Opinion and comment from Food and Drink leaders.
Professor Simon Pearson is founder and Director of the Lincoln Institute of Agri-Food Technology, University of Lincoln, which enables collaborative research to resolve key challenges in the agri-food sector.
Simon has become a leader in inter-disciplinary research in the field of agri-technology by bringing together academic and industrial experts who are striving to improve technological, environmental and human capital aspects of the food industry. Simon has almost two decades of experience in management and research and development roles across the agri-food system, including eight years with Marks and Spencer and seven years as CEO of a UK farming company.
Find out more at https://www.lincoln.ac.uk/liat/
One Business success
- LIAT has so many! The team has generated > £52M (all partner costs combined) of research funding in the last five years; LIAT is home to both Lincoln Agri Robotics (LAR) centre and the AgriForwards Centre for Doctoral Training (CDT), which provides fully funded opportunities for students to undertake MSc and PhD study, to become the next leaders in the agri-food robotics community; LIAT has created two start-up companies, Fruitcast and Agaricus Mushroom following CERES grants; We are the host of the UK’s first Barclays Eagle Lab, which provides coworking spaces, mentors and learning tools, as well as events and growth programmes for ambitious entrepreneurs – directly linking with LIAT’s experience in the agri-food sector; LIAT has numerous Innovate UK grants - Robot Highways, which will be the largest known global demonstration of robotic and autonomous technologies and has been identified as a flagship project by IUK; plus many successful UKRI-ESPRC and Farming Innovation Programme bids and multiple renewable agriculture projects (see video here).
Two Challenges for the sector:
- Dependency on Seasonal Workers - The sector’s ultimate output, fresh fruit and vegetables as well as ornamental plants, are essential to the health and wellbeing of all in society. However, despite the capital intensity of many horticultural production systems, critical elements of the industry have a high dependency on seasonal migrant labour to harvest crops. This dependency has been exposed by changed immigration policies post-Brexit and the Covid-19 pandemic. The key questions we aim to address at LIAT, are how we can ease the horticulture sectors’ dependency on seasonal labour and drive productivity across the agri-food sector, including crop care, phenotyping and crop harvesting. Our research embraces a diverse range of agri-technology applications including robotic systems, automation and design for manufacture of integrated e-hubs for agricultural vehicles.
- Effective technology adoption - This requires a range of supporting measures, potentially including the development of new business models, robotic manufacturing, and support supply chains; accelerated financial measures to de-risk and fund investment; clarity of regulation; and changes to on-farms skills.
Three Forecasts for the sector
- Increasing resilience of food production - The National Food Strategy calls for an increase in consumption of fruit and vegetables by 30% by 2032. This laudable goal is best realised through a vibrant UK production base. Given its critical labour dependency, our ultimate aim is agri-robotic and automation technology adoption that not only enables UK horticulture to be more resilient but also enables future growth that meets societal dietary need. For advanced robotics, the scale of UK horticulture provides an ideal frame to underpin a new UK industry with global significance and reach
- Collaboration between all interested parties - The necessary collaboration is multi-faceted and requires co-creation of solutions between growers and robotic developers, joint funding initiatives, the development of open software standards and joint private and public sector funding to de-risk innovation
- Labour shortages - The UK is already seeing food supply disruptions and empty shelves due to new EU border controls. Added to this is the desperate need for workers, meaning that some crops remain unpicked, or are being picked later than planned. The chronic staff shortages in the supply chain means that costs are rising for all involved. It is important that these labour challenges don’t force farmers and growers to reduce production, impacting business and leading to less choice of UK goods for consumers.