How agri-tech can help UK farming compete on the world stage
Oliver McEntyre, our National Agriculture Strategy Director, explores how innovations such as precision agriculture and robotics can help boost productivity and exports.
The stark comparison between the efficiency of agriculture in the UK and other countries has been brought into sharp focus by Brexit – and the challenges and opportunities it'll bring.
It’s clear that the UK lags behind many other EU countries when it comes to productivity. In fact, the UK ranks 6th from bottom in the most recent data.
To illustrate why the UK lags so far behind, it’s useful to draw comparisons to the agricultural sector in the Netherlands, which sits at the top of the pile when it comes to productivity.
Clearly there are major differences between agriculture in the two countries that explain the divergence in productivity per hectare.
The Netherlands is well known for its glasshouse production of flowers and the more intensive type of controlled environment cropping. Nearly a quarter (22.4%) of farmed area in The Netherlands is under such production and this has increased by 27.6% over the last ten years1.
By contrast, ‘horticulture’ represents a static 3% of farmed area in the UK2, whereas it is estimated that just over a third of UK farmland is graded as moorland or Less Favoured Areas (LFA).
These less productive areas of the UK clearly drag our productivity per hectare down, especially compared to the high level of specialist horticultural production in the Netherlands.
As well as generating high volume and value of agricultural products, the Netherlands is also a major agricultural exporter – more than half of cut flowers around the world are produced in the Netherlands, including over £0.5 billion of annual exports to the UK alone3.
This partly accounts for the Netherlands’ standing in the world agricultural export rankings, where it is second only to the USA.
Top 5 exporting countries
Another reason for the Netherlands’ high export standing is the significance of the port of Rotterdam – the largest in the world outside the Middle East and China and well ahead of any single US port4. Its role as a conduit for exported goods from across Europe boosts total Dutch agricultural export figures.
There are, however, other factors that explain why Dutch farming is more productive and generates greater gross value added, beyond its pattern of land use and the role of Rotterdam in the export market.
Source: World Bank
Use of precision agriculture
A key factor in Dutch productivity is investment in precision agriculture. Between 50% and 65% of farms in the Netherlands use GPS guided farming systems, compared to only around 10% across the rest of Europe, while up to 5% of farms currently use variable rate application of seed, fertiliser and spray, compared to less than 1% in the rest of the continent.
The benefits of variable rate application are clear from research undertaken by Wageningen University, which shows cost savings of 35% on average. This increases to 70% when plant-specific systems are used. Once this technology becomes more mainstream and readily available it is expected to deliver return on capital within a commercially acceptable timespan.
Source: ZLTO/Wageningen University & Research
Opportunities for UK farmers
As the prospect of Brexit looms larger, the importance of increasing UK agricultural efficiency and making our exports more competitive will only intensify.
The UK pig meat and poultry sectors have demonstrated how to compete in the global market through efficiency and quality. Both have long embraced innovation and, as a result, are consistently the most profitable and productive sectors of UK agriculture according to NFU figures.
All sectors of UK agriculture could learn from this, embrace agri-tech and keep abreast of the latest innovations to produce valuable products that can compete in the global market, like the flower producers of the Netherlands.
To find out more, speak to Oliver McEntyre, National Agricultural Strategy Director +44 (0)7775 544 363