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Innovation in the food supply chain: “Finding the pathway to inclusive adaptation”

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In PPP’s third AgriFood roundtable, participants discussed how the sector can embed innovation priorities and enable agile collaboration between regulators, innovators and end-users.


The third roundtable of the Innovation in the Food Supply Chain series, Forging a path to inclusive adaptation, centred around two key questions for the rapidly evolving AgriTech sector; how does the sector earmark innovation priorities, and how do the various institutions supporting innovation pathways collaborate more effectively?

The session included representatives from the UK’s AgriTech institutions, the Food Standards Agency (FSA), The Institute for Agriculture and Horticulture (TIAH), the Embassy of the United Arab Emirates in London, Genome Canada and Bayer Crop Science. Guided by the two aforementioned questions, contributors discussed how data, regulation and accountability could all be leveraged to deliver a more efficacious and joined-up pre-farmgate supply chain.


Funding collaboration

The AgriFood sector’s fragmentation is the most significant blocker to the financing, development and implementation of AgriTech. However, given the complexity of production and innovation processes, and the UK’s topographical variance, centralisation is not a viable solution. As such, the UK must prioritise improved connections between relevant organisations.

The first key breakdown in communication that the sector must resolve is between the innovator and the regulator. As one contributor noted, “innovators are very focused on their product, their technique. They’re focused on getting their start-up funding, they’re focused on proof of concept and they’re perhaps less focused on the demands of the regulatory bodies.” Regulators such as the Food Standards Agency have begun to address this disconnect by growing outreach and stakeholder engagement teams. One contributor noted that the John Innes Centre, one of the UK’s agricultural research centres, had recently hosted a large contingent of staff from the FSA and DEFRA – facilitating the “two-way learning process” of getting researchers better integrated with regulators.

Contributors also noted that some success had been achieved by programmes that require funding applicants to apply as a consortium. By bringing together multiple players, each of whom can react and work with regulators, these sorts of consortia “speed up the process of doing the research and gathering the evidence.” Looking beyond the sector, the COVID-19 Genomics UK Consortium provides a useful example. However, until a process of early review is formally put into place, regulators are liable to find themselves needing to “stop the clock and open a dialogue with the applicants.” Currently, there is no clear funding structure for the facilitation of closer working between innovators and regulators.

Various bodies, such as the Catapult networks, the UK’s AgriTech and agricultural research institutions and UKRI all work to catalyse close collaboration between regulators, innovators, and other relevant stakeholders. However, these organisations’ objectives are typically narrow in focus, and are defined in terms of a particular policy silo.

Alternatively, institutions such as Genome Canada (which are specifically tasked with delivering economic growth through research applications), have had considerable success guiding the implementation of innovation in the application of genomics. Connecting different elements of the innovation value chain, Genome Canada also serves as a major funder of research across public institutions and regularly collaborates with the private sector.

The need for researchers to become more familiar with regulation, and for regulators to become more familiar with the technology they regulate is especially pressing given the transitive moment the industry finds itself in. The challenge of drastically curbing emissions while delivering better quality produce in greater quantities will necessitate rapid transitions to more efficient technologies and practices – and as such increased familiarity between regulators and researchers must be a priority for policymakers.

Improved connectivity between regulators and researchers is also likely to reduce risk exposure for industry. One contributor noted that a program that enabled regulators to work with researchers in the early stages of product development would likely engender greater confidence in industry players looking to support innovation in the sector.

Policymakers should, accordingly, explore opportunities for the creation of such a program. This may involve expanding or altering the remits of existing public bodies, or the creation of a new body, or bodies, altogether. Genomics England, for example, could be empowered to work outside of the Department for Health and Social Care. Said body, or bodies, should ultimately be tasked with promoting AgriTech innovation as a driver of economic growth. This would, however, necessitate improved clarity on the remits of the various regulatory authorities relevant to the sector.


Unlocking data sharing

Increased connectivity between organisations in the sector (and between innovators and regulators) should not only improve the market readiness of innovation but is also likely to support innovation itself. If these connections are extended beyond silos of AgriTech innovation and agricultural practice, the benefits could be exponential. One contributor stated that “those that are working in the livestock science community, they may not share the same language [as those in the crop science community] but the data can be interpreted by one another and used to tackle specific issues and important interdisciplinary questions.” Or more simply, as one contributor remarked, “when we are talking with our colleagues about our experiences in plants and the new precision breeding technologies of plants, we want to [be able to] compare that with the implications [for] livestock.”

Allowing innovators with different focuses to effectively communicate necessarily involves making field data, or data that may be less controlled than laboratory data, more available and accessible to researchers. This, in turn, would require new models to host this data. As one contributor noted, “we’ve got to achieve interoperability of data [collected from different agricultural practices], and that’s the single most challenging part of establishing [an improved] data infrastructure. It’s not a matter of standardising data so that all data conforms to some readily agreed standard that will never be achieved. It’s about creating domain models that allow us to map data from different areas… of the domain onto a common reference point.”

An emphasis on translational research also has the benefit of improving trust and collaboration between farmers and researchers. One contributor noted that “once you start to see transactional data sharing happening, you actually start to see that you’re getting value back from sharing your data or making it available.” In this sense, it is imperative that policymakers consider not only the role of regulation, but also of incentives, in driving behaviour. Accordingly, driving investment into infrastructure that can serve farmers should be a key tenet of any AgriTech strategy.


Clarifying data ownership

Data-sharing collaborations – particularly between the public and private sectors – must contend with challenges regarding data and intellectual property ownership. As one contributor contended, “obviously people want to protect their intellectual property, and they perhaps underestimate the requirements of producing evidence to the regulator and the overhead of going through the regulatory process. That creates quite a lot of fear within businesses around sharing ownership of data and whether they’re going to get exploited.”

There is also a sense of caution around data-sharing within the supply chain itself. As one participant commented, “looking at sensitive topics like traceability and sustainability, and often where there is an end user (i.e., the farmer or landowner) there is a real issue with data sensitivity. They’re worried about that data being misused by the supply chain.”

Another contributor, however, noted that there is an opportunity embedded within the challenge of improving data sharing; “being able to integrate this massive amount of complex data is going to be very interesting and difficult. But it also presents the opportunity to perhaps overcome some challenges with IP, because data then resides in a public domain type setting. Finding ways to come around and share elements that create value for all, while respecting the needs for downstream players to receive a return on investment, is going to be very important.”

Currently, data ownership is thought of in terms of the precepts laid out by General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), however competition law adds another layer of complexity. While GDPR applies to personal data, it can also impact the flow of non-personal data, particularly within datasets that combine personal and non-personal information.1 The cost of organising datasets to comply with GDPR is also typically high, creating an artificial barrier to smaller entrants. It also complicates certain processes of data collection, sometimes providing an unfair advantage to data controllers, and reduces the economic incentive for firms to share data (in large part because those who share data are still responsible for monitoring its usage once it has been shared with data receivers).

One contributor observed that “there’s this conflation between personal data and private-public B2B data. Clarity on ownership sharing and what’s expected will be really helpful, as there are always problems and barriers with data sharing.” Government could play a key role in facilitating data sharing and collaboration within the private sector by providing greater clarity on GDPR and its relationship with competition law.

While the FSA, alongside a number of research institutions, are currently engaged in the building of “data sharing trust frameworks,” the sheer complexity of the AgriFood supply chain at the pre-farmgate level necessitates top-down clarity on standards and regulations. In the context of the sector’s need to drastically alter practices in a fairly short timeframe, this clarity on regulation may need to anticipate changes in technology.

As one participant stated, “by the time you bring a crop product to market that’s 10, 15 years down the line, but the climate will have changed drastically by then.” As such, government should work closely with regulators and research institutions to develop regulatory guidance of the industry, and establish a data-sharing framework that would sit “above the regulator or the regulations.” It is essential that this data-sharing framework encourages the breakdown of silos within the agriculture and AgriTech sectors.


Further considerations

Government must be aware that “agriculture tends to be quite a reactive sector,” and that it is “easy to overregulate.” It was articulated that “if authorisation means public consultation and secretary of state sign-off, well that’s quite a high level of scrutiny and cost.” Interest was expressed in developing a new “triage approach where products can be screened and those which do not pose a risk can be treated differently to those which may.” These approaches could be informed by approaches adopted internationally – with one participant noting that “Australia routinely takes a year to do risk assessment and authorisation for product imports, whereas the same products tend to take roughly six years to pass through the same processes in the EU.”

It is key, however, to recognise that agencies that are ultimately responsible for consumer trust must continue to prioritise the consumer. As one contributor noted, “if people don’t trust food, if they don’t believe that food companies – whether it’s research institutes, farmers or development companies – have the interests of the consumer at heart, then it’s very difficult not only to develop new products, but also to bring them to market.” This also complicates the process of getting new people to pursue careers in the field, and to get consumers to believe that the food and the feed products that are being produced will be safe to eat. A lack of consumer trust could also be a blocker to international investment.

There is also a pressing question regarding how innovation in AgriTech will be fuelled amid labour shortages within an already tight market. Specifically in the context of increased information sharing, there is a need for new staff. As argued by one participant, “when you’re integrating the farmer with the data, they have no time to sit down and analyse the stuff. So, support services are going to be very, very important in order to realise the full value of these technologies in the hands of the farmer.”

To this point, coordinated and targeted strategies to assess existing gaps exist in skills relating to of technologies (such as soil husbandry, carbon auditing and biomass management) will be crucial. The TIAH is one of the bodies currently undertaking research into the labour market’s impact on AgriTech innovation and is focusing on launching a campaign to improve perceptions of the sector. However future planning is key for these bodies, specifically the development of models that allow groups like the TIAH to anticipate areas of need, which makes data access a crucial consideration for the agriculture and AgriTech labour markets.


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

1 Michal S Gal, Oshrit Aviv, The Competitive Effects of the GDPR, Journal of Competition Law & Economics, Volume 16, Issue 3, September 200, Pages 349–391, https://doi.org/10.1093/joclec/nhaa012