A collaborative and 'joined-up approach' is needed within the agri-tech sector to enable quick advancement in sustainability, standardisation and world-leading innovation.

That was the main outcome from this year’s Agri-EPI Centre's annual conference, held at the end of October. The R and D specialist is part of a unique collaboration between UK Government, academia and industry to drive greater efficiency, resilience and wealth across the agri-food sector and has a £90 million investment from the UK’s strategic innovation agency, Innovate UK.

“All sectors are looking at net zero trajectories, as well as support mechanisms to encourage sustainability,” explained Agri-EPI CEO, Dave Ross. “This includes greenhouse gas reduction, biodiversity and land and soil improvements. There are new initiatives and support systems coming forward to drive these.”

The conference hosted several panel sessions looking at what farmers want from agri-tech, how the industry is meeting this demand and how policy can help the industry.

In his keynote speech, Tim Mordan, deputy director at Defra, addressed the need for unification between support schemes and environmental benefits to help drive the agri-tech sector. “There’s ambitious industry-led development – we have world class research establishments that are doing brilliant work, but we are trying to encourage this from the bottom up, with farmer-led innovation.”

For farmers, the driver is knowing how technology can be used on farm to improve both efficiencies and sustainability. John Pawsey, at Shimpling Park, Suffolk, found benefits in using technology to identify productive areas of the farm, as these are linked to profitability. “For all of us, it’s understanding where the value is,” he said.

That’s a sentiment Rob Hodgkins, at Kaiapoi Farming, Stevenage, agreed with: “Everything we do has to be driven by profit,” he also told the conference.

But adopting technology has a few roadblocks for the industry to overcome, with one of the big issues being accessing and interpreting different data sources.

According to Sven Grochocki, at Nevonex – which sponsored the conference – the key to solving this was to unlock inter-operability in machinery. “It’s fairly fragmented globally – we need a neutral system. Once that’s solved, it will allow a lot of new technology into agri-businesses.”

Creating a standardised system could go a long way to improving sustainability as it will increase efficiencies and reduce trial times in the agri-tech sector, according to Jose Chitty, at Smart Bell. “It takes a long time to test in agriculture. If we were to start sharing and accessing data across multiple farms, you can get hints of what is worth trying and expanding on, faster.”

But all of this takes investment and favourable legislation – which was why Government funded agri-tech projects, added Mr Mordan.

And though agri-tech firms are being encouraged to share as much information as possible, the importance of protecting Intellectual Property (IP) was also recognised.

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“Anyone in agri-tech who wants to patent their inventions should consider their IP before they disclose it,” explained Graham Spenceley, of Gill Jennings and Every, a specialist legal firm in trademarks. “As soon as it’s in the public domain, you have given it away.”

This can include field trials, demonstrations and applying for development funding, he warned. “It’s very important to view IP as an investment, not a cost.”

Awards for innovation

Excellence in innovation in small and medium agri-tech companies was recognised in the inaugural year of the Agri-EPI Agri-tech Excellence Awards, at the conference.

Forward thinking companies which focused on sustainability, profitability and social efficiencies had been invited to enter from within the UK and internationally.

The judges and sponsors from across the supply chain – who were involved in supporting the agri-tech companies – were Marks and Spencer, Barclays, Kubota, Syngenta and Leyton. “The judges were blown away by the quality, number of entries and the different technologies,” explained Steve McLean, head of agriculture and fisheries at Marks and Spencer, as he presented the awards.

The award for agri-tech excellence on a UK farm went to Pruex – which tackled husbandry and hygiene issues in livestock to minimise antibiotic use – for already having a meaningful impact on farm.