1.1bn (£0.8bn) – the highest in Europe

Agriculture is facing huge change. Investing in reliable equipment and technologies that not only solve day-to-day farming challenges but meet net zero requirements, could completely change the way farmers work. 

In the second of three webinars, our agriculture and tech specialists discussed how recent advances in technology are helping farmers become more productive by optimising and improving yields. 

Guest speakers

  • Philip Bartlett, Economist, NatWest Group
  • Dave Ross, Chief Executive Officer, Agri-EPI Centre
  • Andrew Francis, Senior Adviser, National Farmers’ Union
  • Rachael Watson, National Agriculture Director, Lombard (chair)
The macro challenges affecting farming

1. Workforce availability

As the UK economy starts to shrug off the impact of the pandemic and gets back to a growth footing, tight labour markets are posing significant challenges for businesses. 

  • The UK has record numbers of unfilled job vacancies 
  • Retention is getting harder across the board 
  • More employers say they are experiencing worker shortages
  • More older people are drifting away from the workforce, reducing the supply of skilled and experienced labour
  • Post-Brexit immigration rules are likely to reduce the supply of low-skilled workers

 “Businesses can no longer rely on an ever-expanding workforce to power growth in the UK,” said NatWest economist, Philip Bartlett.

 “I use the US in the 1960s as an example of how the Brexit rule changes could impact agri-tech,” said Philip. “When the US ended an arrangement with Mexico that allowed large numbers of Mexican farmworkers to come to the country every year, the availability of cheap farm labour dropped overnight. 

 “The take-up of mechanisation options accelerated. More labour-saving technologies were deployed, more tasks automated.”

2. Cost pressures

  • Labour shortages could lead to higher wage bills
  • The price of all materials, including fertiliser and other agricultural inputs, has spiralled 
  • High costs will squeeze margins
  • Inflation forecasts have been repeatedly revised up

3. Climate change 

Climate change poses the greatest challenge to the agricultural sector, which has a huge role to play in terms of reducing emissions as we transition to binding net zero targets by 2050.

There is a growing recognition that economic growth is on an unsustainable path, we cannot keep depleting the stock of natural capital in the way that we’re doing. 

  • The agriculture sector in the UK accounts for about 10% of greenhouse gas emissions
  • Emissions need to fall rapidly from current levels by 2040
  • Average temperatures are likely to continue rising, bringing greater exposure to the physical risks associated with climate change
  • To mitigate, adapt and build resilience, there is a clear need for new technologies

We did a survey with UK farmers and a high percentage use some form of agri-tech. What was really illuminating was the understanding of the link between agri-tech solutions and performance increases.

Dave Ross
CEO, Agri-EPI Centre
The challenges and opportunities for farmers: an NFU insight

The UK is in its second year of the Agricultural Transition Plan. Between 2021 and 2027, the UK government will gradually reduce and then stop untargeted Direct Payments. 

As Andrew Francis, Senior Adviser, NFU, said, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) will pay farmers to improve the environment, improve animal health and welfare, and reduce carbon emissions. 

  • Changes to Basic Payment Scheme (BPS) rules will affect cash flow 
  • Uncertainty around how environmental land management (ELM) schemes will operate
  • Concerns around the Farming Rules for Water and its implications for spreading manures in the autumn
  • Uncertainty regarding future trade deals as well as an opportunity to export 
  • Unprecedented volatility in input costs for farmers is a concern
Innovation and technology for UK farming

Agri-EPI Centre is one of four UK agri-tech centres funded as part of the UK government’s Agri-Tech Strategy, working with industry to develop and commercialise viable solutions to improve productivity and sustainability within the food production system.

It has innovation hubs across the UK, where it incubates new agri-tech companies that can deliver solutions to farmers. Early adopter farms are “road testing” new solutions to:

  • Experience how they work from a commercial standpoint
  • Test the return on investment
  • Analyse performance and productivity benefits 
  • Understand the net zero benefit

“We did a survey with UK farmers and a high percentage use some form of agri-tech,” said Dave Ross, CEO, Agri-EPI Centre. “What was really illuminating was the understanding of the link between agri-tech solutions and performance increases.”

Examples of agri-tech solutions in development

Detecting pig tail biting by TailTech

The pig sector is under a huge amount of strain. Tail biting in pigs is viewed as one of the most widespread and seriously aggressive behaviours that can manifest in a pigpen. With pig welfare in mind TailTech is a radical high-tech solution devised by Scottish scientists as an alternative to the controversial last-resort practice of tail docking in piglets. 

Precision agriculture by OPTI-BEEF

This project integrates automated data gathered across the whole life of individual beef animals (from calf all the way to the carcass). The purpose of this is to create an enhanced decision support platform to modernise, standardise, and drive efficiency improvements across the UK beef supply chain, which is also under pressure.

What funding pathways are available to the sector?

The Farming Equipment and Technology Fund 

The FETF provides investment towards specific items of equipment which will improve productivity and efficiency for farming, horticultural and forestry businesses. This includes agri-tech.

The Farming Transformation Fund 

The FTF provides grants for eligible beneficiaries to invest in their businesses to improve productivity, profitability and enhance environmental sustainability. These are:

  • Water management
  • Improving farm productivity
  • Adding value

A grant for innovative farming equipment that increases productivity and improves the environment includes robotics and innovative equipment. For example:

  • Robotic horticulture and arable equipment (for example, robotic weeding, robotic harvesting)
  • Robotic animal welfare equipment (for example, robotic milking, robotic feeding)
  • Advanced ventilation control systems for existing horticultural and livestock buildings
  • Wavelength-specific LED lighting for horticultural crops

The Farming Transformation Fund Water Management grant is for capital items to improve farm productivity through more efficient use of water for irrigation, and to secure water supplies for crop irrigation by the adoption of best practice irrigation application equipment.

What are the next steps?
  • For developers to show how new technology might be applied on the farm to boost understanding
  • To move beyond R&D – apply for grants in order to build research into full-scale commercial adoption
  • Boost confidence to invest
  • Improve working capital in order to scale solutions quickly
  • Support with challenges around skills, labour shortage, connectivity
  • Clarification on the Seasonal Worker scheme, so farm businesses can plan for the future 

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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