From the producer to the consumer, technology will enable better precision, prediction, profitability and scrutiny in the food chain. Jez Fredenburgh reports.
For a time, investor excitement about new technologies coming out of Silicon Valley bypassed agriculture.
But, since 2012, agri-food tech investments have increased five-fold to US$17 billion (£13bn) in 2018.
Louisa Burwood-Taylor, head of media and research at AgFunder, a venture capital firm which invests in agritech start-ups, said: “We had to educate the investment community.
“Venture capitalists normally invest in start-ups, but agriculture did not become one of those industries until about 2012/2013.”
US consulting firm McKinsey believes things are just getting started – agriculture remains the least digitised of all major industries.
The US accounts for about 50 per cent of agritech start-ups, and Europe about 30 per cent, with the UK pretty high on the list. But the sector is also growing in Asia, Australia and South America.
Technologies tend to be specific to that country’s farming systems and challenges before expanding outwards, said Ms Burwood-Taylor, but there are trends.
“A lot are focused on minimising farming’s impact on climate change and improving profitability by helping farmers do more with less, such as applying less water and fertiliser. Biotech is also optimising seeds to help crops withstand drought,” she said.
“Many technologies help farmers track their operations, which could be used to communicate transparency to retailers and consumers, with the potential to add a price premium.
“Technology companies are also looking at shortening food chains – we have seen a lot of investment in food delivery straight from farmer to consumer recently.
Minimising food waste between farm and retailer is also a focus, added Ms Burwood-Taylor.
Examples include ‘Apeel Sciences’, which has developed an edible film that is applied to fruit and vegetables to improve shelf life and reduce packaging.
Another big trend is in plant-based foods.
She said: “There is a lot of funding going into it and it is definitely a trend which is not going anywhere. It will be interesting to see if start-ups can do anything else with it, such as improving nutritional profiles.”
Then there are start-ups crossing between farming and nutrition, such as ‘Brightseed’, which is researching the nutritional benefits of non-staple food crops.
Blockchain technology is still in its infancy, but it has potential, said Dr Belinda Clarke, director of Agri-Tech East.
A blockchain is a system which uses blocks of information collected along a value chain and collates them into one system.
“A piece of code [with data information] goes into the blockchain and all computers on the chain update at the same time,” said Dr Clarke.
“The idea is it allows greater scrutiny and trust of the value chain.”
This could be used to monitor inputs and practices, although the jury is out on its ability to work across complicated chains, and there are questions around the reliability of the data if it requires human inputting.
However much could be automated, triggering the next part of the chain, including automated payments via ‘smart contracts’, said Dr Clarke.
In theory this could improve efficiencies, but this means farmers may have to use whatever blockchain system the customer wants.
Prof James Lowenberg-DeBoer said in the future, every bag of seed or pesticide could have a barcode which would be input to a system.
Beef, lamb, pig and poultry
Improving transparency and traceability from farm to consumer is becoming a key feature.
This will be vital for consumer confidence at home and abroad going forward, particularly given attacks on the meat industry and revelations last year that 20 per cent of meat sampled in a Food Standards Agency crackdown was contaminated with DNA from another species.
Actors in the food chain are starting to make changes.
Last year Marks & Spencer announced it was using DNA testing to trace its beef back to the individual farm and animal. Similarly, Meat Promotion Wales is working to create an ‘origin fingerprint’ of PGI Welsh Lamb using elements and isotopes absorbed while animals graze. It’s hoped the traceability will strengthen and protect the brand from imitation. Beef is to follow.
The Livestock Information Programme (LIP), which will replace existing statutory livestock traceability for cattle, sheep, pigs, goats and deer, will shake things up and provide whole-of-life traceability and better point of sale information. One aim is to improve consumer confidence in British meat.
Food start-ups are also getting in on traceability.
‘Happerley’ traces ingredients to a producer. A QR code on packaging can be read by a smart phone to reveal the supply chain, while an app allows users to find supplying farmers.
Technology will also increasingly be used to help farmers improve production, or disrupt traditional ways of buying and selling.
‘Breedr’, for example, uses farm data to help farmers monitor the performance of individual animals, reduce environmental impact, and sell their stock in an online marketplace, complete with performance data.
Since sheep are not as valuable as cows, it is unlikely technology will be adopted to collect large amounts of data on individuals in the same was as the beef or dairy sectors, said Dr Clarke.
However, geo-fencing and drones, may increasingly help shepherds locate their flocks.
Pig and poultry sectors could see improvements in welfare and environmental enrichment, Dr Clarke added.
Sensors are starting to be used to detect unusual pig behaviour, automate ventilation and temperature, while ‘smart scales’ are tracking weight gain in poultry sheds.
Electronic tags could automate dairy farming beyond robotic milking, said Dr Clarke, such as automatically dispensing feed rations formulated to the cow’s individual needs, based on data collected about her health.
The technology could also detect when she came into heat, or was unwell. This all has the power to improve herd health and welfare (increasingly consumer concerns), while boosting efficiencies, milk production and therefore profits for farmers.
Spot-killing weeds using image recognition cameras and robots to either spray a plant or zap it with electricity, are being developed.
In the future, crops could also be tended to by robots with individual tasks. For example, ’Small Robot
Company’ has developed a robot that collects data about individual plants and suggests applications of fertilisers and chemicals. It then calls out other robots to deliver theses, weed, and drill seeds. Everything is overseen by a central computer system.
Another, ‘Hands Free Hectare’, a project at Harper Adams University, has developed an autonomous tractor which uses GPS to sow and spray crops, while an unmanned combine and tractor with trailer, carry out harvesting.
While spot-spraying could reduce environmental impact and chemicals entering the food chain, robotics could free-up growers to create more added-value food products that connect farmer and consumer, said Prof Lowenberg-De-Boer.
Robots could also help with labour shortages, make smaller farms with irregular fields more economically viable, and lower the cost of organic farming which is often heavily reliant on labour, he said.
Crop modelling will increasingly help growers predict demand and supply more accurately, reducing waste in high value crops, said Dr Clarke. Historical data about growth stages is combined with weather data and photos of the current crop, to predict yield and harvest timings.
Adding this to information about consumer behaviour from processors and retailers, enables growers to intervene in the crop’s development and meet demand timings and quantities more accurately, said Dr Clarke.
Robotics could transform how horticulture monitors, analyses and harvests crops. But rather than reduce the number of workers needed, some believe technology could just change the tasks they perform.
As yet though, robots have not been able to replicate the delicacy of the human hand to pick fragile soft fruit.
Precision technology is already being used to deliver specific nutrients, water, and chemical applications. But taking it a step further, are some vertical and hydroponic companies experimenting with algorithms (computer calculations) to control the environment and produce specific crop traits.