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carbon neutral

UK wants agriculture to be carbon neutral by 2040. But £20m here and there won’t do the trick

October 14, 2019

Prodded by rising public concerns about climate change, the UK government wants its agricultural sector to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2040. This is a bold target. But it is also a tricky one, and the government is still not weighing in with enough heft in the right places, British investors have warned AFN.

One recent funding push came recently, for instance, but was typically feeble in size and scope — more gentle nudge than push. This was back in September when the government launched the latest round of its “Transforming Food Production Challenge.” It offers a mere £20m in grant funding for “future food production systems that have the potential to transform current methods of production by improving sustainability and productivity.”

The challenge will be run by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) on behalf of the government. What exactly are they looking to fund? Answer: anything to help farmers to reduce pollution and boost food production “through the integrated use of new digital technologies, sensors, artificial intelligence, machine learning and robotics.” This is a wide net. And much of this is expensive stuff. How much will this really move the dial toward eventual carbon neutrality?

Winners of previous government schemes with a similar thrust include a project to produce a prototype for a soft-fruit picking robot, which would reduce the need for seasonal fruit-picking labour; there’s also a project called Tuberscan, which will develop ground-penetrating radar, underground scans and AI to monitor potato crops and identify when they are ready to harvest. This technology could increase the usable crop by an estimated 5%-10%, the company hopes, and reduce food waste with minimal extra cost.

A project in Middlesex is using a £233,000 grant for its project to help cows graze without farmer supervision by placing sensors on farm gates that communicate with GPS trackers on cows to open and close gates allowing cattle to graze freely. aiScope, a project based in Sheffield, won £1 million to apply AI and analysis to tackle the common cereal weed Blackgrass, potentially saving farmers £580 million a year. And Rootwave, in Warwickshire, will use a £690,000 grant to use electricity instead of chemicals to kill weeds via the roots avoiding damage to crops. (Rootwave also won FoodBytes! in London a couple of years ago – find out more here.)

Some of these are neat ideas. Yet it remains to be seen how well these companies will actually fare, and how they will enhance the wider agri and foodtech ecosystem in the UK. And realistically, these companies probably could have got more funding by going down the VC route, so the effect already is quite limited.

The UKRI Transforming Food Production advisory group is chaired by Peter Kendall. In a note sent to AFN, he said that “equipping UK agriculture for the coming century of climate change is one of the biggest challenges facing the sector and the application of the latest technology, including robotics and AI is a major part of the way forward.” He is right there. Katrina Hayter, the challenge director at UKRI, also chimed in that the UK “needs to become more efficient and environmentally sustainable in the food it produces.” Also correct. Yet these words will need much more concerted action as backup. According to UKRI, large-scale ambitious and integrated projects would be “particularly welcome.” But surely to such projects, the modest sums offered by the government would hardly be worth battling too hard for.

‘A drop in the ocean’

Ahead of a briefing event in Edinburgh on 8 October and another in Birmingham on 23 October, this reporter stopped by a Forward Food Tech breakfast at the Shard in London, to check how this news was being digested by the UK investment community.

Not with awe and amazement, it turns out. “It’s a drop in the ocean,” UK agritech investor Paul Rous tells AFN. He described it as “a welcome first step,” and expressed hope that there would swiftly be far more to follow. But he reckoned a focus on ecosystems like that of the Israeli government was a more sure bet. A strategy of investments through incubators, he mused, was one way to get “better bang for your buck,” rather than large slices of grant funding for individual companies that may just end up frittering away the cash, all with limited impact on a surrounding ecosystem.

Dr Rob Wylie of Five Seasons Ventures, meanwhile, expressed skepticism that the government would make for a sound investor in the space, and warned against illusions of grandeur. The government investing in the space might just “get in the way,” he worried, and its vote of confidence in a given startup would not do much to compel other private investors to pile in after. “It won’t do much to move the needle,” Dr Wylie concluded.

Joint projects with China

Expect another two other contests soon, though, potentially adding to a welcome drumbeat of funding on offer. One funding contest will invite joint projects to apply from the UK and China with a focus on autonomous technologies such as sensors, systems, vehicles and robotics. This will open on Oct. 7. The second is called Science into Technology and Practice; it aims to strengthen ties between farmers, researchers and businesses “to develop approaches to improve productivity.” According to UKRI, it will support projects that will transform food production and opens for application from Oct. 28.

All of this investment in new resource-efficient, low emission production systems is part of the government’s commitment to boost R&D spending to 2.4% of GDP by 2027. Why is this percentage so small, one may ask? And why a commitment so far in the distance as the year 2027?

The funding, the government says, helps businesses, researchers and industry to transform farming and meet the needs of a growing population. This is true, but perhaps only via the catchphrase of the UK supermarket chain Tesco’s: ‘Every little helps.’

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