Opinion: Agri-tech must benefit all – not just the few

Modern technology promises to herald a golden age for farmers – enabling growers and livestock producers to work smarter, not just harder, as productivity is ramped up to feed a growing population while minimising the environmental effects, writes chief reporter Johann Tasker.

At least, that is what we are told. The argument is so persuasive that the government has pumped £90m into four Agri-Tech centres – harnessing the power of data and technology to benefit agri-food businesses across the arable and livestock sectors.

See also: Can Agri-Tech deliver new ‘golden age’ for farmers?

The first Agri-Tech centre opened in 2015 and is already delivering results. So too are the others. But, as we explain in our special report, it is clear some players in the supply chain are benefiting more than others.

Innovators and early adopters include larger farming companies with the time and money to invest in new technology – not to mention the ability to work with the scientists and entrepreneurs who are at the forefront of the latest developments.

Smaller family farms – frequently those that would most benefit from smarter ways of working – are in danger of missing out on the benefits promised by agri-tech. This is often because they are too busy trying to stay in business to get involved.

For agri-tech to benefit more farmers, closer links are needed between scientists, entrepreneurs and producers. Nor must ambitious flagship projects be allowed to overshadow the fact that smaller changes can also bring big benefits.

Relaxing drone rules to allow research into spot-spraying fields, for example, would speed up the development of new tools to help arable farmers. The technology is already being used in countries such as China, but is only at a fledgling stage in the UK.

The most promising projects are frequently those that involve farmers at an early stage – and sometimes they are the projects initiated by farmers themselves, who then bring in experts from outside to turn their ideas into reality.

They include the Small Robot Company and DroneAg – companies that were co-founded by farmers and are developing autonomous and unmanned aerial vehicles to improve crop management. Both have attracted farmer investment because they understand farmers’ needs.

Farmer involvement like this is vital if projects are to deliver the right solutions. After all, people working in agriculture are most aware of the challenges when it comes to producing food. It is crucial their voices are heard for agri-tech to deliver the benefits it promises.

  • Read Johann Tasker’s full report into the Agri-Tech centres here.
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