UK farming is heavily dependent on the labour of migrant workers who come from all over Europe to help bring in the fruit and vegetable harvests. Roughly 80,000 seasonal workers are required to complete this mammoth task. Recently, British farmers have reported a shortage in the pool of readily available labour, which has resulted in crops being left to rot in the fields. One in five growers says they already have fewer pickers than they need.
This decline has been attributed to a changed perception of Britain in the aftermath of the Brexit vote to leave the EU, with many seasonal workers opting to not return due to fears over racism.
Worker shortages are not the only challenges facing UK farmers, global warming and its resulting damage is yet another detrimental factor. A rising population, shortages of land, water and energy require better and more reliable production of food, which is also driving the adoption of agri-tech.
Furthermore, 67% of all arable farms depend on EU subsidies to make a profit. If this is withdrawn or cut entirely due to Brexit, farmers will have no choice but to turn to automated solutions to survive. It is a combination of all these factors and the rapid advancement of technology that has seen farmers increasingly embracing agri-tech (agricultural technology).
Agri-Tech Market is Booming
Automated machinery, digital farming, smart farming, agri-drones and GPS guidance systems are all new terms being added to the farming lexicon. From increasing crop yields to greater productivity and sustainability, agri-tech is being applied to almost every facet of agriculture. Agri-tech is one of the world’s fastest growing markets and the UK is determined to be at the forefront of this field. According to recent research, the UK’s agri-tech sector is worth billions to the UK economy and employs nearly half a million people.
It’s estimated that by 2025 the global agri-tech market will be worth £35.7 billion. In 2013 the UK government launched its Agricultural Technologies Strategy with £160 million of funding. InnovateUK then launched the £70m ‘Agri-Tech Catalyst’ funding scheme to stimulate innovation in this area. Agri-Tech Catalyst awarded a share of £16m in funding to 24 innovative agri-tech projects aimed at developing tech solutions to agricultural challenges. Earlier this year, the government announced £90m in new funding for agri-tech as part of its Industrial Strategy.
How Tech Can Help Pickup the Shortfall
Smaller automated machinery, such as unmanned tractors guided by GPS, will increase farming precision while reducing energy consumption and soil damage caused during the cultivation process. Automated weeding systems and the development of better storage and packaging all contribute to less wastage and better yields. Fruit picking robots, smart fencing and IoT devices to monitor livestock are other tech enhancements, which have the potential to improve productivity and quality while reducing costs.
Breakthroughs in the laboratory are a critical aspect of agri-tech as parasites and fungi, which attack both plants and livestock, are thriving in the UK’s increasingly wetter and warmer climate. Agri-tech drones have already been widely adopted by farmers, who use them to monitor land and gather data. A drone can cover 20 hectares in three minutes, whereas a person would take an hour. Sharing data and knowledge, especially through mobile technology will bring massive benefits to UK farmers. However, poor connectivity in rural parts of the UK remains a big barrier to data sharing.
The UK’s agricultural sector is the biggest industrial sector in the UK, employing almost four million people and larger than the automotive and aerospace sectors combined. Without the development and implementation of agri-tech Britain’s farming industry faces an uncertain future, which is likely to be left behind in the dust.