The agriculture industry faces many challenges, from unfavourable weather, to animal diseases and competitive supply chains. It’s a testing industry, but one which can be incredibly rewarding to those who manage to persevere.
Despite such difficulties, agriculture in England is still a growing sector, with farms across the country employing nearly 310,000 people in 2018 – up 0.9% from the previous year.
Such progress is only possible through innovation, with new technologies being incorporated into traditional processes and pushing the sector forward.
With such incredibly fine margins, any technology that can help reduce risk and increase efficiency is always going to be in high demand. Agritech is therefore big business – in the UK alone, the industry is worth more than £14 billion, with research helping to advance machinery, and equipment.
Below we examine some of the most recent innovations and the challenges they are helping the industry to tackle.
Solving the labour crisis with automation
Although the number of agricultural employees has risen in recent years, Brexit could present the industry with a major staff shortage.
According to the National Farmers’ Union, just one percent of the 60,000 seasonal workers who pick fruit and vegetables in the UK are British, with most coming across from Eastern Europe to work each summer. Leaving the European Union is likely to end the free movement of workers between the UK and EU, this could make it more difficult for farmers to employ such workforces.
One potential solution to this challenge is the concept of autonomous farming. Robot workers could replace humans in fields and perform several tasks, such as monitoring soil fertility and weeding.
Earth Rover is one of the UK startups exploring this space and it aims to create the first robotic agriculture system that is viable for farmers to use. Basing their machines on ExoMars Rover space technology, Earth Rover’s robots are rugged and reliable and can withstand extreme terrain – perfect for dusty, uneven farmland. They are also light, causing far less damage to fields than normal tractor-based methods.
Being so small and agile, the robots can be far more targeted and precise in their work. This is particularly helpful when spraying pesticide or herbicide on weeds, as robots can spread the chemicals in exact problem areas, reducing the amount of collateral plant damage.
The same benefits apply to fertiliser, with more accurate dispersal meaning that the process is more efficient and productive. There are therefore considerable financial benefits to deploying such technology.
“If you could have a rover that was intelligent enough to go up and down the fields of crops and take samples in individual spots, which is the kind of thing we do in space, then you wouldn’t need to spend so much money fertilising huge swathes of areas. You could find the particular problem and you could target it in exactly the way you need it.”
Dr Rain Irshad, head of Autonomous Systems at the Science and Technology Facilities Council’s Rutherford Appleton laboratory (who are working alongside Earth Rover)
Earth Rover’s innovation comes from combining existing farming equipment with state-of-the-art technology and the potential benefits to agricultural productivity are huge.
Increasing efficiency to feed a growing population
Another major challenge facing farmers is the world’s alarmingly increasing population. Demand for food is rising astronomically and farms must keep up, all while adhering to society’s growing environmental conscience and an ever-reducing amount of farmland.
Lettus Grow is a Bristol-based startup tackling the issue head-on. Its patent-pending aeroponic irrigation system, which involves plant roots being suspended in a nutritional mist, uses intelligent control technology and is reported to increase growth rate by 70%, compared to hydroponic growing methods. It also uses 95% less water than traditional approaches and no pesticides, meaning that the system is both financially and environmentally superior.
The agritech firm was named the UK’s best ‘tech-for-good’ startup at this year’s Vodafone Techstarter awards and its innovative technology is helping farming to keep up with a growing world.
Another piece of innovative equipment that is helping to transform farming is the use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) – commonly referred to as ‘drones’. While these are now commonly used for photographic and military purposes, some UK startups are beginning to explore their potential application to agriculture.
Nofolk-based Crop Angel Ltd is hoping to become the first company to acquire the license required to use sprayer drones in UK airspace. Working with research partners and local authorities, the startup is using the latest drone technology to increase farm efficiency. Some of its possible uses include bracken control, crop protection and spot spraying (e.g. black grass). Such devices will allow farmers to more easily and safely perform these tasks, especially if they have large fields or particularly sensitive land. Using aerial deployment means that no machines or people make contact with the environment, reducing the amount of damage to the crops.
Crop Angel has developed existing technology and adapted it for a new industry – an innovation that will drastically increase farmer productivity.
Agriculture is a hard and precarious, but through innovation, the sector is starting to overcome its many challenges. Whether that involves creating new technology or adapting existing pieces for new uses, the innovations are helping to make agriculture more efficient, environmentally-friendly and capable of meeting the rapidly rising demand.
Agritech companies could be eligible for the R&D Tax Credit scheme, which allows such businesses to claim back a proportion of their R&D investment in the form of tax credits. The scheme is designed to encourage and enable UK businesses to invest in the research and development needed to overcome challenges within the industry and grow.
Eligible companies can also claim Patent Box relief alongside R&D tax credits. Patent Box relief is another HMRC concession that enables UK companies to pay a reduced Corporation Tax rate of 10% on profits resulting from the sales of products or services containing a patented invention.