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25 August 2023

Navigating Challenges and Innovations in UK Agriculture and Aquaculture

Co-authored by between Sixth Form Student, William Woodsford, on work experience at Gambit Corporate Finance and manager Louise Howard, this article delves deep into the researched challenges, developments, and prospects within the UK's agriculture and aquaculture sectors.

Through Gambit's work experience programme, 6th formers are empowered to helm and own specific projects, enriching their CVs and providing them with a tangible immersion into a professional corporate environment, providing hands-on experience designed to significantly uplift their self-confidence and experience.

In the UK, it is always there, on the shelves and in the fridges and freezers of our shops and supermarkets, yet rarely, if at all, do we stop to think as to how the fruit, vegetables, meat, fish, bread and other food products arrived there.

Exposed to the weakest global economic growth profile since 2001, bar only the 2008 financial crisis and the acute impact of Covid 19, the UK’s agriculture and aquaculture sectors’ prospects seem to be increasingly sombre. The uncertainty and loss of EU subsidies following Brexit has left UK farmers struggling, whilst a Russian-Ukrainian war and the recent abandonment of the UN brokered grain deal is threatening on a worldwide humanitarian scale.

Most of these issues cannot be looked at in isolation as they are intertwined, exerting huge pressure on food production’s vulnerable exposure to labour and raw materials shortages which underpin a supply chain crisis, whether in growing crops, animal rearing, food production or distribution.

Until recently, EU nationals made up 95% of the c.65,000 seasonal agriculture workers who are hampered from working in the UK where low pay, occupational injuries, exposure to chemicals and adverse weather has eroded human capital, whilst crops remain unharvested or unsown. More than ten million tonnes of fruits and vegetables were wasted in the UK in 2022 due to labour shortages whilst inflation and sanctions on exporters in Russia and Belarus are driving up fertiliser and animal feed prices for European and UK customers.

It is abundantly clear that the UK needs to be less reliant on imports and target food self-sufficiency whilst addressing productivity, sustainability and environmental challenges. The agriculture sector is facing a “Catch 22” scenario in which livestock farming is an acknowledged contributor to methane emissions and global warming, and surface runoff, over grazing and soil degradation has been blamed for diminished soil fertility.

Thankfully, UK farmers and fishermen are also a resilient breed who respect the land and sea, uphold their vocation to protecting the environment, which they depend on, and are dedicated to supplying high quality produce through a sustainable code of practice.

The weather is a favourite subject of daily conversation, media reporting and blame, however recent experiences, not just in the UK but worldwide, have highlighted a nearer term pressing concern for humankind. Punishing heatwaves, torrential rains and mid-summer hailstones the size of golf balls has been ascribed by scientists as symptomatic of climate change.

Governments and private companies are at the forefront of finding new ways of predicting the weather by focussing on machine learning and looking at vast banks of data. The emergence of “now casting” -predicting rain or snow in a given area over the next few hours or longer term and generating models which will simulate how crops might be harmed as temperatures rise or how fish stocks will be impacted as the sea warms, are in play.

Aquaculture, the controlled cultivation of aquatic organisms in China, southeast Asia, Norway and even Scotland are becoming significant emerging industries. In fact, aquaculture was worth £3.3 billion to the Scottish economy over the last decade and in 2022, Scottish farmed salmon was the UK’s biggest food export. Our coastlines are extensively trawled and yet we import vast quantities of fish only to export the same species. This is due to several factors, such as retailers not stocking UK cod because it fails to reach the required ecological guideline rating due to overfishing. However, with enabling infrastructure investment, the UK could produce enough stock to meet demand in a sustainable way. Responsible aquaculture harvesting or fish farming, aids fish overcrowding, waste management and controlled fish meal production, thereby facilitating wild species’ populations to rebound, providing locally sourced fish which would appeal to the UK consumer and mitigate ‘food miles' on imports.

Other innovative developments in this space are emerging such as transforming seaweed into an alternative to biodegradable plastic packaging as well as a substitute for wood pulp in paper production or harvesting jellyfish for collagen extraction used in cosmetic or medical applications. Reusing and recycling materials helps reduce the number of raw materials required and lower the cost of production, ultimately benefiting the bottom line and enhancing the value of a business, from a financial and sustainability perspective.

Back on land, traditional farming is embracing automation and generative Artificial Intelligence, adapting to new environments, co-developing genetic mapping and product substitutes. For example, automated precision spraying enabled by sensors and field data in real time can sense gaps between crops and regulate volumes and timings of chemical spraying. Some herbicide application technologies use computer vision to selectively spray weeds and avoid crops. GPS mapping on farm equipment can be programmed to maximise crop yields from the terrain, installing renewable energy solar and wind systems and seeking to solve carbon capture are being adopted.

Vertical farming is gathering significant momentum as a means of linking automation, climate control, and weather resistant habitats to create an alternative cultivation process which could revolutionise supply over imported or distant produced high value crops. LED lighting, aeroponic and hydroponic technologies simulate sunshine, nutrient and water delivery with enhanced yields and multiple growth cycles. The global vertical farming market is projected to grow from $5.6 billion in 2022 to $35 billion in 2032, via organic and strategically acquisitive expansion, largely as a result of an expected increase in demand due to popularity of high quality, fresh organic food, as well as the sustainable cost saving potential and lack of availability of the necessary land and weather.

It does come at a cost, in particular energy consumption along with not being economically suited to high-volume low-priced crops but alternatively plays to localisation and positive carbon footprint. However, initial investment in renewable energy will reap long term cost saving and process efficiency benefits while reducing carbon footprint and assisting businesses to achieve net zero targets; all of which add value to companies, whether that be brand and customer loyalty value or enhanced profits and return on investment (ROI).

Moreover, there are countless unused properties, roof tops, basements that could be utilised, even on a small scale, to provide fresh groceries or large commercial enterprise. Therefore, in terms of import miles, quality control, non-labour or supply chain exposure, as well as value creation, vertical farming should be adopted more extensively.

Despite its heritage and deep roots in farming and fishing, the UK has been slow, relative to other advanced nations, in adopting automation and innovation. However, economics and sustainability will continue to apply pressure on operators, suppliers, consumers and Government.

Automation will be influenced by many factors including technological maturity, macroeconomic conditions, geopolitical dynamics, regulatory decisions and environmental targets.

Reimagining the farming experience on land or water, understanding the ROI and value drivers will attract investors and evolve business models such as subscription or profit sharing to make new technology affordable. Put these alongside Government enabling infrastructure such as power and digital connectivity, this industry will be propelled towards an exciting, sustainable future.


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