Hope is not a strategy: Smart Farms for 2040 at #NFU19

This is a time of great challenge, but also great opportunity. We are at a crossroads, both as a country, and globally. This generation of farmers could be the one that oversees huge swathes of farms going out of business - or we could be the one that saves farming forever.

Today at its annual Conference, the NFU launches its Future of Food 2040 report. The report looks 20 years beyond Brexit to how Britain will evolve socially, technologically and environmentally. What impact will this have on British farms, and what’s needed to ensure the UK can take full advantage?

Small Robot Company is honoured to be featured prominently as an example of the cutting-edge technologies that are already being developed to revolutionise the way we farm by maximising productivity, data collection, precision and efficiency, all while benefiting the environment. Our mission is to satisfy the competing demands of profit, yield, and the environment - while improving all three. Less impact, and more in line with nature.

Our ethos is ‘by farmers, for farmers’. As such, our goals are closely aligned to those of the NFU. We are therefore working closely together as we develop our technology for future farming - with farmers, on farm - to ensure that this is not an imposition, but delivers what farmers want. We’re now in field trials in 20 farms across the UK, including the Waitrose Leckford Estate, National Trust Wimpole Estate, as well as a number of active and prominent NFU members. Working together in partnership on a new model for sustainable - and profitable - farming.

Minette Batters, NFU President, underlines the importance of our work together with her comments as she launched the report: “It is essential that farmers are involved in the development of any new productivity measures and interventions to ensure they are relevant to the sector. Simply put, any measures aimed at increasing productivity have to boost efficiency, resilience and profitability.”

The report highlights the importance of establishing a future domestic agricultural policy that enables the farming industry to increase its productivity, profitability and resilience in the future, which will be crucial for businesses to thrive in an increasingly volatile world.

Interestingly, while Brexit looms large as an immediate concern, the report found that with all its expert interviews, the focus quickly shifted to the macro global challenges for the future of food. Feeding 9 billion people sustainably by 2050 is one of the biggest challenges facing mankind today.

There will be huge challenges to the global food system between now and 2050 – notably water scarcity and the impacts of climate change. The global population will also become older and more urbanised, both of which will impact on food consumption patterns and agriculture. The unstoppable pace of technology continues to revolutionise our world, but it is a world that is becoming more volatile, not just climatically, but also economically and politically...planning for that future must start now - business as usual will not be an option,” comments Dr Andrea Graham,
NFU Head of Policy Services, author of the report.

We are now on the cusp of a fourth agricultural revolution. Food production and environmental care is at the heart of that: but to achieve this, farming needs urgent change. We are working to maximise food production while reducing its cost on the environment.

On a local level, these concerns are felt urgently by the farmers we have consulted as we develop our service. The overwhelming feedback is that farming is not working. Yields are stagnating, machinery costs are rising, and profit suffering. It is estimated that as many as 85% of UK farms would not be viable today without subsidies. This also impacts farmer stress and succession.

There is also great concern for environmental stewardship. We may have as a little as 30 – 40 years left before we have effectively eradicated soil fertility. Meanwhile, and more contentiously, there is also a negative impact on beneficial insects.

Hope not a strategy. We need to take radical action. Our vision is to automate and digitise arable crop farming using robotics and artificial intelligence. Farming is is arguably the last analogue industry. We want to take farming into the digital age: with British ideas and British technology at the helm. Undoubtedly a big ambition, but with the support of UK farmers, we have made phenomenal progress.

Our technology could bring radical and exponential changes to food production. It will enable permaculture at scale - completely changing what’s possible on the farm. This is the most exciting time it’s ever been to be a farmer.