Green Table – discussion on Agri-robotics

Just as the tractor revolutionised farming in the last century, a new generation of technologies are currently revolutionising farming. Tech developments are out there looking to displace the labour-intensive activities.

Retail cannot look too far into the future. they think short-medium term. The food service market thinks in 6-month cycles and “doesn’t like technology”. It is inherently resistant to change.

New foods not yet discussed. Renewable energy concerns impact on choices. Non-food crops will potentially increase at a time when we will need more domestic food. But the government is clearly not interested in addressing this. It is starting at a low base now, but it’s importance as a movement will increase. Whether it impacts in the medium term we will have to see.

Changing patterns of taste / cultural shift? Difficult to imagine big shifts in UK in the foreseeable.

How can Govt. redirect payments into environmentally-oriented projects (water, flood management, etc.)? We can not afford the shift away from food production.

Golf course or housing developments (diversification) have financial incentives for struggling farmers but that reduces the domestic food production. If you are doing environmental management against food production the incentives are way below what is possible to keep a business going.

We are used to having all food all year round. But if costs of producing are too severe will we return to more seasonal consumption? Difficult to imagine that happening.

Increase of middle classes in India and China will put pressures on global markets. Desire for fancier imported goods. There is a growing appetite and market in developing world.

Worrying and destabilising prospects for UK suppliers.

A woman at a presentation screen - Helen Ferrier Horizon Scanning

Helen Ferrier of the NFU


The 6-to-12-year horizon: farming

There is the need to challenge the mindset of farmers. They are into the cyclical processes. The better farmers challenge themselves to improve.

This is partly about consolidation – farmer will see greater and greater consolidation, as better ones swallow up those who don’t change.

Farmer has got to think about longer horizons – like water, there’s more that the industry needs to do save water. But farmers operate on short horizons – and it’s about forcing them to think in the longer term.


Farmers want a secure outlet for their raw material – more than 5 years but 10 to 12, to 15.  We hear from another participant, who says they don’t deal with farmers, going instead to the open market.


We hear that the biggest issue is that farmers’ children don’t want to go back and work on the farm. There needs to be the opportunity for people to train at agricultural colleges. These institutions though are falling away. (This is partly about perception.)

Education and sustainability in farming

One suggestion is an apprenticeship scheme but agreement there needs to be new routes for young people to get into farming. This is also about the collapse of technical qualifications – with the change to university education.

Dr. Helen Ferrier – 6 – 12 years outlook

A woman at a presentation screen - Helen Ferrier Horizon Scanning

Helen Ferrier of the NFU

Observations from the NFU policy unit perspective:

Farming production has different decision making cycles;

Thinking is for as long for as people will be farmers….

eg. Arable has 5-6 year rotations of cereals or veg. In livestock the breeding cycles for herds may be long; shorter for poultry 72 weeks for a laying hen. Annual cycles around protected cropping.

How do we represent that huge variation? Vast majority of farmers cannot plan for 6-12 years. Brett has accelerated some changes and leads to uncertainty. Farmers instead get heads down and work on what needs to be done this year.

Scale can help; big businesses lead to longer term thinking and some farmers thinking of innovation.

Succession is an issue. Who will continue the farm? Legacy.

Shifting land use / diversification helps to spread the risk, investing in new kit.

NFU survey asks farmers about confidence. Current 3-year outlook has noticed negative impact on confidence.

Tech people are looking at farming and opportunities for new applications in farming; understanding soils (moisture alerts, etc.) or understanding what is happening with condition of your livestock. Market revenue for agri robots with rise hugely, not just in crop sector but milking and husbandry.

Labour saving potential of robotics will be significant. This may have impact in women in farming; change the perception of farming.

Data sets and how these can be used / analysed to help farmers make decisions. Other areas becoming challenging will be crop protection. More integrated approach – bio-stimulants and crop control. Integrated approach to these issues.

Consolidation is happening. Acing population f farmers. Shift away from support to creation of new markets for goods and services.

Volatility  must be managed. Financial risk management tools / insurance models to smooth out the volatility.

Data will enable greater transparity in the future.

Red Table – 3 to 5 year horizon discussion.

Pressure will be on the consumer, and hard to keep track of all the variables.

Organisations stripping out the costs. Big brands continue to grow. Home delivery makes it cheaper, these are changing the landscape for the consumer.

China and elsewhere have access to the same products.

Middle classes don’t want to take the risk any more . Global demand in the long-term… 50% of food is currently imported. People are naive about the supply chain. Truth is we can’t grow it.

Eg. Carrot cake ingredients can be traced back to 14 different countries. How can we keep track.There will not be investment in food tech. It will be about changing trade patterns. e.g.. food from US. they will want to get into EU. Agri in US is lean and mean – always looking for new markets.

Looking for non-destructive testing mechanisms. In Holland equip can recover and decrease waste / increase yokels. At current labour costs that is unsustainable. Automation for sorting products for defects. Cost-saving automation, robot lines which competitors are looking to take risks now in investment in order to reduce costs in the medium -long term.

Venture capitalists but no new entrants.

Drivers forcing UK producers to greater efficiency.

Does this make UK vulnerable to food terrorism and global pressures. Supply chains are vulnerable. Supply chains won’t submit to bullying. Need to look after the suppliers – building relationships. If they are abused they will walk.

Corruption on  a systemic global scale in certain regions threatens the global security.

Having to think globally now, not nationally….

If you shop seasonally that’s a cheaper way of managing the budget. We are used to buying what we want when we want it – at a decent price. If not at shop A they’ll go to shop B

With turnover of staff at present who is going to provide stability to organisations.

Low-cost is the driver, but variable sized products is discouraged

Green Table: thoughts on the 3 to 5 years Horizons

Every sector of the food industry is facing challenges.  If you’re agile and have the financial capacity you can hedge your bets.

British businesses are having to choose where to produce, here or abroad, with little information.  The uncertainty of brexit is making that decision tricky.

Businesses can choose to start building relationships outside the EU, but at the moment their business decisions are made under EU rules.  They can’t have a solid negotiation until they know the rules.

SME’s are though exporting because the weak pound helps them.

Labour is possible a bigger problem.  Whether it’s grown here or processed here you will need people.

The lack of understanding about how food is produced is the same as the lack of appreciation of the labour market that makes it happen.

Do you need people to serve food – can robots serve food?  McDonalds have already automated a large part of the process.  You won’t want to be served by a robot when you eat out? Why though – why won’t people change their appreciation of that.  There will be fewer people producing food.  A machine can make a pizza – it know what to put where.

Street food and independent restaurants will stay focussed on the people – that’s the experience.

Already the retail sector is reducing the number of employees (a figure of 6 per cent in the last year).


Brexit, consumer mistrust and consolidation

Risk from Brexit

One risk in the 3-5 year horizon is from Brexit. This includes a concern over food standards and regulations and therefore food safety. One participant mentions that this might lead to a collapse in consumer confidence, which could be significant for the business – potentially prompted by the removal of standards from the EU and concern over practices used elsewhere, such as chlorinated chicken.


But one participant says this could be an opportunity: We are focusing on our standards, making sure they are recognised as the highest possible – we see it as a massive opportunity rather than a risk. It will allow us to demonstrate how good we are, and take advantage of that.

A changing market

We hear that taking advantage of opportunities is vital and much of this is about having a strong balance sheet – to drive forward and innovate.

We hear that if businesses do struggle, as a result of the change that too can be an opportunity for others: We are not actively looking – one participant says – but if some businesses are struggling we will look to consolidate and you can quickly take advantage and build a stronger business from that.

We hear that a number of businesses are up for sale. And that there are already significant changes happening to the market.

There is a concern that this is consolidation can be difficult for innovation, but again other participants think this is arguable. Some see it as quite a good driver for innovation, because larger businesses can take risks and invest, thanks to consolidation.



Nutrition and public health

Food poverty, food insecurity

Food safety and integrity

Urban food growing

Food and the city economy

Global food security

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