Agriculture gearing up for 'fourth industrial revolution'

Robot harvesters, while developing rapidly, are still some way from widespread commercial application
Robot harvesters, while developing rapidly, are still some way from widespread commercial application

The agricultural industry is gearing up for the "fourth industrial revolution", where machines will be replacing humans in "thinking" as well as "doing" roles.

This is according to Andy Haldane, chief economist at the Bank of England, who spoke to BBC Radio 4 about the rise of robotics and artificial intelligence (AI).

Although Mr Haldane has predicted that up to 50% of all jobs could be lost to new technologies, in the next four decades agri-tech will need considerable investment before it can address the labour shortage in agriculture.

This and other priorities for agri-tech are to be debated by leading agri-food producers, technologists and academics at REAP 2018 (7 November).

The REAP Conference is an annual event bringing together farmers, technologists and scientists to discuss what the UK's agricultural future and how innovation can help deliver it

'Big gap'

As the industry continues to raise its concerns over lack of labour post-Brexit, Dr Belinda Clarke, Director of Agri-Tech East highlighted that robot harvesters, while developing rapidly, are still some way from widespread commercial application.

She said: “We are seeing the rapid adoption of new technology that is fit for purpose, as agriculture is actively looking for new ways to boost productivity and to attract new skills.

“However, there is a big gap between a working prototype and a robust bit of kit that can work outdoors, all day, every day.”

Reports suggest almost half of current jobs will be automated by 2055, yet Tony Bambridge, Managing Director of award-winning B&C Farming believes change can’t come soon enough for the agri-food sector.

“To compete with those countries that have tremendous cost advantages in terms of land, labour, less regulatory measures, we will have to raise productivity and part of that is being able to achieve more with our time," Mr Bambridge said.

“In the next ten years, we will see some pretty significant changes in the structure of our industry.

"At B&C, we are already investing in superfast computing and imaging to remove stones out of potatoes. In coming years, I can see a situation where we have one operator actually controlling two or three or four vehicles in a field,” he added.

Mr Bambridge will be one of nine panellists in an industry debate at the REAP Conference, which will look at where agri-tech investment can bring the greatest returns.

'Radically changing'

Mark Suthern, Barclays National Head of Agriculture, who will chair REAP’s all-new debate feature, said it's all about maximising the resources farmers have

"Take the Netherlands; it is the second largest global exporter of food by dollar value after the US. They are investing heavily in the use of glass houses, robotics and technology to drive efficiencies,” Mr Suthern said.

Head of Global Technology Scouting at Sygenta, Dave Hughes, explained that the convergence of engineering and robotics is creating new applications.

He said the use of AI is already improving the way the company does research; mimicking the human brain to look at patterns in data and to extrapolate information from incomplete data.

He said: “One of the biggest technology disrupters is digital, which is radically changing the way farmers operate. This is a very dynamic space for innovation with a relatively low barrier for entry, so many companies, including start-ups and SMEs, are competing to find the best solutions for the grower.

“The key challenge is to support the productivity of UK agriculture and the quality and safety of our food whilst reducing the environmental impact of food production. I believe this is achievable, but we will need to embrace the best state-of-the-art technology to succeed.”

The REAP Conference will be held on Wednesday 7 November 2018 at Wellcome Genome Campus Conference Centre, Cambridge.