Imagine a scene in which a farmer sits in his tractor, watching the automated process of ploughing a field on a monitor. Later, our farmer flies a drone over the field to analyse the soil condition. Science fiction, asks veterinary industry consultant Ross Tiffin? Maybe not for much longer.
The UK is a world leader in science, technology and innovation. Looking back to the Agricultural Revolution, we can chart an amazing progression that continues today with institutions like Rothamsted and the Roslin Institute at the forefront of farming developments.
Technology drives progress and our capacity to harness complex engineering and artificial intelligence (AI) has enabled precision livestock and arable farming to come on in leaps and bounds.
AI is staggeringly effective, but we still rely on human intelligence both to programme the activity and interpret the results. Most farms are awash with data but not all of it is easily usable.
Looking forward, the UK market will continue to consolidate and it’s likely this trend will be accelerated by Brexit. Farmers need to plan yields in advance and increasing costs add pressure to consolidators and highly-geared farmers with large salary bills. Small scale farms are often family-run businesses, where the presence of a minimum wage and pension provision may be less apparent.
Whatever the scale, more progressive farmers recognise that they need help from outside agencies and want to embrace as much technology as they can afford.
The world’s population is predicted to reach more than nine billion by 2050. The growth of nutritional understanding and greater affordability of food represents huge opportunities to increase production for domestic and export markets, and to sell our world-class science and technology abroad.
This also creates opportunities for companies working in pharma or agricultural science to build trust and, by getting closer to the end user, create more win-win partnerships. By concentrating on a core group of farms, industry can provide more analysis of data and tailor individual productivity plans for smaller groups of customers.
We have seen significant changes in farming over the past two decades. DEFRA figures show a reduction of 20% in the number of UK cattle between 1995-2015 and the total area of available agricultural land fell from 74% to 70% over the same period.
The Government has outlined four priorities for the future of farming – growing the rural economy, improving the environment and safeguarding both plant and animal health. All of these should create new opportunities for farmers and rural communities.
We need to embrace new technologies and apply new thinking to policy-making and business models. Not all farmers will be keen to improve, but where there is ambition, there is real opportunity for both industry and the veterinary profession to harness technology and the biosciences to deliver food for the world’s ever-increasing population.