Agritech: Experts call for UK farming to become more data-driven

UK agriculture must offer practical and data-led, agritech solutions to overcome the productivity challenge it faces, according to industry experts.

A report outlining the opportunities available for British farming has been published by the Food & Drink Sector Council’s Agricultural Productivity Working Group (APWG).

Numerous exerts from the industry produced the report, pinpointing where key challenges lie and how they should be addressed.

They have identified five key areas for the farming industry to address, including the need for UK agriculture to become more data driven.

It also urges the development of the Evidence for Farming Initiative (EFI) to address fragmentation in knowledge exchange.

Alignment of innovation funding and strategy to the needs of the industry is also needed, as well as addressing low uptake of agricultural skills and training.

Lastly, the report calls for new infrastructure and policy to enable productivity gains.

Peter Kendall, member of the FDSC and chairman of the APWG, said leaving the EU has significant implications for who the UK farming industry competes with.

“Support systems are going to change and net zero is in almost every headline you see. There’s a massive coming together of issues – a perfect storm that will bring with it huge challenges but also opportunities for the industry,” he said.

“The challenge coming is probably as big as any ever experienced by our industry. We are operating in unprecedented and uncertain times and it is vital for the industry to operate as one.

“Farming is at the beginning of a revolution that will leave big chunks of the industry unrecognisable from today,” Mr Kendall added.

“Robotics, artificial intelligence, carbon capture and use of data just a few areas. We could be so much more effective through achieving unity of purpose.”

The report highlights why UK agriculture’s rate of productivity growth is lower than many of its major competitors.

This could leave it in danger of being left behind by competitors, denying consumers and the domestic food industry affordable, sustainably produced agricultural goods.

It highlights the distinction between production and productivity. It also covers the greener future of farming, recognising that improving resource efficiency is essential to both productivity growth and sustainability.

Overhauling innovation and knowledge exchange systems are critical components of the recommendations.

A centre-piece of the recommendations is the establishment of the Evidence for Farming Initiative to create a single source of evidence based practice, drawing from expertise globally to highlight what works.

The report also calls for an expansion of farmer to farmer learning and for the industry to embrace agritech bench-marking through key performance indicators (KPIs).

Skills are also cited in the report with the lack of full staff proficiency driving up the operating costs of 38% of agricultural employers with skills gaps in 2015.

The report shows that evidence from the Irish Revenue shows that trained farmers in Ireland have, on average, a 12% higher profit margin than untrained farmers.

Mr Kendall added: “If you look at our competitors, in 10 years’ time they are going to be in a far better positions than we are in terms of driving the level of ambition for skills and training.

“We need clear policy and an industry working closer together than ever before though this period of transformation to meet the challenges and make the most of the opportunities that lie ahead.

“The importance will be in getting the infrastructure right. With technology, for example, there’s no point having black spots in rural areas. Whether it’s 4G or 5G we need reliable and complete coverage,” he said.

“Our report doesn’t have all the answers but identifies what we as an industry need to do collaboratively with government.”

Responding to the report, the NFU said it supports the APWG's recommendations as they could offer a 'significant boost' to the sector.

NFU President Minette Batters said: “A welcome feature of the partnership we've formed around the productivity challenge has been the full involvement of industry and government. This must be maintained as we move to act on these recommendations.”

The Country Land and Business Association (CLA) added that the five priority areas combined have the potential to transform the industry over time, but will not happen on their own.

CLA President Mark Bridgeman said: “These recommendations need to be turned into action.

“There is no one solution to the productivity challenges faced across the farming industry, and the size of the challenge for individual businesses should not be underestimated.

“Industry and government must seize the opportunity to support farming businesses during the transition away from direct payments with advice and information, investment in skills and training and grants to help farmers adjust,” he said.

The Food and Drink Sector Council is a formal industry partnership with government which aims to create a more productive and sustainable food and drink sector.

Source: Farming UK