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Tesco’s head of agriculture: ‘Water quality is a key issue no-one is innovating for’

October 11, 2018

Barney Kay is head of agriculture at Tesco, the major UK retailer. Tesco is hosting a pitch competition at the upcoming World Agri-Tech Innovation Summit in London next week. In advance of the event, we caught up with Kay to find out more about the retailer’s views on agricultural innovation, foodtech, and the need for water-related solutions.

AFN: What are Tesco’s priorities when it comes to adopting technology across its supply chain?

Barney Kay: We want to build a strong agricultural sector of the future focused on our long-term partnerships with ur suppliers to help grow our business and serve our shoppers better. Many of our suppliers are already leading the way in research and we are making sure we’re doing everything we can to foster innovation whether that’s to make UK agriculture more sustainable, reduce water use or provide new products to customers.

What are some examples of new technologies being used in your supply chain?

A large amount of the new and exciting technologies being trialed in our supply chains are sensitive, so we are not able to share them at the moment. However, to give you a flavor, an example would be the increasing use of camera technology to help forecast the harvest date, quality and yield of crops along with field-based sensors. This highlights the direction of wanting to drive data-led decision making, which flows benefit right the way through our supply chains, leading to more efficient, sustainable and healthy food production.

Why is Tesco hosting the Tesco Agri T-Jam at World Agri-Tech Conference in London next week?

We are excited to give startups a chance to pitch their innovation to our team with the winner gaining an opportunity to partner with a supplier of ours and to help Tesco in its mission to provide affordable, sustainable food to our customers.

Will you be investing in startups?

We might be but that’s not our primary aim. There are plenty of funds already targeting agritech investment;  where we see our opportunity is to add strength to those portfolios through our strong partnerships in the supply chain, giving startups access to our supply partners to do commercial trials. I come from a poultry farming background and often see things that look good in a laboratory but then take them out and into the hands of less scientific farmers and they don’t stand up – these technologies need to be able to stand up to the common denominator.

If you could build an agtech startup from scratch with no limitations on tech capacity or investment, what would it be?

If you look at animal nutrition across species, you’ve got a huge amount of research tailored towards feed rations and optimizing feed based on the different ages of animals as they develop, however, the bit we struggle to control and is absolutely vital, is water.

Because we are not able to control water quality, there is less research in that area. The lacking bit is how can you pick up in real-time the bacterial load in a water line and control water through its various different avenues?

We can spend a lot of money on feed rations, but if the animal’s gut integrity is wrong because of bacteria in the water line, that nutrition is wasted and is also a welfare issue. Water issues can give you variation in a flock or a herd, and become a challenge for a processor or the customer with different sized animals. If we can get on top of water quality, we’re more likely to utilize our feed as efficiently as possible, which will be more cost effective and result in better health for the animal.

Water quality is relevant in the fresh produce industry too as e-coli and salmonella are spread through water. We obviously follow the sun in terms of supply from around the globe to ensure all year round supply, and each supplier will have different variabilities in terms of water management. So it would be great to have a technology that allows you to quickly spot a problem in water quality.

Thinking about the future of the food system, what two to three features do you expect to be different in 2050?

It’s all really exciting at moment. I can see vertical farming accelerating. When looking at the costs of pollution associated with transportation and bringing food production closer to urban populations along with the technological efficiencies of those production systems, these controlled environments could also help with the spread of plant disease and pests. I know our suppliers are looking at these technologies and that’s part of the reason why we’re engaged with agritech to make sure our finger is on the pulse of the latest developments.

I think there will be more focus on the overall gut biome and health of animals in animal agriculture, and everything that goes with that. Focusing on the healthy wellbeing of animals will translate into food that’s good for us as well — there’s science on that and it feels logical to me. So making sure we have the very best food supply systems for these animals will give our customers the best for them as well.

What do you think about plant-based and lab-grown meat alternatives?

We have a range of vegan-ready, plant-based meat alternatives called Wicked Kitchen and they are hugely popular. There’s a great range of interest from flexitarians who are increasing the amount of plant-based protein they eat and this range is just a taste delight; I can’t believe it’s not meat. Some years ago the choices and alternatives were not that exciting, so these alternatives are very on-trend and appeal to our younger customers in particular.

Meat plays a vital part in a balanced diet and customers generally want that, so we want to make sure that we have high welfare systems for our animal agriculture partners while also recognizing the increased demand for alternatives.

Do you think meat needs a higher price tag to afford improved management systems?

We don’t have the same level of intensive systems as in the US in the UK. We banned stools and tethers in 1998 and even our indoor systems have a much greater freedom of movement for animals to express their natural behaviours. At Tesco, we have very clear welfare standards for our supply chain, and we’re committed to go cage-free from 2025 as our suppliers invest in new systems of production to do that; we have the responsibility to ensure our suppliers have the time scale to make that investment and that it stacks up for them financially to give the customers what they want.

It’s hard to square that circle with long-term partners and suppliers and that’s where tech can really help to remove the cost of labor by repurposing labor into value-adding areas. We’re used to seeing robots used purely in processing, but if you go to a free range egg farm — which represent 65% of the eggs Tesco sells — the egg-laying farms, which have 40,000 head on the farm, now have robotics packers in the sheds. This frees up resources to look after the hens. 

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