Roundtable 1: Innovation in the Food Supply Chain – Do we need an AgriTech strategy?

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The introduction of a gene-editing bill to parliament on 25th May marked a monumental step in the post-Brexit era. Since 2018, it has been nearly impossible to grow gene-edited food in the EU at a commercial scale. However, now free to make its own regulations, the UK is seizing the chance to unlock its significant R&D infrastructure and reap the security and nutritional benefits of gene-editing.

But doing so will require the UK to improve the efficiency of its food supply chain. While the Food Strategy white paper promises to bring together the disparate elements of the food supply chain to support unprecedented levels of cooperation, promises of far-reaching reform are unlikely to be realised unless they themselves are supported by programmes that address the specific needs of the supply chain’s different stakeholders.

At the first roundtable of PPP’s Innovation in the Food Supply Chain series, “Do we need an AgriTech Strategy?” a panel of experts from across the food supply chain discussed how government strategy could lead to a more adaptable supply chain, and a more sustainable food system.

A fragmented food supply chain

The UK’s food supply chain does not work in unison. At its core, agriculture is driven by subsidies – which delays responses to market trends. That disconnect with the market is exacerbated by the competing interests of the supply chain’s different elements.

This would be a suboptimal status quo even in the best of times, but it is particularly troublesome now as the UK’s food system looks to improve productivity and efficiency while satisfying growing demand, dealing with a cost-of-living crisis and reducing its carbon emissions.

Without room to expand (over 70 per cent of the UK’s land mass is used by land-based industries or agricultural production) the UK must look towards technology and systemic reform to deliver change within its food system. However, given the breadth of the food supply chain – and the disparity in motives and incentives between its constituent parts – there is a real danger that sweeping reforms may fail to address specific implementation gaps. It may also undo the work of AgriTech-centred programs that are currently in place.

As such, “Do we need an AgriTech strategy?” discussed how reform could be most effectively implemented, given the various pressures faced by the supply chain. What emerged from discussions between the roundtable’s participants (which included representatives of the UK’s agricultural research institutions, each of the AgriTech centres and DEFRA, as well as members of industry) was a broad consensus that any AgriTech strategy, or its equivalent, would need to figure out how to get technology into the hands of farmers more effectively – and how to effectively integrate any strategy with other industrial initiatives.

The need for integrated strategy

Speakers identified “opportunities on the productivity side and the environmental side (i.e., reducing greenhouse gas emissions, improving the quality, improving biodiversity, etc.)” for the food industry that could be better accessed with the help of AgriTech. However, absent the necessary financing and implementation structures, there was concern that too much of the technology developed in labs in the UK does not “get out on the farm.”

This has been an area of concern for DEFRA for some time now. However, while their equity strategy (published in 2013) and the Transforming Feed Production Challenge are two examples of funding programs that have helped to promote change in the industry, the impact of these efforts have been limited by a lack of auxiliary support.

In simple terms, “AgriTech doesn’t exist in isolation.” Instead, it is “a key part of, and is supported by, various other strategies.” For AgriTech, other strategies that impact agriculture, research networks, or net zero targets are all capable of affecting either the development or the rollout of new technologies to farmers – and accordingly policymaking must take these impacts into account.

It also must address the fact that currently only “a tiny percentage of farmers actually get involved in [AgriTech schemes],” by creating improved feedback networks. As such, a number of contributors acknowledged the need for “a system where there can be some coordination of the knowledge and the evidence that’s being generated by feedback systems so that we are getting knowledge and expertise back from the farmers who are involved in these projects, or just trying new things out on their farms.”

However, even accessing that sort of data would demand a level of attention to infrastructure that has up until now been remiss from a most agricultural or food strategies. Access to utilities, particularly broadband, currently poses a major impediment to not only the rollout of recent technologies, but also the creation of feedback networks to support them.

It also poses an obstacle for farmers and suppliers looking to have a more open dialogue with consumers. “Technology can really help with veracity, if you can trace everything then you do not have to be black and white with your thinking – you can have a spectrum scale [for things like organic produce]. For example, a product may not be organic, but you as the consumer could know that is only because a pesticide had to be sprayed and otherwise everything else is organic.”

The roles of government and regulation

There were also a number of calls for a sense of proportionality within regulatory frameworks. While regulation obviously can impact the market, those frameworks also need to support the development of more sustainable farming practices in realistic terms.

For example, the Precision Breeding Bill (currently in the House of Commons), states that plant varieties will qualify as precision bred if they could have been developed with conventional breeding or through natural processes – setting a high bar for farmers that many contributors felt could deter the development of precision breeding on UK farms.

Moreover, unless departments are properly equipped to assume the new responsibilities that may be assigned to them by new regulation, there is also a risk that these regulatory frameworks could slow the pace of change. There is also the matter that, as a number of contributors noted, though a variety of departments participate in the food supply chain in some form, “you end up having quite different conversations with the different departments.”

However, a keen concern was still expressed over the need for these regulations to be used intelligently to encourage industry to find new ways to monetise sustainable practices and behaviours. These regulations should also be cognisant of the international market for food. “We shouldn’t forget the sort of trade opportunities that exist, and we need to think about how we put this into the context of what the sector could offer countries overseas, as well as attracting that investment in new markets as well.”

Additionally, there were calls for government to take greater advantage of the growth opportunities within the AgriTech space – with one contributor noting that “compound annual growth rates for AgriTech and AgriTech investments are about 3 per cent.” “In the last five years, billions of dollars are coming in [to AgriTech] from people who have got nothing to do with farming. They see the potential opportunity being grasped elsewhere.”

Accordingly, there was interest expressed in the creation of a net zero timeline for the food industry. This timeline could put forward specific dates – akin to the timelines that have been offered for the phase-out of combustion engines in road vehicles. However, these dates would need to be relatively flexible, or at least adaptative to fluctuations in agricultural markets

The use of new metrics to judge the success of farms was also discussed. While productivity has traditionally been the primary driver of agricultural investment, new metrics that cover social and environmental impacts may help to give farmers and policymakers a more holistic, long-term view of a farm’s success. While these new measures may be difficult to develop and implement at first, there are tremendous upsides to utilising metrics that factor in environmental considerations alongside traditional drivers.

A mixed picture for UK AgriTech

For plant breeding and genetics “the private sector has diminished its investment in Europe, and that’s very much to Europe’s detriment.” For the UK, it means “we do not have the capacity. So [because of strong R&D networks and investment in other applications of genetic research] the UK is in this strange position of being both a leader in this space and a laggard.” As such, while universities in the UK continue to engage in world-leading research, the private apparatus to take that innovation to market currently does not exist in the UK (or at least not at the level it needs to).

The development of the private plant genetics sector in the UK will not serve a single market, however. As one contributor described it, “there are two marketplaces. One is the farm uptake of AgriTech, and then [there is the] ultimate marketplace [which] is the customer’s purchase of agricultural produce.” Accordingly, there is a need “to put more case studies forward and more and situations where farmers, and ultimately, the shoppers can actually see they see the benefits.”

As one contributor noted, the scale of change required within the agricultural and food sectors will require a “massive change of culture.” But in engendering that change of culture, it is key that the gains being made by ongoing programs are not sacrificed.

The DEFRA-led Farming Innovation Programme is investing £270 million in R&D and innovation over the course of the agricultural transition through to 2028, and the Farming Investment Fund is working to help farmers access technology that is already available on the market. These programs are already making significant impacts, and while they are limited in their efficacy by a lack of auxiliary support from other programs, the scrapping of these programs would affect short-term progress at a time when the food supply chain needs to be collectively acting with urgency.

It is a balancing act. “To maximise productivity whilst minimising any environmental damage requires a long-term vision,” however, delivering on that vision will require a keen awareness of what is possible in the short-term.