Innovation & Sustainability in Agri-tech

15th November 2021 FruPro

FruPro – Innovation & Sustainability in Agri-tech Q4 2021

The agricultural sector is unlikely to be the first sector that springs to mind when you hear the words innovation or tech, but the traditional image of agriculture is rapidly evolving through extensive research, investment and technical innovation across the sector. The fresh produce supply chain is complex and there are many challenges that the sector is yet to overcome, but technical innovations and developments in sustainability are beginning to offer real solutions.

To shed more light on innovation in the sector, we’ve found what we feel are exciting developments across 4 categories – Robotics, Big Data & AI, Smart Farming and Sustainability. These categories are not mutually exclusive and in fact they are highly interdependent, with developments in one category opening up new opportunities in the others.

Let’s dive in and explore the future of the fresh produce sector:

1. Robotics

Having already transformed several other sectors including automotive, manufacturing and healthcare, the robotics revolution in agriculture is well and truly underway. Robotics in agriculture presents an enormous opportunity for farmers and others involved in fruit and vegetable production to drastically improve the efficiency of operations at the start of the fresh produce supply chain.

Despite what can be a significant upfront investment, robotic farm machinery can deliver substantial cost savings for farmers in the long term. When compared with manual human labour there are some obvious advantages to robotics – reduced labour costs, constant productivity, no holidays and no sick leave.  This frees up human capital to work on more skilled and less labour-intensive tasks, such as planning, strategy and supply chain innovation. Through a smart farming set up, robotic machinery can be controlled and connected through an Internet of Things (IoT) network, enabling constant data analysis, machine learning and iterative enhancements that improve accuracy and efficiency.

The Small Robot Company is one of the most exciting players in the robotic agricultural machinery space. The company’s offering revolves around mapping, analysing and treating crops at the per plant scale, with their aptly named Tom, Dick & Harry range offer autonomous planting and treatment of fruit, vegetables and crops. Tom is used for mapping and digitising entire fields, Dick provides weed electrocution as well as pest and disease control, while Harry is a seeding robot that can be used for precision planting. The three physical robots are supported by Wilma, their advanced AI engine, which is there to ingest and analyse every single data point and convert it into intelligence at the plant level.

2. Big Data & AI

Big data and artificial intelligence are the cornerstone of intelligent farming. Artificial intelligence utilises machine learning to ingest big datasets, analyse them and turn them into farm intelligence through calculating the probability of certain outcomes and providing confidence-based predictions and recommendations. In simple terms, AI allows farm robotics and farm management to become more accurate, more precise and more efficient, which enables further efficiency improvements to take place along the rest of the supply chain.

There are copious different types of farming data that can be collected and analysed through AI – weather conditions, soil quality and crop growth to name a few. Farmers have traditionally used their knowledge and experience to adjust their crop treatment, but with big data and AI, they can make much better informed decisions. This can help overcome the problems of variability and unpredictability, leading to higher quality fruit and veg produce, stronger yields and an improved supply chain.

 A very exciting player in the Big Data & AI space is Hummingbird Technologies, renowned for their remote sensor technologies that capture data through satellites, planes and drones and processes it via their own multi-layer date ingestion and analysis platform. They offer a broad range of products, from predictive analytics, supply chain vision, precision agronomy to sustainability. Their Precision Analytics technology is able to classify crop types, detect field boundaries and provide in-season yield predictions at field or national level. On the Supply Chain Vision side, their suite of solutions covers benchmarking, fertiliser, desiccation, fungicide, green area indexing and canopy coverage – mapping and collecting vital supply chain data which is then processed via their AI engine to recommend optimal solutions. Precision Agronomy covers plant counting, plant sizing and weed mapping, while the Sustainability suite covers areas like tillage, biomass, modelling and more.

All types of farming intelligence data that is collected can be processed via advanced AI engines, which in turn can be seamlessly integrated into farm management software via APIs in a smart farm set up, which we’ll see in the next section. Needless to say, Hummingbird and other firms’ products can enable farmers to optimise many aspects of their supply side operations, which wouldn’t have been conceivable until recent times.

3. Smart Farming

Smart Farming refers to a holistic tech-enabled farm management strategy that can include  robotics, big data, AI and APIs through an intelligent Internet of Things (IoT) set up, where the different technologies are connected and working together in an intelligent system. A systems approach to farming integrates tech into different components of food production and allows for constant monitoring and optimisation of operations, in turn leading to higher quality fresh produce and stronger yields. According to Mckinsey, by the end of the decade, enhanced connectivity in agriculture could add more than $500 billion to global gross domestic product, a substantial increase in the supply and value of fresh produce globally.

The developments in smart farming could help to overcome the decline in efficiency of UK farming. According to the Royal Academy of Engineering, UK farming was ranked in eighth place out of eight developed nations in 2011, in part because of a focus on subsidies at the expense of supply chain efficiency. There’s a high degree of inter and intra-farm variability in terms of output efficiency across the UK, which smart farming techniques can help to mitigate. In terms of what a smart farming set up could consist of, there’s naturally going to be many differences in the operations and unique requirements of different farms. In theory, the set up could utilise drones and satellites to capture data from the air, field sensors to capture data from the ground, an AI engine to process the data and then input it into robotic farm machinery via an API, with all components of the system being inter-connected and strengthening each other.

Arable is a leading player in the smart farming space, with a broad product offering that covers data collection across many aforementioned areas, advanced analytics and fully customisable and intuitive dashboards for ease of use. Their software is available on Desktop and Mobile and can easily be connected to existing farm management software through APIs.

Another exciting player in this space is Semios, who interestingly position themselves in the Precision Agriculture as a Service space. In simple terms, Semios do most of the work for you – installation, monitoring and technical maintenance so that your time can be spent elsewhere. Similar to Arable, their management platform is capable of collecting and analysis all types of farm data, with the key differentiator being that farmers don’t have to get involved in any of the set up or analysis.

4. Sustainability

According to the UN, world population is expected to reach 9.7 billion by 2050, which will undoubtedly put a further strain on pre-existing issues of climate change, fresh produce supply chain challenges and global food shortages. The fresh produce sector is incredibly complex and is vulnerable to complications caused by the climate, logistics, supply chain challenges and variable demand.

With COP 26 currently underway in Glasgow, there is a huge global spotlight on sustainability and many industries will be taking note of the discussions and outcomes. Agricultural sustainability is a key area where technical innovations can help to prevent and solve global problems, with climate, supply chain challenges and food shortages being three key areas with opportunities for agri-tech. In order for the agricultural sector to contribute to tackling these significant global problems, collaboration between stakeholders across the fresh produce supply chain is imperative. Vertical and horizontal data sharing will enable all parties to learn, optimise and grow together. The carbon footprint of the fruit and vegetable sector is comprised of many different parts, including the energy used in production, transportation emissions, packaging and waste to name a few. There is a huge opportunity for technological innovations to help reduce the carbon footprint across the entire supply chain, with many businesses currently inventing new products and services to help reduce or eliminate emissions.

A pioneer in the agricultural sustainability space by Agri-EPI Centre, a leading engineering and innovation centre in the UK. The organisation have tested a new agricultural model for engagement, measurement, tracking and sharing of large datasets to better understand variations in soil carbon. The project’s aim is to understand how to improve carbon sequestration, the process in which carbon dioxide is removed from the atmosphere and stored. The organisation is working with 24 farms across the UK to collect spatial, soil and weather data via remote sensors, which will undergo national and site-specific assessments. The volume of data and co-operation at this scale is remarkable and a key outcome of the project will be the impact it could have on national agricultural policy.

Sustainable innovations are taking place further down the supply chain too, with numerous companies looking to reduce the sector’s carbon footprint through new inventive types of fruit and veg packaging. Tensei have developed new sustainable packaging for fruit and veg by utilising natural fibers, including agricultural waste crops, perennial grasses or unrealized bio-waste streams from the food manufacturing industry, to create fruit and veg paper pads and packaging that are 100% recyclable, wood and plastic free. The company has already trialed their products in Morrisons and Berry Gardens Ltd, replacing the pads in 150,000 blackberry punnets with their sustainable paper pads, which saved 12 tennis courts’ worth of plastic and wood pulp!

Another exciting company in the eco-friendly packaging space is Karl Knauer, a German packaging specialist, whose cardboard alternatives for fruit and veg packaging aim to reduce emissions and increase sales to eco-conscious consumers. The company’s Grass Cardboard product utilises grass waste from compensation areas or nature reserves, which is recyclable but also cuts manufacturing emissions by 25% and reduces water consumption. The company also produces a cardboard alternative made from agricultural waste, which uses the stems and leaves of crops as the raw material for fruit and veg packaging. The product has a clear ecological benefit – re-using waste to replace raw materials that would otherwise create an additional environmental impact when they’re produced.

Final thoughts

Technical innovation is accelerating rapidly in the agricultural sector, presenting huge opportunities for all stakeholders of the fresh produce supply chain and beyond. Through increased collaboration and transparency, the sector can overcome a wide variety of challenges and contribute to tackling global problems around climate, supply, food shortgages and more.

Innovation and Sustainability are key part of the mission here at FruPro, with food waste reduction a key outcome of our revolutionary online fresh produce trading platform. 1/3 of all fruits and vegetables produced in Europe are wasted through bad communication, which we aim to mitigate through a highly transparent trading platform fueled by data in real time. We’re optimising the fresh produce supply chain through connecting all parties of the fresh produce sector, from Grower to Retailer, and we’ve seen some incredible success to date – our pilot programmed during Covid-19 saw 251 pallets of fresh produce saved from going to waste, 500,000 people fed and £100k in revenue generated for small businesses.

If you’re interested in finding out more about the upcoming launch of our fresh produce digital marketplace you can visit our website and register for free today.

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