The Agriculture Bill: Britain leads the charge on a new dawn for farming

Sam Watson Jones is a co-founder of start-up agri-tech innovator Small Robot Company and a fourth-generation farmer. Here he examines the opportunities available for UK growers as they face the combined challenges of Brexit, climate change and the growing global population

A new world of opportunity is dawning for agriculture. The way we farm is about to change forever. We’re on the cusp of a fourth agricultural revolution: and it is British ideas and technology that is leading the charge.

This comes right from the very top of government. Britain’s commitment is to be a Net Zero economy by 2050: the first major economy to sign up. The NFU has taken up the gauntlet, commiting Agriculture to be Net Zero by 2040. This will require a major shift in land use. The new Agriculture and Environment Bills, as well as the Committee for Climate Change report, Land use: Policies for a Net Zero UK, now set out the pathway, as well as looking to boost productivity and sustainability in future decades. This is an extremely exciting time to be a farmer.

Catalyst for change

The Agriculture Bill looks to be the catalyst for transformative systemic change – if not revolution – which is to be applauded. Farming is in urgent need of change. Since 1990, productivity has flatlined for the majority of major world crops. I remember very clearly sitting in my farm office six years ago realising that, unless we fundamentally changed the current farming system, then my farm did not have a future.

We’re failing economically and also environmentally.

The Government’s move to focus on productivity, while rewarding environmental improvements is potentially game-changing for agriculture. “We are at a pivotal moment,” states Tony Juniper, head of Natural England, and I’d agree. With recent huge advances in agtech finally making this possible, we are ripe for systemic change. New technology has opened up new possibilities for improving the efficiency and sustainability of agriculture. Now is the time for us to work together to create a more sustainable farming model.

Soil protection and regeneration

In particular, the new bill is right to focus on promoting soil health and protecting the soil for future generations. Developing farming systems that can regenerate soil health at scale has to be one of our highest priorities. This is vital for food security.

The fact that government policy is now seeking to reward farmers who look after the soil is a reflection of the shifting mindset that we are seeing across the country. Farming is already changing from intensively managing the soil to regeneratively managing the soil. The farmers who have engaged with Small Robot Company as customers, investors and supporters tend to prioritise soil health and carbon sequestration above all other things on their farms. They seek not only to minimise damage with their farming operations, but also to proactively improve the quality of the soil year on year.

Farmers are integral to the environmental solution. The new bill will ensure that this effort can now – quite rightly – be rewarded. What gets measured, gets done.

There are two opportunities here regarding soil. First, in the short term, measuring soil quality with a view to claiming Public Goods payments further down the line. Second, longer term and particularly with the Net Zero targets in mind, there is an opportunity to measure carbon capture with a view also to establishing carbon trading markets.

The devil is in the detail

However, with that in mind, as ever the devil is in the detail. In particular, the implementation needs careful attention. Highly trusted and highly detailed data is central to the Agriculture Bill being a success.

Developing a trusted system of measurement is essential to ensure the policy has the intended impact at scale. In order for a policy that focuses on soil health to work effectively, we need technology in place that can measure what is happening on farms around the country: we need a much more accurate and consistent soil measurement system in place than those we currently have available.

Small Robot Company is working hard to become part of this solution. We’re working to develop a consistent framework to measure the physics, chemistry and, perhaps most significantly, the biology of our soils in a reliable, repeatable way – and this can only be achieved with an autonomous ground-based platform. Our autonomous robots can already deliver a highly precise per plant view. Our next step is to bring this precise viewpoint to soil biology. Our Tom and Wilma systems could enable soil measurement with an autonomous robotic platform at a level of detail far in excess of current best practice. This would give farmers highly precise data on soil quality.

Carbon capture complexities

Carbon tracking is even more complex. Frustratingly, this is the Wild West. Anything that requires manual, human measurement will always be variable and therefore somewhat untrusted. But as it stands, unfortunately we cannot even trust the current technical measurements. There are many ongoing initiatives to measure and reward carbon capture that should be applauded. In particular, the Terraton project led by Indigo Ag, which looks to remove one trillion tons of it and bring the concentration back to pre-Industrial Revolution levels.

However, fundamentally, our current tracking methods are very limited. There is huge variation between methods, and no-one has even researched the variation in any detail. We do not yet have like-for-like data to compare. There are myriad different, incompatible, sensors, which cannot talk to each other or compare data. It’s all apples and pears. We can’t, even yet, draw hard and fast conclusions, let alone get a continuous view or attribute any meaningful value. There needs to be a major industry initiative to establish the baseline.

Again, this is something that is already on our technology roadmap at Small Robot Company. We’re already establishing cross-industry partnerships to put this capability in place, using our technology as a central platform. Our objective is to be able to take contact measurements at a rate of at least five per hectare, refined by continuous sensor data.

Sustainable agri-tech

Agriculture is the industry for the future. The Fourth Agricultural Revolution will transform agriculture, in Britain and around the world. At the same time, it will make it easier to protect the environment while producing high quality food at affordable prices. This move will not only help British farmers compete in global markets, it will also boost food security in the UK and abroad.

With this drive from the very top of government, sustainable agri-tech is now front and foremost for British agriculture. It’s also a major global investment opportunity. At Small Robot Company we’ve already seen this huge appetite for agtech, demonstrated in the landslide success of our current Crowdcube equity crowdfunding campaign. Farmers, environmentalists and technologists alike are joining the campaign to own a piece of our company and drive a more sustainable future for farming. We’ve already raised more than £1 million, which we will use to develop our non-chemical weeding from early prototype to commercial farm-ready technology.

Farming is a $2.4 trillion global industry on the cusp of transformative change. The fully fledged digital farm will feature robotics, autonomous vehicles, drones, artificial intelligence, blockchain and virtual reality. This may seem futuristic, but this revolution is already underway. The Agriculture Bill places Britain front and centre to take advantage of this global trend. It’s a world of opportunity.

Small Robot Company is an agri-tech start-up with a vision to make food production sustainable, reducing farming’s impact on the environment and increasing farm outputs globally. It is developing a trio of farmbots – Tom, Dick and Harry – to plant, feed and weed arable crops autonomously, with minimal waste. They are backed up by Wilma, the AI brains of the operation. For more information go to Robot

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Please note, the opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of CHAP.