No-one understands better than farmers the challenge of feeding a rapidly growing population affordably and sustainably and, therefore, the need for innovation. But what does successful innovation look like?
Farmers strive to stay ahead of the curve, but in order to be viable, new approaches must be affordable and show clear benefits. Farmers need reasons, as well as mechanisms, to employ them.
Innovations must be tried and tested, and this is the ‘catch 22’, which means many projects remain at idea or research stage. Dr Mark Young, head of innovation at the Centre of Innovation Excellence in Livestock (CIEL), describes true innovation as ‘practical outcomes which are valued and used widely’.
He says: “In research, you have pounds, you spend them and you end up with more knowledge, whereas innovation is where you use the knowledge to make more money. “Our brief is to develop industry- led projects which help farmers and other parts of the supply chain be more efficient, more profitable and have a better system.
“It is about delivering value to the farmer, to the meat processor, to the food retailer. The product either has better qualities or it is more efficiently produced with less environmental impact.”
Dr Young says CIEL is a partnership between science and industry: “We have to make sure whatever we deliver is valued by the producer or processor and therefore there is uptake, because there are some smart ideas from science around gathering dust.”
But innovation is about much more than just the financial bottom line, and it does not simply equate with new scientific discoveries or emerging technologies. The best innovations combine cost savings with improved product quality and social and environmental benefits.
An example of this is the drive towards supplementing animal feed with home-produced high-protein crops, such as lupins, lucerne, peas and beans. In essence, this means returning to an old idea. These crops can be grown to replace soya, which is rarely viable north of the M4 corridor.
Lupins have even been described as a superfeed, after being shown to increase yolk redness and feather cover in laying hens. Connecting farmers with this kind of innovation is a global challenge worth billions. According to Agri-EPI, the Government’s innovation centre for precision technology and engineering, the sector is worth £1 billion in the UK, billions worldwide, and is growing rapidly.
Thousands of companies are queueing up for a piece of the action. Barely a week goes by without the launch of a new smartphone app which enables farmers to record animal events and apply data in new ways which promise to transform their business.
There are systems to monitor feed quality and responses to animal feeding, sensors to monitor liveweight gain and potential carcase characteristics in live animals, drone and satellite applications and electronic tagging systems. Understanding and interpreting data these systems produce can help farmers understand variation in performance, optimise input use, improve product quality, reduce labour requirements or combat disease.
Dr Young says collaboration and knowledge sharing are critical: “The key thing is innovation coming from partnerships. “Seldom does an innovation come from just one group. It is often interactions between different players in the marketplace and the supply chain.
“Genetics and feeding are big things. They are not the only ones, but I put those at the top of my list. The key is practical outcomes which are valued and used widely. This is true innovation.”
The search is on once again for a new crop of agricultural entrepreneurs. Launched in 2014 by Briefing Media, in conjunction with Co-op Food, Agri-Innovation Den aims to give entrepreneurs with an interest in farming an opportunity to develop their ideas and innovations.
Finalists stand to gain a share of the £250,000 investment fund pot in exchange for a stake in their business, a guaranteed Briefing Media promotional package worth £5,000, as well as on-going help and business support.
If you are an entrepreneur, farmer or a student with a great product or concept you believe could help farmers, we want to hear from you. Applications close July 7, 2017.