War, strikes, seasonal worker constraints, energy hikes and a growing change in our climate have put a tremendous strain on the fresh produce industry.
The challenges faced mean that now, more than ever before, we need to look to innovation to not only solve the issues but to help our sector to thrive in the future.
Freshtalk Daily has looked at the evidence presented by key industry experts and highlights the most prominent findings for the year ahead.
Doctor Rosemary Collier and Professor Kate Seers of the university of Warwick believe that a stark power asymmetry exists between suppliers and retailers, whose policies have led to a “defensive” innovation culture and lack of trust. They note that innovation platforms are needed to bring together otherwise closed groups around common problems and the use of road-mapping should be utilised to provide a guiding vision for the future of the sector.
Retail-led grower groups also provide a means to improve trust between suppliers and customers in the sector and promote new technological trajectories.
In August 2022, the government announced £16.5 million more funding for research and development in farming innovation.
Artificial Intelligence technology, agri-robots to help speed up vegetable harvesting and automation to increase fruit crop yields are just some of research and development projects that have already received funding through the Farming Innovation Programme and this boost is set to continue in the year to come.
Former Farming Innovation Minister Steve Double said of the scheme: "We need to help unlock greater potential in our already brilliant farming and horticulture sector. This move to boost the adoption of agri-innovation demonstrates how - with the right funding and support - there are great productivity and environmental sustainability gains to be made.
"Our £270 million investment in farming innovation is designed to help take the UK’s world-leading research ideas and turn them into practical solutions to support healthy soils, abundant pollinators and clean water alongside profitable food production."
In a report produced for the Food Standards Agency by Cambridge University, researcher Shima Barakat found that six key technology fields were identified and their implications for industry, consumers, food safety and the regulatory framework explored.
These fields are:
Food Production and Processing (indoor/vertical/aquaponic farming, 3D food printing, food side and by-product use, novel non-thermal processing, and novel pesticides)
Novel Sources of Protein, such as insects (for human consumption, and animal feedstock)
Synthetic Biology (including lab-grown meat and proteins)
Genomics Applications along the value chain (for food safety applications, tracking and sustainability)
Novel Packaging (active, smart, biodegradable, edible, and reusable solutions)
Digital Technologies in the food sector (supporting analysis, decision making and traceability).
Despite the findings, many in the industry are unaware of the technologies that exist or, indeed, how to finance and integrate them into their existing work-flow.
"Education is key," explains Nigel Jenney, Chief Executive of the UK's Fresh Produce Consortium. He believes the adoption of technological solutions throughout the supply chain is a major part of the solution.
“Through agritech, we can target those areas of the industry that face both short-term and long-term challenges and grasp the untapped potential of our sector,” he said.
“The technology is emerging but currently there isn’t enough education about its use and there needs to be more financially viable routes available to support its adoption.
"That’s why FPC has developed a groundbreaking two-in-one event to both showcase the latest innovation and discover the next generation of talent to take the fresh produce and horticultural sectors confidently forward to the future.”
"FPC FUTURE & CAREERS will take place this year on 16 March at the East of England Arena and Events Centre, Peterborough. Jenney wants it to be open to everyone, with free entry available to all who register on the website.
"The shortage of seasonal workers in the UK is a serious business challenge” continued Jenney ”and businesses are eager to learn more about how automation can keep their operations running.”
#HowToRobot is collaborating with the FPC to help farms and other fresh produce businesses explore their automation options and find suppliers and solutions. They will be showcasing their services at FUTURE & CAREERS on Stand S3.
“Many of businesses are dipping their toes into the robotics and automation industry for the first time and are seeking advice on where and how to begin and what solutions are available to them,” added Jenney.
Indeed, FPC encourages suppliers with relevant solutions to consider demonstrating their innovations at FPC Future in March.
To enquire about becoming an exhibitor or sponsor of FPC FUTURE & CAREERS email email@example.com.