Farming, Food and How to Harness New Innovation

There can be few sectors that are so universal as farming and food. From water use and pollution in the agriculture sector to the plastic packaged meat and vegetables we reach for in our supermarkets, there can also be few sectors so in need of game-changing technologies and innovations.  

As an industry that emits 31% of global GHG emissions and occupies 71% of the UK’s habitable land and 50% globally, there has been no escape from criticism for its effects on the environment. However, amidst all this, the industry has made huge progress towards smarter, more sustainable ways of operating.

The continued journey to net zero will no doubt pose new and unexplored challenges. This means platforms, incentives and the encouragement to continue and accelerate new innovations and technology are all the more important to support this ‘planet and people first’ way of doing business in a sustained and profitable way.

A big believer in collaboration within the industry for change is Mark Horler, Chairman of the UK Urban Agri-Tech Association (UKUAT). UKUAT brings leading organisations and people across the UK Agri-Tech sector together to collaborate via projects, events and working groups focused on areas that will help the industry thrive. They engage and connect members to grow and mobilise a thriving network in the pre-competitive space.

In this blog, Mark shares his insights on the state of the agriculture and food industry today, and told us where it needs to focus to reach its sustainability targets.  

There is no doubt the industry needs to adopt the new and exciting innovations available to support its sustainability efforts. In which areas of the industry are you seeing a focus on new technology and innovation?  

“Undoubtedly the issue at the top of everyone’s list right now is energy - both in terms of absolute use, and with regard to efficiency of that use - whether it’s gas for heating greenhouses or electricity for vertical farm LEDs, the need to source sustainable energy at a manageable and consistent cost is of paramount importance. It’s a major challenge, but it’s also driving some very interesting innovations.  

“Here in the UK UKUAT is among a consortium of organisations (V-FAST) working on combining renewable energy, energy storage, and vertical farming. Some similar work is also taking place at FlexFarming), around energy and the growing of strawberries.  

“And it’s not just the UK. A consortium is starting work on a project around energy, circular economies and modularity in upstate New York. Of particular note in this latter project is the piece about closed-loops, which in terms of resource use efficiency is of major importance going forward.”

What are the major changes towards sustainability that you’ve seen in the industry over the last 10 years?  

“The really big change has been around turning talk into action. From the very outset, the industry has had ambitions to have a major impact on sustainability and resilience. But in the early days, the focus was inevitably and necessarily more on getting the technology and the business models right.  

“Now that the sector is ever more rapidly growing, and the organisations within it are doing likewise, there is much more bandwidth, capacity, expertise and outright desire to really deliver on that impact promise. Indeed a recent industry census indicated not only that ever more companies have a dedicated person tracking sustainability metrics, but that newer companies coming into the space are actually more likely to have this than more established organisations.”  

What are the challenges we need to solve or the innovations that need to be adopted for the industry to make less environmental impact?  

“The really big future challenge and opportunity lies in how we integrate these technologies with other parts of the food and agriculture systems in the future. After all, these technologies are one tool among many to address the challenges we face.  

That process of integration is going to be massively complex, but the opportunities are equally enormous. If we get the right pieces in the right places, we can look at things like land-sparing, biodiversity, rewilding and all the other things we need to achieve, such that we can feed everybody good healthy nutritious and culturally appropriate food, without destroying the natural world and ecosystems upon which we are entirely dependent.”  

What is it going to take for major corporates in the industry to make the change and adopt these sustainable solutions?  

“Well, for a start they’re going to need some big ambition! What these corporates can do, indeed what they are almost uniquely well placed to do, is to help with the integrations mentioned above. Having sight and understanding of entire supply chains, they can really support with working out which pieces best go where.  

“It is worth noting though, that this also requires substantial policy input to set systemic purposes. It’s true that sustainable and resilient food systems can also be profitable food systems, but it’s also equally true that the most profitable approach is not always necessarily the best approach. And of course, these large corporations and, by extension, their investors can make a huge difference by investing serious money into finding the right solutions and implementing them on the ground!”    

We are looking forward to seeing the impact of the connections made between the startups and corporate partners at our upcoming Circular AgriTech and Food Innovation Summit in October. Do you have any examples of where you’ve seen a great collaboration between a large company and a startup or new innovation?

“A really good example was when Osram bought Fluence a number of years ago. They saw the potential of what Fluence were doing but, smartly, they allowed them to operate as essentially an autonomous unit within the organisation. So they were able to keep their agile and flexible approach, but with the safety and backing of a big player. Interestingly, Fluence was recently purchased by Signify so it will be worth watching what happens next!”  

Circular AgriTech and Food Innovation Summit

The Better World Collective’s Circular AgriTech and Food Innovation Summit in October 2022 will bring together innovators, corporates, industry leaders and changemakers who believe in the power of collaboration to address the impact of the food industry from farm to fork. 

This Innovation Summit aims to spark projects between startups creating cutting-edge solutions and corporates who can commercialise and scale them - leading to faster adoption and more significant impact.

After an extensive briefing process from our corporate partners, we undertake a thorough briefing and scouting process to find a bespoke group of dynamic innovators. At each Innovation Summit, Plus X and the Better World Collective bring corporate partners and innovators together to explore collaborative partnership opportunities.

Here are a few of the solutions we can find for you: 

  • Farming efficiency in ways that are healthy for the land
  • New forms of production (from urban farming to cultured meat)
  • Reducing use of water and energy consumption from the grid
  • Smart transport and logistics
  • Trackable, responsible supply chains
  • Sustainable packaging
  • Reducing waste at every stage
  • Redistribution platforms
  • Renewable energy production

Find out how you can get involved with the Circular AgriTech and Food Innovation Summit by contacting Sarah Cooper here.


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