UK farming is about to experience radical and far-reaching change and the industry will need to adjust its approach. Vickie Robinson reports.
Imagination and discovery will be key as the political landscape shifts farming towards doing more for society and the environment.
Ben Miles, head of customer strategy at BASF, says: “Creativity is a term associated with art and design, rarely is it connected to science and farming. Yet, it is from thinking differently and creatively that brilliant ideas are borne. Our team’s mission is to discover and develop new concepts and work with people who are doing the same. Agriculture is very much part of this intent.”
BASF has become the lead partner in the 2018 Agri-Innovation Den, along with the agritech incubation hub, Farm491. The aim of the initiative is to discover clever agritech, services and novel inventions which will benefit food production, land management and help farmers deliver more directly for society.
Mr Miles says: “This journey we have embarked on feels right for discovering new ways of tackling farming practice.
“Yields have stagnated over the past 20 years, which is a pattern we need to break. If we continue doing what we have always done, we will not deliver a different outcome, and we need to.
“We have new challenges as demand for more output brings us environmental dilemmas, so science has to provide some of the answers.
“Take almond ‘milk’ for example. As society consumes more dairy milk replacements, nut growers have both opportunity and vulnerability, given they need to find a sustainable way to supply 4.5 litres of water to grow each almond.”
Mr Miles sees the link-up between Farm491 and BASF as a ‘perfect match’ to tackle such challenges. BASF is already very active in ‘co-creation’ projects. The company has helped ADAS and Innovate UK bring ADAS Agronomics trials analytics methodology to reality via the BASF Real Results trials programme.
BASF has been working with Hummingbird, a finalist of the Agri-Innovation Den last year (also a member of Farm491) and with other start-ups.
Mr Miles says: “We have extended our areas of interest, acquiring companies such as ZedX, a weather and agronomic modelling platform and into the biologicals sector, with nematode- and pheromone-based pest control products, including Nemaslug.
“It has equally been our mission to find ways of combining technologies, for example, pest-specific nematodes, which are best suited to small-scale growing systems, such as in glasshouses, could be combined with targeted broad-acre applicators which pinpoint exactly where slug burdens are greatest, thereby allowing Nemaslug to be applied to crops such as oilseed rape in future.”
The company is investing in technologies derived from land, such as fibre and organic chemistry, as well as products which tackled the problems surrounding waste, for example sustainable plastics. Mr Miles says: “We have developed a fully compostable plastic, called ecovio, which we are trialling on-farm to reduce the plastic footprint of sustainable farming businesses.”
BASF Venture Capital (BVC) is a key part of the company’s drive into novel agritech. It is a stand-alone business which supports young companies with investment, mentoring and routes to market. The team has run hackathons and pitch days.
Mr Miles says: “BVC has invested in an array of enterprises, including robot weeding company EcoRobotix, which uses artificial intelligence, as well as businesses pioneering in 3D printing and blockchain technologies.
“Nanotechnology is another area we have been developing. BVC recently invested in Applied Nano Surfaces, a technology to reduce friction and wear on moving automotive parts. “
Another is P2 Science, a business which converts feedstock bi-products into renewables-derived chemistry.”
However, the creative ideas farming needs for a sustainable future need not only seek new innovations, according to BASF’s environmental stewardship manager Mike Green, formerly head of arable at Natural England.
Mr Green says: “There are a lot of old technologies which are now being used in a modern context to help us farm more with the environment in mind.
“For example, companion cropping in broad-acre crops and planting for wildlife on actively farmed headlands. “My description of how we need to think about farming and land management in the future is called ‘shared space farming’. Everything we do from this day forward needs to be wholly mindful of its impact on water courses, soil health and farmland biodiversity, as well as on the sensitivities and demands from society.
“As we all know, it is no longer possible for land managers and farmers to work in isolation of our wider communities, especially with Brexit looming and Governments responding to the farming support challenges this presents.”
One of the reasons BASF has partnered with more than 50 farmers through its Real Results Circle is to work with them to trial the conventional products it has, such as Xemium-based plant fungicides, and also to develop new approaches to farming systems.
Mr Green says: “A close, honest relationship with farmers is going to help us help them and vice-versa, which is why we have invested so much time in the Real Results Circle. “We need farmers to be honest about their biggest issues if we are going to develop the right tools to help them, such as nitrogen stabilisers and real-time sustainability assessments.”
FARM491 is described as a space for innovators to grow their businesses. It is itself a start up founded at the Royal Agricultural University, Cirencester, in 2015, with funding from the university and the GFirst LEP Gloucestershire Growth Deal 2015-2021 and European Regional Development Fund 2017-2020.
The team includes programme leader Dr Ali Hadavizadeh, with a background in agri, incubators and science, and Luke Halsey, who has worked in California on mission investing portfolios in the field of climate change and human rights, with a focus on agriculture and water.
Dr Hadavizadeh says: “Farm491 provides high spec facilities created to foster entrepreneurship, idea generation and collaboration.
“It includes 491 hectares of farmland for research and testing.”
Members have access to business support and a knowledge network which includes farmers, investors and expert advisers, as well as open access to farming data. Members can test, refine and grow their ideas.
Dr Hadavizadeh says: “Shortlisted Agri-Innovation Den applicants will be invited on to one of our two-day AgriTech Innovation Programme Bootcamps here at Farm491 and will be welcome to use facilities and business mentors any time they want.
“We plan to assist more than 55 new agritech companies and help them create more than 200 new jobs over the next five years. “All applicants are welcome to take part in a bootcamp to help them hone the investor readiness of their venture and improve their chances of being shortlisted as finalists.”
For more information, visit here.
Online entry process open at AgriInnovationDen.com
Until September 14
Telephone interviews for shortlist
Finalists invited to Farm491 for two-day business bootcamp
Pitch day to our panel of five industry experts and investors