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May 31, 2023

Defra and UKRI set aside £30m for agritech projects to achieve net zero and boost food production

Artificial intelligence (AI) and drones could be used to help growers increase yields and make the sector more resilient.

By Sophia Waterfield

Artificial intelligence (AI) and drones could be coming to UK farms as the government has pledged up to £30m in funding for ‘cutting-edge’ agritech projects to boost food production and moves towards net zero. Investigations into emerging technologies to inspect and monitor animals could also help the agricultural sector more resilient and sustainable.

Farmer's hand holding smart phone with agritech icons and messages on screen with soil sensor to manage water, soil quality and monitor weather.
Defra and UKRI are putting up to £30m into projects developing agritech solutions for farmers and growers. (Photo by Montri Nipitvittaya/Shutterstock)

A joint initiative between the Department for Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) has awarded £30m to over 50 projects as part of the ‘Farming Innovation Programme’. Four key competitions, which were delivered by Innovate UK’s ‘Transforming Food Production‘ challenge, covered a range of areas including climate-focused solutions, farming technology and early-stage research and development concepts.

Additional funding allocated to help farmers develop agritech

Alongside this, the UK government has made an additional £12.5m in funding available through the ‘On-Farm Environmental Resilience competition’. Farmers and growers can apply for up to £1m in project costs to develop new technology and farming methods to detect pests, prevent and manage the disease, reduce fertiliser use and manage threats from extreme weather such as flooding.

According to competition literature, anyone applying for the funding must link their project back up to the UK government’s food strategy, which was launched earlier this year. The competition will be split into two strands: feasibility, which will look at projects evaluating innovative developments; and industrial research, which will focus on projects progressing solutions.

Micro or small organisations can receive a grant for up to 70% of their project costs with large companies receiving up to 50% of their costs if successful. Businesses will need to be registered in the UK and not include any costs relating to procurement, commercial or business development or supply chain activity with Russian or Belarusian companies or subcontractors.

Thérèse Coffey, secretary of state for agriculture, said: “Farmers are always forward-looking, and innovation is key to driving forward a resilient, productive and sustainable agriculture sector that puts food on our tables whilst protecting and restoring the environment.”

She continued that the grand would help pave the way for a technological transformation to produce food sustainably for generations to come.

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Earlier this month, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak announced a package of support for the farming sector at his ‘Farm to Fork Summit’. As part of the event, he included new measures to ensure the sector remained at the forefront of adopting emerging technologies.

Defra has been interested in the use of emerging technologies to help with agriculture and environmental challenges for some time. In 2022, it published a review of how automation could be deployed to help UK farmers with crop harvesting and more recently it enlisted the help of a private consultancy to research potential options for crypto-mining to achieve net zero for waste management sites.

Automation features heavily in UKRI grant awards

UKRI has been running its ‘Transforming food production challenge’ since 2019, holding a budget of £90m.

It’s aiming to help businesses and researchers, as well as the farming industry, transform food production to meet the demands of the future world. According to the body, it is predicted that 60% more food will be needed worldwide by 2050. They also want to help businesses move towards net zero emissions by 2040.

As part of the award wins are companies Passmore Brothers and Gwynhallow, using automation and robotics to solve precision planting of wheat seeds and dairy cubicle cleaning respectively. Other selected projects include the automation and optimisation of production, AI-enabled pest management and drone-based tree health management.

Other projects that have been successful since the launch of the challenge include Evogro’s ‘Production at the point of consumption’ project, which focuses on autonomous growing systems for on-site growing. Another is AGRI-SATT, which combines data from algae-growing systems with satellite data to automate production and increase nutritional quality.

Read more: Farms are short of workers, but automation won’t come to their rescue yet

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