Agri-tech is a cornerstone of efficient, sustainable food production – and a new conference in South West England promises to lead the way by showcasing the latest opportunities and development.
The region is an agri-tech powerhouse, with 14 universities offering a range of research specialisms and collaborating with industry to develop spin-off companies. “Following the G7 summit in Cornwall there has been a lot of discussion around the wealth of talent we have in the area,” explains Joanna Rufus, chair of South West Agri-tech. “We have over 200 small to medium sized agri-tech companies and 64 business support organisations – including centres of excellence – which generate a turnover of more than £371m a year.
“Together with major employers including Arla Foods UK, Mole Valley Farmers, Thatchers Cider, ABP and Yeo Valley, agricultural companies in the South West contribute more than £3bn in gross value added to the UK economy.”
To help profile some of the exciting research, development and commercially available technology in the region, South West Agri-tech is holding a conference at Exeter Racecourse on 20 April. It will feature a range of outdoor robotic and drone demonstrations, an indoor market place with dedicated networking time, and high profile speakers.
“The event will be free to attend and there are several sponsorship packages available,” says Mrs Rufus. “We want the whole farming, horticulture and agri-tech community to attend, and learn how such exciting developments have a genuine and practical role to play within agricultural businesses.”
Key technologies that are penetrating the global agriculture sector include data analytics, artificial intelligence, internet-of-things, and automation systems, along with production and uses of biofuel as an alternative source of energy. Satellite technologies are increasingly enabling the next generation of agri-tech by providing positioning information; delivering frequent, wide-scale observation, and providing reliable, affordable and ubiquitous connectivity.
“As the country’s most rural region, we are leading the way in agri-tech research and innovation, helping to support our rich farming and food sectors,” explains Karl Tucker, interim chair of the Great South West Partnership. “We are delighted to support this event, to showcase our region’s world-leading technologies and the pivotal role they play in the UK’s economy and food security.”
Simply put, agri-tech is needed to help the world to sustainably meet its demand for good quality, safe food, explains Mrs Rufus. “In the South West, we are perfectly placed to help deliver that, with a range of specialities spanning the entire food supply chain. We are fortunate to have unparalleled support for agri-tech businesses to develop and grow, with business growth hubs, incubators and accelerators, as well as bespoke business expertise, tax incentives and access to funding. We now have the largest and fastest growing network of high growth SMEs in the UK agri-tech sector, and the time is right to really demonstrate what they can do for food producers in the region.”
Katherine Bennett CBE, chair of the Western Gateway Partnership, agrees. “Across the region we have many innovative businesses, high tech clusters and greater educational institutions working at the leading edge in their field. We are home to the Royal Agricultural University, whose plans for an Innovation Village promise to ensure the UK leads the way in developing methods to produce food sustainably in the future.
“It is great to see businesses coming together to demonstrate the leading work they are doing in this sector. I encourage everyone to come along to this event to see why our area is at the forefront of making a future with sustainable food a reality.”
South West Agri-tech comprises six Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) – Cornwall and Isles of Scilly, Dorset, GFirst (Gloucestershire), Heart of the South West (Devon, Plymouth, Somerset and Torbay), Swindon and Wiltshire and West of England (Bath & North East Somerset, North Somerset, Bristol and South Gloucestershire); supported by a steering group of 45 members drawn from the LEPs and local partners, academia and government agencies.
The South West is England’s largest and most rural region with rich, diverse natural resources. With five of England’s 14 Food Enterprise Zones offering simplified planning and incentives, there is a huge range of site options. These range from collaboration space labs, rural and urban offices, science and business parks and employment land. Complementary sector strengths include aerospace, automotive, marine, nuclear, space, ITech and pharmaceuticals.