How AgriTech startups can address national and global challenges

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Innovation and collaboration are vital to the future of farming, says Professor Simon Pearson, Director of the Lincoln Institute for Agri-Food Technology (LIAT).

We asked LIAT director, Professor Simon Pearson, to explain for the benefits of technology and the appetite for change among the farming community.

What challenges are facing farmers and the agricultural sector?

There’s never been a time of greater change for agriculture. We can see the impact of Covid-19 on things like working environments and there’s a need for food security in very challenging times. And on top of that there’s Brexit.

This could make access to labour really challenging, plus there could be more overseas competition. So people need to be really thinking about innovation, automation and productivity. If we can solve those productivity issues then we’ll have a much more economically healthy and sustainable farming business sector.

Are there longer-term challenges?

Absolutely. We have to think about the real mega trends, such as greenhouse gas emissions. The food chain uses 24% of global carbon and 70% of all fresh water use globally is in agricultural food production.

So, things have got to change?

Yes. Farmers may have to change their entire systems. That may mean stopping the use of fertilisers or pesticides, or it may go much further than that.

They may no longer be producing food but might be producing ecosystem services, or changing to agroforestry or even rewilding.

Robotics is a core research area for you. How important is it for agriculture?

Agri-robotics is really very important, not just for harvesting but also caring for crops. Robotics allows monitoring of the environment as well as phenotyping – the process of measuring and analysing crops to get the most from limited resources.

Robotics may involve hardware but it is a data-driven technology, often using AI and machine learning.

What other changes can you see on the horizon?

The use of distributed ledger and blockchain technology will increase and allow a world in which the consumer can make proper, informed decisions about the way they buy food. And the technology will allow their influence to get back to the farmer. That could be transformational.

Is the agricultural sector ready for new processes and systems?

There's never been a more positive attitude about change in the farming industry. Everybody can see they need to do it, especially because of the likely impacts of both Brexit and then the new Agriculture Act.

I don't think there'll be resistance to change, but the really important thing is to give sound advice to the farming community, so they can make the right decisions.

That means academics, startups and other stakeholders working with farmers in the co-development of that technology so they've got confidence in it, and above all working with them to get reproducible ROI.

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