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Over the next decade, market research firm Mintel predicts scientific research and technology will become vital tools in the food sector. “Science will interlace with the food supply chain to boost yields and combat climate change,” says Alex Beckett, associate director at Mintel Food & Drink, in the report Global Food and Drink Trends 2030.
These innovations will impact all areas of the food sector, changing the way that producers manufacture and fine food retailers source and sell products.
From smart sensors to artificial intelligence (AI) and drone technology to vertical farming, Forward Fooding tracks the new tech companies appearing in the agriculture technology, or AgTech, space around the world. Alessio D’Antino, founder and CEO of Forward Fooding, tells Speciality Food that the UK is well placed within the global AgTech industry, with 105 businesses operating in this space that have raised hundreds of millions of pounds in funding in recent years.
The majority of these companies operate in ‘decision support technologies’ – “We’re talking about farm tech or software for farmers to help them monitor their field or integrate weather forecasts to help them get the best yields,” Alessio says – and data intelligence.
Other popular areas of AgTech include novel farming, which includes companies working out ways to upcycle surplus food waste into feed for animals using insects, and indoor and urban agriculture, which incorporate vertical farming initiatives as well as hydroponics, a practise that replaces soil with organic feed.
Although these innovations may appear to be worlds away from independent retailers, the reality is closer than you may think.
One farmer has used hydroponics to establish a farming business in the underground vaults of Kelham Island in Sheffield. Luke Ellis founded Leaf + Shoot to produce a range of mushrooms, leafy greens and fresh herbs using an innovative system that doesn’t need any soil or natural light. The veg is then sold directly to local restaurants and customers.
With help from Sheffield City Region’s Launchpad programme, Luke has seen rapid growth of his business. “Bioponic vertical farming may sound like something straight out of the world of science fiction, but it is a sector which holds a lot of potential for growth and more importantly, offers solutions to issues like wasted food, inefficient traditional farming techniques, soil degradation, and address the challenges posed by climate change and global food shortages,” says Luke.
His take on this technology not only makes it more sustainable, but also makes the tech accessible to all. “Going forward, I am hoping that Leaf + Shoot won’t just become well known for our produce, but a company which will help to inspire others to explore bioponic growing, helping us all to play our part in building a greener, more sustainable society,” he says.
Mintel’s report says that vertical farming operations may soon make their way into retail establishments, too. “Premium grocery retailers will open branded indoor farms to offer consumers just-picked freshness,” the report predicts. Selfridges’ recent Future of Food report echoes this, saying that vertical farming using hydroponics offers a novel way to produce and sell herbs and microgreens that is more sustainable. In fact, Selfridges London has already paved the way by using an Infarm unit to transform the way it sells produce.
As these tech solutions show, sustainability will be a significant factor in the future of farming in the UK. Farmers are already moving towards a more eco-friendly future, with the government recently unveiling its Sustainable Farming Incentive pilot plans, which aim to encourage environmental land management by rewarding farmers for sustainable farming practices.
Simon Billing, executive director of the Eating Better alliance, told Speciality Food that a more integrated approach is needed to boost sustainability in food and farming. “Across government there needs to be incentivisation and support for all farmers to produce food on farms with fewer animals, which meet the highest welfare and environmental standards. Clean air, water, healthy soil and space for nature to thrive are not nice-to-have, they’re fundamental to our wellbeing and the health of the planet.”
Eating Better is one of more than 30 food groups, NGOs and other industry bodies that has called for the UN COP26 climate talks, which are to be held in Glasgow this year, to address food systems. “Current food systems generate more than a quarter of global [greenhouse gas] emissions, and experts agree that net zero is unachievable without a transformation in what we eat, how we farm, and how much food we waste,” reads the letter written to COP26 president Alok Sharma.
Simon says that tackling these issues is also in line with consumer demand. “This opens up new opportunities for the food industry in the UK and the chance to diversify and respond to the growing trend for transparency from farm to fork,” he said. Transparency will be key to the introduction of new farming technologies, too, Mintel’s Alex stresses: “Transparency of information is essential to building trust in a future where scientists play as integral a role as farmers.”
From the introduction of new technologies to integrating a sustainable farming framework, the food and agriculture sectors are poised to go through big transformations in the years to come. Independent retailers can play their role in driving better food systems by communicating these changes to their customers. As Alex says, “Championing the people behind the food—whether it is grown in a laboratory or a field—will remain a timeless way of building trust with consumers.”