Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Is the UK ready for new challenges in food production?

The Financial Times yesterday had a 'Big Read' article about the transformation of food production by new technology. Like all FT articles on new technology, it's a bit 'gung ho'. It doesn't consider that many farmers may be resistant to new technology or may not have the resources to acquire it. Nevertheless, it makes some good points.

The central thrust of the article is to be found in a sentence some way down: 'Once an unfashionable backwater, agricultural technology has started to capture the imagination of investors.' It reckons that 'annual global investment in food tech, from farm management systems to robotics and mechanisation, more than tripled to $10bn' in the five years to 2017. The main areas of innovation are identified as gene editing, artificial intelligence and digital technology.

Consumer demand is, as always, of key importance. As the populations of developing companies become wealthier, they demand protein products, especially meat. The total amount of meat consumed globally is forecast to rise by 76 per cent by 2050. But, as we know, meat production is not good news for climate change (fossil fuels, methane), nor is increased red meat consumption good for health.

Coincidentally, The Economist has a big feature on the vegan trend. Veganism as such, it concluded, is a niche market, but large numbers of people who are not vegans or vegetarians are interested in healthier eating which has led to an increased demand for plant based products.

One of my concerns about Brexit was the impact of the loss of migrant labour on fruit and vegetable production in the UK. Food miles issues can be exaggerated: it makes more sense to produce tomatoes in Spain in the winter than to heat glasshouses around Littlehampton.

I am somewhat sceptical of claims made about automated picking. The FT notes, 'Given that fruits and vegetables are not of uniform shape and ripeness, the technological challenges are extensive. On top of the mechanical dexterity and spatial cognition that the machines need to demonstrate, researchers hope that AI can help them to learn to pick only the ripe fruit and vegetables.'

The FT rightly praises what is going on in the Netherlands in this area, particularly in 'Food Valley' near Wageningen University (it is, of course, as flat as a pancake). When I was doing research on biological alternatives to chemical pesticides, I was impressed by the way in which the Netherlands was ahead of the curve. As the FT notes, 'The country has made food science one of its strategic priorities and hosts one of the world's most efficient agricultural systems.'

Among the advantages that the Netherlands has is Rabobank, one of the biggest lenders to the food industry and a central location in Europe with an excellent port in Rotterdam.

The FT notes, 'Some investors believe that the food business is about to face the sort of disruption that technology has based on hosts of other industries.' Is the UK ready? Is domestic policy prepared? I doubt it.

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