More than 70 projects have so far received funding as part of the UK government’s long-term agricultural technology (agri-tech) strategy – launched two years ago to create practical benefits for the fresh produce and wider agricultural sector. But in order for the strategy to succeed amidst a host of new challenges, the produce industry must carry on working together, urges Judith Batchelar, director of the Sainsbury’s brand and co-chair of the agri-tech leadership council, which oversees the implementation of the strategy. Produce Business UK learns more
The many “moving parts” within government
Batchelar boldly cuts to the chase by saying new plans drawn up by the new Conservative government, combined with the rapidly changing retail environment, means the industry needs “to join up the end-to-end value chain – namely, agriculture and land use, food and drink manufacturing and processing, supply chain and logistics, retail operations, consumers and landfill – in a way that we have never before”.
She explains this is partly because there are currently many “moving parts” within the government that could affect the future of agricultural technology in the UK. This includes plans launched by the Conservative government this summer – namely the Department for Food, Environment and Rural Affairs’ (Defra) “eagerly awaited” 25-year food and farming plan, and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) Select Committee’s inquiry into the government’s productivity plan.
Batchelar is quick to point out that these plans have been launched whilst a third government department – the Department of Health – is under immense pressure to tackle the obesity crisis.
“These are all very big challenges that are about to impact on us as a sector,” she says – adding that the current hive of activity is, in a way, “great news” because, in the past, the industry has been held back by the fact that things have not moved “at pace.”
However, she warns that this fast pace must not affect the quality of a strategic plan for the agricultural sector. “I also think we have an opportunity to identify what we, the sector, will do of our own accord and where we need government to provide a framework within which we can operate,” she adds.
A dynamic marketplace
Batchelar adds that, as well as the government’s many spinning plates, the retail environment is also moving apace.
“Up until 2012, it was a ‘space race’ – food retailers versus independents,” she says. “That progress was relentless but the dynamic has changed enormously in terms of the way that people are shopping, living their lives, and the food that they are buying.”
She explains the way in which people are shopping is creating a “fundamental, structural change” in the sector.
The arrival in January (2016) of AmazonFresh could further shake things up, she claims. “By 2022 traditional supermarket retailers will represent 58% of the market, [which is] still the biggest majority but a very different marketplace,” she notes.
In the long-term, Batchelar suggests one likely outcome of the changing retail market is polarisation – meaning there could be “those focused only on price, versus those who are focused on offering customers great value and offering something that’s truly sustainable.”
She explains: “What you are starting to see already is longer term contracts, longer term [supplier] relationships.”
Going forward, Batchelar therefore claims businesses in all parts of the supply chain will need to actively work together and look for business opportunities. Sainsbury’s has already taken action by making plans to reduce costs through improving the health and welfare of its dairy cattle farmers.
“311 dairy farms shared data with us anonymously,” Batchelar says. “We have looked at that value chain in terms of cost savings, cost efficiencies and value creation… we have identified £25m worth of savings in efficiencies if the bottom 10% were to achieve what the top 10% are achieving. £25m is the best estimate – but anywhere between £0m and £25m will be pretty good.”
Keeping up the good work
What’s clear in Batchelar’s thinking is that agricultural technology must remain a top priority for both the industry and the government. And judging by the amount of progress that’s been made since the launch of the agri-tech strategy, change is already afoot.
One of the projects underway, for instance, is the development by scientists at Lincoln University of a 3D camera that will help identify when broccoli is ready for harvesting. Another is “Poptical”, which has led companies including Manor Fresh, Ursula Agriculture and The James Hutton Institute to work together on a project to fly drones over potato fields to help pinpoint diseases in these tuberous crops.
Whilst such programmes have largely been made possible thanks to Agri-Tech Catalyst funding, the industry has also chipped in – both financially and by devoting its time and expertise to help get the ball rolling. As Batchelar suggests, the industry now needs to keep up this good work.
Batchelar was speaking to delegates at the Westminster Food & Nutrition Forum keynote seminar on the agri-tech strategy.