25.05.23 Market Intel

The future of farming

Written by Chris Hewat-Boyne, Funding Consultant

Foraging and hunting

Since the dawn of time, humans have looked upon this earth with hungry eyes. As nomads, we became weary of rummaging, foraging, and hunting to feed ourselves. There is no single combination of factors that led us to abandon the nomadic lifestyle, but ~10,000 years ago (give or take a few thousand years) civilians thought to themselves: “Enough of this rummaging for berries, let’s prepare our fields for the cornflake revolution” … or something like that.

When humans made this transition towards farming practices, ~5m people were roaming the planet. This concerted farming effort helped gear up human proliferation, creating the global population we see today (~8bn people, at last count). To put this into perspective, there are now >80 cities around the world that could contain the 5m people that began farming practices. That’s a lot of cornflakes to deliver.

A surge in food demand

By 2050, global populations are expected to reach 10bn, creating a projected 70% surge in food demand. Current global food systems (encompassing production, post-farm processes, and distribution) are already stretched and are a critical global emission contributor.

From field to plate, current farming practices create ~13.59bn tonnes of CO2-equivalent emissions per year or around ~26% of total global emissions. As such, governments are investing to secure our climate future alongside the assurance that food supply can meet demand.

Increased productivity, sustainability and environmental impact

To fulfil this remit, the UK’s Department for Environment Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) and UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) have partnered with a shared aim to help farmers, growers and foresters increase productivity and better manage the sustainability and environmental impact of mass agriculture and horticulture.

UKRI and DEFRA will fund UK businesses and Research Organisations that focus on:

  1. Exploring ideas of benefit to farms: that improve farming and solve long-term practical challenges; a ‘Research Starter Project’ attracting between £28-56k in funding.
  2. Researching if an idea will work in practice: funding feasibility studies lasting up to two years, with costs between £200-500k, to explore if a picture is worth pursuing.
  3. Developing new farming products or services: larger projects (between £1-5m) focusing on developing partnerships that help increase farming productivity, reduce the associated emissions and environmental impacts and help improve farming business resilience.
  4. Longer-term farming innovations: periodic, themed ‘Farming Futures’ competitions focused on ambitious research projects (£200k-£6m).

What will this investment achieve?

So, where will this investment go? What will it achieve, and what kind of projects can we expect?

Promising innovations on the horizon may include:

  • Pollination Technologies such as commercially-reared bees delivering targeted crop pollination, or the replacement of chemical pesticides with environmentally safe crop protection systems.
  • Precision agriculture and livestock technologies will collect, process, and evaluate soil quality and farm productivity, streamlining farm management, improving animal care, and boosting overall productivity.
  • Indoor vertical farming techniques such as hydroponics/aeroponics systems that are compact, water efficient and provide controllable variables to help increase yields and reduce land use.
  • Farming automation using AI and data management to automate agricultural machinery, computer systems, electronics, and chemical sensors to help improve equipment operation and operational decision-making and, ultimately, reduce human inputs and the chance of error.
  • Land management technologies such as Real-Time Kinematic mapping which accurately maps farming land and terrain to improve yield, soil productivity, and reduced damage caused by farming machinery.
  • Water management technology to streamline and promote the targeted use of H2O, helping reduce freshwater wastage and improve sustainability.
  • Genetic Engineering focused on crop characteristics making them more resilient to climate change or increasing yield, removing the need for time-consuming selective crossbreeding techniques.

Funds are likely to be released and awarded to projects aligned to the Future Farming and Countryside Programme, Defra’s Agricultural Transition Plan and new ‘Farming is Changing’ policy change guidance.

One thing is for sure – if you don’t like the idea of lab-grown meat or tucking into an insect burger, we had better start thinking of ways to make our current food staples more sustainable and productive!



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