Government funding for future farm tech to meet net zero goals

Cropped shot of a male farmer using a tablet while working on his farm

What will future farms look like? How will farming practices evolve to be more efficient and help meet the UK’s net zero goals?

Will they have robots harvesting the crops? Will they use lasers instead of pesticides? Will crops be fertilised by products made from insects?

These are the intriguing prospects posed by the latest crop of winners to be awarded funding through the UK government’s Farming Innovation Pathways competition. The competition is a partnership between UKRI’s Transforming Food Production (TFP) challenge and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’ (Defra) Farming Innovation Programme (FIP).

Project summaries

Winners sharing £14.5 million of funding include:

Antobot

Based in Chelmsford, Antobot will be developing a fruit-scouting robot which uses artificial intelligence to provide a range of crop data and insights, so farmers can maximise yields.

Inspro

Based in Surrey and Cambridgeshire, Inspro will use the well-established process of bio conversion using black soldier flies to create protein-rich animal feed from food waste, in an innovative, dispersed ‘hub and spoke’ business model, that brings the process to the substrate to minimise food waste miles, and utilises the output, of feed and frass as locally as possible, to create ‘local nutrient circularity’.

Muddy Machines

Based in London Muddy Machines, together with Barfoots of Botley (Bognor Regis) will be studying the feasibility of developing a robot technology to harvest Tenderstem broccoli, thus helping to mitigate potential shortages of agricultural labour.

Microbiotech

Based in Pershore, Microbiotech is leading a consortium of growers, scientists and engineers that aim to replace peat with planting materials derived from coir (a low-carbon substitute) to grow mushrooms and salad vegetables

Tozer seeds

Based in Surrey, Tozer seeds and their collaborators from across the UK will be developing an alternative to pesticides that uses lasers and bioactive compounds to treat vegetable seeds.

A sustainable and resilient sector

Other projects tackle issues such as diseases in potatoes; livestock; and poultry welfare; and turning slurry from something noxious to more useful agricultural products. Many seek to reduce the carbon footprint of farming and help to meet net zero aims.

Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) Science & Innovation Minister, Jo Churchill said:

Innovation is a vital way to address the challenges currently facing the agricultural and horticultural sectors. New ideas, technologies and processes will play a key role in helping farmers, growers and businesses to become more productive. They will also enable the sector to be more environmentally sustainable and resilient, whilst helping it achieve its net zero ambitions.

Katrina Hayter, UKRI Challenge Director for the TFP challenge said:

As the UK gets ready to host COP26 in November, it is timely that we can unveil so many great projects in the vital area of agriculture that will help meet our net zero goals.

Working closely with farmers in the innovation process means that pressing challenges are identified. Solving these challenges will result in maximising productivity, reducing emissions, and making our farms more resilient and sustainable.

Research and development funding

Defra has also announced a new funding programme to support farmers, growers, foresters and other businesses to innovate through Research & Development (R&D) today.

In partnership with UK Research & Innovation (UKRI), Defra is making £17.5 million available for R&D through the Industry-led R&D Partnerships fund – the first of three to open in the Farming Innovation Programme.

The programme will support ambitious R&D projects to boost productivity and environmental sustainability in England’s agricultural and horticultural sectors, while helping them to achieve their net zero ambitions.

The Farming Innovation Programme builds upon the success of UKRI’s £90 million Transforming Food Production (TFP) challenge, and expands on Defra’s partnership with UKRI for the Farming Innovation Pathways competition.

Building a network to research agri-food

Also announced is a funding opportunity worth at least £3.5 million for Sustainable Agri-food for Net Zero NetworkPlus. This is supported by UKRI councils the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC).

The network will connect researchers in universities, institutes and businesses with farmers, growers, agricultural practitioners, and policymakers to build a community that will explore ambitious solutions for sustainability.

The network will stimulate novel collaborations that draw upon the full strength of the research community supported across UKRI, developing new solutions that could be advanced through the Farming Innovation Programme. Projects funded through the Farming Innovation Programme may also identify challenges that require the broad interdisciplinary expertise within the network to address.

Together these investments from UKRI and Defra will connect and mobilise the UK’s researchers around the net-zero challenge, while also providing clear investment pathways to accelerate research through to innovation.

About the Farming Innovation Programme

The aim of this competition is to support the development of novel innovations to establish a more productive, resilient, and sustainable agricultural sector.

This funding is delivered through the UKRI’s Transforming Food Production programme, in partnership with Defra.

This development is achieved through the investment of up to £5 million in feasibility studies and £9.5 million in industrial research.

Projects must address one or more high priority areas in at least one of these four industry subsectors:

  • livestock
  • plant
  • novel food production systems
  • bioeconomy and agroforestry.

Proposals must engage with farmers, growers, or producers to develop farm-focused solutions. These solutions must solve the short to long-term challenges of productivity, sustainability, and net zero emissions.

Upcoming competitions

Three of the four competitions within the industry-led R&D Partnerships fund are launching in October and the competitions will be open to applications for six to seven weeks. The fourth will be rolled out in early 2022.

The following will be open from October 2021:

  • research starter projects: to help farmers and growers with bold, ambitious early-stage ideas develop them further and build a collaborative team. Suitable for those who haven’t previously received Innovate UK funding.
  • feasibility projects: to test the feasibility of early-stage solutions and to inform decisions on subsequent larger scale R&D projects.
  • small R&D partnership projects: to carry out R&D for innovative solutions that have the potential to substantially improve overall productivity, sustainability and resilience of the sector.

The following will be open from spring 2022:

  • large R&D partnership projects: launching early 2022, this will provide funding for larger-scale R&D and demonstration of solutions that have the potential to substantially improve overall productivity, sustainability and resilience of the sector.

About the Transforming Food Production challenge

This challenge is supporting new ways to produce food that reduce emissions and pollution, and contribute to feeding a growing world population.

We are investing up to £90 million of funding to help businesses, researchers and industry to transform food production, meet the growing demand and move towards net zero emissions by 2040.

It is predicted that 60% more food will be needed worldwide by 2050 to feed the increasing global population. To do this, we need to be able to produce resilient and sustainable food more efficiently. This will reduce emissions and pollution, minimise waste and improve soil.

Funding will be invested in:

  • future food production systems
  • science and technology into practice
  • international opportunities
  • investment ecosystems.

Further information

Upcoming events

Video recordings of applicant briefing events are available on the competition pages.

We held a live applicant Q&A session on 20 October. Watch the recording.

Defra will be holding an ‘Introduction to the Farming Innovation Programme’ webinar with live Q&A on 25 October. Sign up for the event via Teams.

More information on the new competitions and how to get involved can be found on our new website.

About Defra

Defra is responsible for improving and protecting the environment. It aims to grow a green economy and sustain thriving rural communities. It also supports world-leading food, farming and fishing industries.

About UKRI

UKRI creates knowledge with impact by investing over £8 billion a year in research and innovation through the UK’s nine leading funding councils.

For media enquiries

PJ Taylor, senior media and communications manager

  • phone: 07950 225001
  • email: press@ukri.org
  • for out of hours media calls: 01793 298902

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