A Burning Platform for Innovation

By Steve McLean, Head of Technology - Agriculture, Fisheries & Procurement, Marks & Spencer

Steve McLean, Head of Technology - Agriculture, Fisheries & Procurement, Marks & Spencer

It might seem like stating the obvious, but we all need to eat. In the next thirty years, the global population is expected to grow to nine billion, which will mean that we require around 70 per cent more food.

On face value, that seems great news for farmers and food retailers alike, yet the challenges are immense. One-third of all food produced today is wasted—either in the field, through the supply chain or in the home. There is limited land area available for food production and, in fact, the area available is shrinking as land is used for housing and infrastructure.

"Fewer people are working in agriculture—a typically labour-intensive industry—so new approaches are required to produce more from less"

On top of that, there are well-established global sustainability pressures on food production. Livestock agriculture, particularly ruminant livestock, is known to make a considerable contribution to climate change. We need more food but need to use fewer inputs to produce it, on less land area, with less water use. What’s more, fewer people are working in agriculture—a typically labour-intensive industry—so new approaches are required to produce more from less.

It is, perhaps, not a huge surprise, therefore, that the agtech sector is booming. $16.9bn was invested in agrifood in 2018, and the agtech sector in the UK alone saw an investment of £322m through 103 deals in the same year. The opportunities for innovation and technology in this sector are massive.

We are already seeing significant changes. Precision GPS guidance and automation of agricultural machinery are now ubiquitous, including yield and input mapping and variable rate application of pesticides and fertilisers, helping to optimise productivity. Drones are now a common part of the agronomist’s toolkit, and recent advances in sensor technology also mean that more production information is available to farmers than ever before, helping decision making and improving efficiency. Meanwhile, robotics has not only transformed supply chain efficiency but are increasingly in use at the farm level—witness the significant rise in robotic milking on dairy farms, for example. Artificial intelligence is also starting to be used in animal identification and streamlining decision-making.

One barrier to the adoption of tech on a farm has been the availability and speed of rural broadband, limiting the ability to connect devices, but this is improving rapidly with better 4G coverage and the roll-out of 5G compensating for a lack of fibre connections in many rural areas.

But, just as agriculture is a very wide-ranging industry, the opportunities in agtech are also diverse. As well as the more obvious opportunities to automate and collect data, new technology will allow the replacement of pesticides, product quality improvement and shelf-life extension, as well as further automation of field and supply chain operations. What’s important is that there is close collaboration between agtech innovators and the supply chain, especially retailers, to ensure innovation is customer-focused.

It’s an exciting time. Agriculture was key to the rise of civilisation and back in the 18th and 19th centuries, the agricultural revolution across Europe saw the adoption of technology, which increased crop and livestock productivity, helping transform society.

Today, we need a new agricultural revolution and advances in agtech in all shapes and sizes provide a solution to many of the challenges we face. After all, agriculture is the world’s largest industry, so the scale of opportunity is huge, making agtech a truly attractive opportunity in the years ahead.

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