Food supply is one of the biggest issues of our time. With limited natural resources, growing populations and climate change pressing down, the problem of feeding ourselves is only getting bigger. AgriTech is the answer.
As we face increasing food security challenges and potential disruption of the post-Brexit food chain, and ever more pressing challenges to reduce CO2 emissions, the AgriTech industry is perfectly placed to increase productivity and help deliver a more resilient UK food supply.
The UK food chain is a complex industry with agriculture at its heart. With sales of over £220billion per annum in 2017, the industry generates a GVA of over £110 billion and employs 3.9 million people. Despite this, the UK only produced 60% of its own food in 2017. In January this year, the British Retail Consortium and leaders of top food retail outlets wrote a letter to the government warning of the effect a no-deal Brexit would have on food supply. The National Farming Union president Minnette Batters has also been vocal in the impact Brexit is likely to have on British Farming and food security.
The UK currently has a trade gap between import and export of food, feed and drink (FFD) which widened by 6.2% between 2016 and 2017, and has widened by 35% from 2005 to 2017. That is a gap of £24.2 billion in real terms. The trends show increasing import volumes of FFD, with 41.8 billion tonnes in 2017 and 70% of these FFD imports in 2017 were from the EU. AgriTech, by improving the competitiveness of the UK food chain, can help to increase UK food production sustainably and help increase the resilience of the UK food chain.
The World is seeing increased demand for food with most projections suggesting this will continue. Globally the number of hungry people is increasing and rose by 15million to 821million in 2017. There have been many reports highlighting these needs and predicting that in order to meet food needs in 2050, global agriculture needs to increase food production by 70% from the levels it achieved in 2010.
As well as this, the industry is facing pressure to produce food more sustainably because of:
- Increased global food demand leading to land use change and loss of bio-diversity
- Rising demand for water
- Increased global greenhouse gas emissions
- The effects of climate change creating challenges to production.
The Agricultural industry needs to meet a greater need for food production whilst improving productivity and improving sustainability. Rt Hon Michael Gove, MP, speaking at Oxford Farming Conference in January, spoke about the need for the next agricultural revolution.
The requirement to use less carbon, to limit the nitrous oxide entering our atmosphere and the nitrates entering our rivers, to improve the organic content and fertility of our soil, to renew, reuse and recycle finite natural resources and yet, at the same time, to also improve resource productivity as the human population grows, all these are the forces driving technological innovation. Science is thus both making us aware of why agriculture needs to change and also enabling that change to meet our needs.
This fourth agricultural revolution will therefore require us to change the way we work on the land and invest in its future, will force us to reform the role of Government in regulating and supporting farming; will demand new thinking and new talent in food production, and will, inevitably, require tough choices to be made. - Rt Hon Michael Gove MP, at Oxford Farming Conference 3rd January 2019.
Call in the Cavalry
It is definitely time to call in the cavalry - AgriTech is a key solution to these challenges. The Knowledge Intensive cluster based around Cambridge is perfectly placed to make the most of this opportunity.
The East of England Science and Innovation Audit 2017 stated, “The region has world-renowned research strengths in AgriTech and increasing expertise and experience in the process of commercialisation. Further strengthening of the mechanisms for commercialisation will bring major economic benefits to the region and to the national economy”.
AgFunder reported that in 2019: ‘AgriFood Tech startups, those innovating all the way from farm-to-fork, raised $16.9 billion in 2018, a 43% year-over-year increase’. Cambridge has an exciting group of AgriTech startups in seed funding and series A stages, such as Folium Sciences, Herdsy, Outfield XYZ, Agrimetrics, DogTooth Robotics, Kisan Hub, Smartbell and PBD Biotech, who are all using new technologies to meet the challenges of the agriculture industry, as well as companies like Breedr who have just closed a $2million investment round.
The real power of the AgriTech cavalry is the way innovators are working across technology sectors, applying technology in new ways and using data more efficiently. At SmithsonHill, a joint venture between Russell Smith Farms and Hill, we are working on a project to create a physical space as an innovation hub for this AgriTech Cluster. The site is in Cambridge and facilities would include incubator space for AgriTech startups, crop trials, as well as space for larger companies. Cambridge’s Science Park and growing Biomedical Campus already show that physical proximity of companies allows agglomeration, leading to quicker scale up and better GVA for the economy.
AgriTech as an industry is definitely on the move and is ready to meet the challenges facing our economy in the post-Brexit food chain.
 DEFRA (2018), Agriculture in the UK 2017
 DEFRA (2018) - Agriculture in the United Kingdom 2017
 FAO (2018) The state of food Security and Nutrition in the World
 AgFunder (2019), AgFunder AgriFood Tech Investing Report - 2018
 AgFunder (2019) Transforming a 10,000 year-old industry. Why LocalGlobe invested in Breedr