Innovation in the Food Supply Chain Roundtable 2 – Unlocking the potential of R&D and building implementation pathways for growth

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agritech sector

While there is a broad consensus that the UK needs to improve the efficiency of its food system – and that the implementation of novel technologies in farming practices and across the food system is the most efficient route – it is unclear how to make this happen. While the UK is a global R&D power, too often new advances have not made it far enough along the innovation pathway to be implemented in commercial practices in the UK.

According to NFU Mutual, only 14 per cent of farmers in the UK plan to invest in AgriTech in 2022. This lack of investment can be partially attributed to the broad impacts of Brexit, COVID-19 and supply chain disruptions. However, pre-pandemic trends would indicate that the agricultural sector specifically has a problem moving technologies along the innovation process – a problem that has been attributed to a supposed luddism amongst the UK’s farmers by some, and the alleged impracticality of upgrading working farms by others.

At the second roundtable of the Innovation in the Food Supply Chain series, Public Policy Projects hosted representatives of DEFRA, DIT, the NFU, The Food and Drink Federation (FDF), UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), the UK’s agricultural research institutions and its AgriTech centres to discuss how to solve that problem. Panel members offered a variety of perspectives, with a broad consensus emerging that the UK needs to reframe its approach to innovation – and do so with an understanding of the unique challenges of the UK’s food system.

Reframing the innovation pathway

While speakers expressed that the UK’s ongoing success developing new technologies should be celebrated, there was an acknowledgment that schemes to drive implementation and adoption are lacking. As one speaker suggested, “we are much better at invention than innovation.”

The UK’s agricultural sector has received a boost in recent years from the Transforming Food Production Challenge, which “was all about investing in precision data and data rich approaches to drive the industry on a trajectory towards net zero.” This scheme has been followed by others, such as the new Dairy Farming Innovation Programme, which forms an important part of the Agricultural Transition Plan.

However, while policymakers are aware of the need to “help farmers use science and innovation to develop solutions for the practical challenges the agricultural and horticultural sectors now face,” several contributors suggested that reframing understandings of innovation pathways would be key to accelerating progress.

While the food sector remains relatively disparate across all its sectors, division in the development of AgriTech typically occurs between roles. Farmers, SMEs, tech developers, distributors and retailers each have different priorities and interests. While farmers have an active interest in helping develop technology that can improve their practices, they undertake a huge commercial risk by participating in the development. As one contributor acknowledged, “if I am on a farm, every time I put something on the ground, I want to know it is going to come up and I am going to get yield. I cannot trial an untested product, so it is not surprising that growers are risk averse in this sector.”

Nonetheless, field tests (particularly those within a commercial setting) are key to the development of agricultural technologies – and the UK’s highly-varied terrain means that widespread participation will be key to getting the commercial feedback needed to bring new food products of technologies to the marketplace. One contributor remarked “I want to know does it work in all geographies? Does it work in different soil types? Does it work over rotations, over several seasons?”

Enabling better trials

The inability to conduct trials at scale poses a serious risk to the UK’s AgriTech sector. As one contributor commented, “it takes a lot of time, effort, and money” to develop a product or service. The difficulty of establishing an effective and efficient trialling system is furthered by how disparate and unclear many of the existing networks for this sort of testing are. These systems, run by the AHDB, DEFRA, and the various AgriTech centres, play a fundamental role in helping connect the right parties and provide clarity on the complex system of grants and funding, but they currently operate fragmentedly.

This leaves the UK without the ability to conduct nationwide trials, and often unable to offer clear pathways for innovation to the relevant parties. It also complicates the process of fostering co-operation between farmers and technology developers, who currently remain disconnected. “What we’re trying to do is take those tech companies to the farmers and say, ‘these are the problems they have got. Do you have anything that will solve it?’ And, in doing so, we are trying to foster a sort of co-developing and co-owning ethos.”

Continuing, the contributor noted that programs working to bring the two parties together “really worked and the enthusiasm and engagement was amazing,” and their impact could grow were those systems in closer contact. Indeed, another speaker noted that, “every time I put a photograph out with a robot, somebody asks me if it’s completely operational commercial, can they buy one now?”

The total consolidation of these systems, however, may not be the solution. Innovation pathways need to be flexible, as the development of novel technologies does not occur linearly. “People dip in and out of [the innovation pathway] all the way along this process.”
Additionally, while the status of the devolved nations poses a concern from the perspective of some policy frameworks – the recent gene-editing bill, for instance, would apply to England but not Wales – many contributors agree that “our regional climate should be a framework for us to think about priorities regionally.”

Such a system of interactive regional organisations is not without precedent. “In Canada and other countries, you have a collaborative system where provinces are effectively taking on the responsibility for policy and operation and have to work together.” Furthermore, as one contributor suggested, “if you can’t link up over your home nations, how much can you actually capitalise on [the UK’s role as an R&D leader] in the long run, and what does that mean for your commercial markets?”

Bringing information sharing into the 21st century

Establishing those linkages will require a revision to “a 20th century model,” as one contributor described. While community forums, farm meetings and the press are useful tools to disseminate information, a shift towards a greater emphasis on translational research methods that utilise “data that is generated in in the field” is likely to help accelerate and facilitate collaboration.

However, developing new organisational methods to ensure the variety of data collected can be processed and used to add value will be key. There is a lot of data out there. Speaking purely from a farming point of view, it is in at least a dozen different formats, plus on paper plus in the mind of the farmer. So, the data in theory is there, it is how it is mobilised that poses challenges. Continuing, the contributor noted that parties “further along the supply chain really want to understand what the scope three emissions of food production.” While that interest presents “huge opportunities,” however, “data needs to flow as well.”

It could also engender trust between farmers and researchers as “farmers can actually shape research because they’re actually the people that are creating the data upon which the science is being carried out.” However, “there is a need for fundamental good research and we shouldn’t put that at risk with the idea that the only answer is to collaborate very closely with farmers, at the expense of fundamental and rigorous science.”

Alongside a greater emphasis on translational research, “we need to recognise something that is a bit unique in the farming sector. Most natural learning happens in the farming community by peer networks.” The newly proposed food strategy and Evidence for Farming Initiative recognise this feature of the industry and utilise existing peer networks to start dialogues around new technologies and the broader task of reaching net zero – building on the legacy of COVID-19, which has made “farmers much more accessible than they ever were before.”

These programs could be made more effective, however, by integrating them into systems using translational research – and gaining a greater appreciation for the complexity and fragmentation within those networks themselves. As one contributor stated, “I am guilty of putting farmers into the same bucket banks, but what we have is quite a complex demographic in what is quite a fragmented industry. We traditionally cut it by sector and region and our own organisations, but those boundaries do not necessarily work.”

Looking beyond agriculture

Further integrating translation approaches to data will not, however only benefit the agricultural sector. Within manufacturing, one contributor pointed out that while manufacturing has broad needs for new technology (particularly to contribute to automated processes) “a lot of the sector is not circulating the data to know what automation they need within their own companies.”

Similarly, developing networks to improve access to information within the sector is also likely to have a major impact. Already the Scottish FDF office has seen success from its newly established disruptor group, “where all the chief engineers from some of their big companies get together every month and they talk about new technologies they’re hearing about, and then take that back to their factories and see how they can implement it.”

These sorts of initiatives are likely to be of benefit to each sector subsumed within the UK’s food system – however it will be key that they themselves are integrated in some capacity, or are, at least, able to interact with one another effectively. This is particularly true as one contributor noted that many major players in the food manufacturing industry “when it comes to automation, are quite content with the progress that is being made within the processing factories, indoors. It is the in the field automation which is the real challenge for them.”

Supporting systemic change

The reframing of innovation in agricultural and manufacturing settings will require increases in investment and skilled personnel.

Particularly within the agricultural space, existing frameworks for the financing of innovation currently exclude smaller SMEs – limiting their scope for development. One contributor stated, “one of the main vehicles that we have for scaling up research into outcomes with the commercial sector are through grants. These grants operate through schemes where a certain percentage of investment for the project must come from the private sector. That determines the size of the project and the amount of the research that can be carried by that project. That means if you are a small industry, and you cannot make a substantial contribution, then you are going to end up with a small project.” Continuing, they noted that “there’s a gap with smaller SMEs and their opportunity to scale, and we need to come up with investment schemes or proposal schemes where they can participate.”

There is also a clear need to expand the available talent pool within the sector. “Developing the CPD and apprenticeships and making sure that we have a really strong professional framework” will be key to ensuring that “once we have that technology on board, we have the skill set to actually use that technology and make the most of it.” Additionally, while the use of programs such as LMI for All are a key tool for employers, and should remain so for the long-term, novel approaches to collecting and sharing data on the platform will be needed to maximise its utility. As one contributor noted, “we’re taking examples from New Zealand, Australia on how they have a very kind of holistic approach to LMI,” and a continued interest in finding and implementing best practice will need to become culturally embedded within the sector.

International outreach will also be a key consideration for the collection and optimisation of data. One contributor noted that while their organisation has access to a broad network of facilities spanning four continents, they still feel they lack sufficient resource to collect the data they need. Continuing to support international collaboration and knowledge sharing networks will, as such, be a key consideration in reference to any domestic food system reform.

However, the most fundamental form of support will come in the form of a clear strategy that sets out priorities for the sector. As one contributor noted “We need to be a bit clearer about where our key priority markets are internationally, and where our big bets are in terms of where we want to invest in R&D and innovation.” While innovation pathways and funding schemes must remain flexible – and may benefit from a regional focus – there is a clear need for a sense of direction for the entirety of the sector. “We should be placing big bets and turbocharging investments in particular technologies or particular mission.”

The Innovation in the Food Supply Chain series is an ongoing closed roundtable series. If you are interested in participating, please contact either or Following the conclusion of the series this autumn, the full Innovation in the Food Supply Chain series will be published.