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UK Agri-Tech Centres: vision, collaboration
and impact

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In this is article we hear from Jane Smernicki, UK Agri-tech Centres Cross-Centre Communications Manager, who talks to us about the many projects Agri-EPI Centre, Agrimetrics, CHAP and CIEL are involved in, and how collaborating with them has moved the advancements within Agriculture forward.

So who are the 4 AgriTech Centres?

The four UK Agri-Tech Centres are a unique collaboration involving Government, academia and industry. The Centres work to drive greater efficiency, resilience and wealth across the agri-food sector. We are supported by Innovate UK.
 

What are the specialisms of each centre?

What are the Centres’ collective priorities?

  • Join up existing research excellence 
  • Invest in new innovative resources and research
  • Address challenges that no one part of the agri-food sector can address alone
  • Position the UK as a global leader in sustainable food production.

Together, we work with and serve the needs of everyone involved in the UK agri-food sector: from farmers to advisors and the supply trade pre-farmgate; scientists to suppliers; processors to retailers. Our reach extends across all key industry players, trade associations and government. We are a shared voice to inform and influence industry priorities and ensure important industry issues are addressed.

Can you tell me what areas the centres focus on?

All of our activities are founded in supporting sustainable agri-food systems. Achieving this includes considering the role of technology in addressing challenges like efficient and profitable agricultural production and supply chains; Net Zero and other environmental concerns; crop and animal disease; animal welfare; emergent risks; ongoing problems such as antimicrobial resistance; and providing accessible and nutritious food for all. We also have to consider how many of these factors interact under the One Health agenda.
 

Are the centres purely UK focussed?

We have more than 55 open access facilities in the UK, and three international sites in China, Paraguay and New Zealand, the Centres are delivering a major R&D programme.

We are involved in 320 innovation projects with a diverse range of partners, worth £75 million to the agri-food sector, and supporting the UK’s £220BN bioeconomy sector.

You mentioned that you are looking at certain challenges facing the sector currently – can you tell me more about these?

Challenges we are addressing include:

  1. Net Zero agriculture

We are involved in projects looking at the role of data and technology in areas including how food can be produced more sustainably; protecting and enhancing soil health; and measuring greenhouse gas emissions from agriculture to support carbon trading, a system aimed at reducing greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming.

For example, as Net Zero and environmental land management concerns drive the development of Controlled Environment Agriculture, alternative production models and growing media need to be developed to ensure future sustainability. The GelPonics project, in which CHAP is a partner, aims to improve the sustainability and efficiency of hydroponic production by developing an autonomous, energy-efficient system designed around a novel hydrogel growing medium that will be compatible with both glasshouse and vertical production, as well as being recyclable.
 

  1. Smart supply chains

Issues we are exploring in this area include food quality, traceability and provenance in resilient food systems and the reduction of waste, including circularity in production systems.

Innovation includes Agrimetrics’ involvement in the Beeflink project to boost traceability within beef value chain using rapid DNA fingerprinting.
 

  1. Emerging agricultural systems

This area considers both innovation in existing food production systems, and the development and evaluation of novel food systems such as Controlled Environment Agriculture and alternative proteins for both feed and food.

Current projects include a next generation aquaculture project involving Agri-EPI centre and the world’s largest fish manual vaccination company, Aqualife, to develop and launch a ‘transformational’ fish vaccinating robot.
 

  1. Smarter Production Systems

Technology has a big role to play in achieving efficient, diversified and integrated production systems. Deploying wide range of sensors and collecting vast amounts of data as part of Agri-EPI’s Satellite Farm Network will help industry to minimise variance in the food productions systems and develop intelligent based decision support tools to help famers and growers increase productivity and enhance environmental footprint.

All of the Centres are supporting this area. In another  example, CIEL is working with a range of partners on the GrassCheckGB project to assist farmers in improving grass growth and utilisation by providing information on grass growth, grass quality and weather conditions. A network of up to 50 grass pilot farms have been established across England, Scotland and Wales.
 

  1. One Health

The Agri-Tech Centres projects support the One Health agenda which recognises the interconnection between people, animals, plants, and their shared environment.  The centres are supporting innovation to deliver a comprehensive approach to enabling industry to provide highly nutritious food and link healthy people and a healthy natural environment.

We’re here talking about how this can be achieved – what do you see as crucial to its success?

Partnership is the key - we don’t do all this work alone. We bring together those with the know-how in different sectors and disciplines to create innovative solutions to the most pressing agri-food challenges. We create an ecosystem for collaboration, involving agri-food businesses and bodies, technology development companies, government and academia, in the UK and internationally. Centre membership networks involve more than 300 members businesses and organisations and we work with many additional collaborators beyond our membership. We aim to champion UK agri-tech by supporting this innovation environment.

Critical to this is the need for the end users, such as farmers and companies in the wider supply chain, to be involved in the development of innovation projects at an early stage. This helps ensure that their pain points are understood and that new developments are focused on meeting their needs.
 

What do you see as the next ‘big thing’ in AgriTech?

Data and data analytics are the key to giving food producers timely, precise information to inform their decisions. A key advancement in this area is the Digital Twin concept, which is gathering pace.

A Digital Twin is a sufficiently realistic digital representation of a real-world thing. They can be used to monitor something remotely. For example, a Digital Twin of a cow could alert the farmer to poor health, without that farmer having to examine the animal.

Digital Twins have a natural synergy with Internet of Things (IOT) technologies, which over time will accelerate their rise. As IOT proliferates within agriculture, Digital Twins will follow.
 

What is the best way for someone to approach yourselves to gain a collaborative project?

We are keen to hear from anyone who has an idea for collaboration, from both within the agri-food sector and beyond it. Please get in touch with us via the contact form at www.agritechcentres.com or you may prefer to contact one of the Centres directly. All contact details, and links to the Centres’ own sites can be found on the shared UK Agri-Tech Centres website.

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