AgroEcoTech: Innovation is (part of) the answer
On Tuesday 19th October, Soil Association hosted an event, AgroEcoTech, exploring how technology can accelerate a transition to agroecology.
On the panel
- Professor Tom Macmillan (Royal Agricultural University) - host and chair
- Joanna Lewis (Policy & Strategy Director, Soil Association)
- George Chanarin and Paul Silcock (Cumulus Consultants , authors of the AgroEcoTechnology: How can Technology Accelerate a Transition to Agroecology?)
- Joseph Gridley (Director - Soil Association Exchange)
- Cumulus & Soil Association Q&A
- Russell Batten (Agri-innovation Team Leader, Defra)
- Abby Rose (farmer and technology entrepreneur -Vidacycle and SectorMentor)
- Dr Ruth Bastow (Innovation Director, CHAP)
- Andy Cureton (UKRI Challenge Deputy Director, Transforming Food Production)
Panellists were united in agreeing that farming needs technology that supports agroecological system changes – not silver bullet solutions.
There was talk of exciting technologies – from drones and robots to apps, biological controls and automatic sensing – that can support nature-friendly farming. But speakers agreed that there is not one single technology that will fix solve all of farming’s challenges in the face of the climate and nature emergencies – it should be viewed as diverse options that can work together in harmony with nature.
Working with food producing businesses is essential when developing tech solutions
Author George Chanarin warned, ‘Technology to date has increased yield and large-scale productivity but this intensification and need to accommodate larger size technology has necessitated intensification and system simplification, and contributed to environmental problems’.
Farmer Abby Rose echoed this. ‘Technology tends to arrive on farm all packaged up as a final product, but it’s vital that agroecology is part of the technology that is being built. We need to remember the importance of empowering farmers - if it takes power away from farmers, it immediately isn’t agroecological’.
Launching their new £17.5 million Farming Innovation Programme, Defra were in agreement that technology needs to be designed to work for sustainable, agroecological farming. The need for farmers to lead research, collaborate and share results through research models like the Innovative Farmers programme was also recognised by all involved.
Tech solutions may help deliver the vision of the National Food Strategy
Joanna Lewis, our Policy & Strategy Director said, ‘There are clearly opportunities to strengthen farmer-led innovation with the new Research Starter Fund, and it was encouraging to hear Andy and Russell identify some opportunity areas already emerging for agroecological farming from the wider portfolio. Of course, given that the National Food Strategy vision, as Tom highlighted, is for most farms and most land to be agroecological, a key test of Defra’s response will be whether the overall impact of the innovation portfolio supports a direction of travel towards more agroecological farming systems’.
Soil Association Exchange
Talking about the new Soil Association Exchange, its director Joseph Gridley explained how helping farmers to adapt to new technologies enables practices that are better for climate nature and health, adding, ‘Our founder Lady Eve was a true and great first innovator. She started doing field labs, comparing organic to intensive agriculture. That spirit of innovation carries on today’.