Insights

Webinar: Agriculture Sector Insights

Sector Lead for Energy & the Environment, Matias Wibowo is joined by some special guests including, Cansu Deniz Bayrak (Senior Partner & Head of Fundraising, Bethnal Green Ventures), Charlie Guy of LettUs Grow and Andy Jones of Phytoponics in a recent deep discussion about agri-tech businesses on food chain resilience amidst recent concerns caused by COVID-19.

April 29, 2020

Agriculture Sector Insights Webinar Follow Up Q&A with Our Speakers

During our recent webinar on Agriculture Sector Insights, we were inundated with excellent questions from our audience members (thank you!) but unfortunately, with such an interesting and popular topic, we ran out of time and couldn’t answer them all. However, as promised, we’re following up some of the top questions we didn’t get a chance to cover.

Thanks again to our speakers for taking the extra time to answer these additional questions.

 

I would like to ask what is your opinion on, instead of having a self-sustainable UK, having a self-sustainable Europe? Wouldn’t that be more inclusive, sustainable, resilient and more efficient? In my opinion, a joint effort looks something more durable, from a duration perspective. Thank you.

ANDY: I think that in practice, the question is whether the trend is towards self-sufficiency or away from it. UK has not been self-sufficient in food since 18th century but there are currently drivers acting in this direction. The driver to reduce ‘food miles’ and the environmental impact of transport/packaging carbon is one, which appears sensible. Looking at self-sufficiency from a European perspective does increase resilience. But it requires inter EU transport, which may or may not be sustainable.

CHARLIE: A distributed and well managed system, with sustainable transport solutions that cross European borders would be a good solution to maximise geographic conditions, but this would be extremely complex to manage logistically. Adding self-sufficiency for each nation would still be a key part reducing the complexity and length of supply chains as part of this solution.

 

Hi, appreciating we need to revert to a diet of more seasonal produce, is it realistic to expect consumers to make such a fundamental shift in their shopping decisions? The reduction in choice will potentially be seen as a negative to the majority of people. How do you think the industry can actively encourage/sell this shift to consumers?

ANDY: It’s suggested that food spends half of its shelf life in transit and absolutely requires additional packaging to maintain quality. Despite this, quality suffers in often imperceptible ways – nutritional levels drop and increasingly consumers are waking upto this. Therefore, we need to sell the produce quality benefits of shorter supply chains and seasonal production, together with the sustainability advantage of less packaging, especially plastic.

CHARLIE: Great question. The recent weeks have shown that consumers will make drastic changes to their shopping habits when necessary. This huge upheaval demonstrates the opportunities for change if people want to make them. Therefore, selling the upside and benefits of any additional changes, whilst making them as easy/affordable as possible for people is going to be key to achieving long-lasting, impactful improvements.

 

How do you think that this situation, creates a re-evaluation on creating in-country organic fertiliser on a larger scale opposed to importing large amounts of synthetic fertiliser? Furthermore, do you think Vertical Farming should take a larger play in the supply of products?

CHARLIE: This situation, along with some of the shortages seen recently in other parts of the fertiliser market point to a need for more localised production methods. In-country (part-organic) should be a part of this undoubtedly.

Vertical farming will continue to increase its share of production as the benefits are understood and the market matures.

 

Isn’t one problem education – through school and through TV food shows. Green beans are easier to prepare than cabbage; time is a factor; fruit is pushed as healthy and easy when in fact huge amounts of fruit are carbon heavy or imported?

CANSU: In terms of potential for impact, we do look at products for raising awareness around nutrition and changing eating habits (e.g. Second Nature and Mini Mealtimes from BGV portfolio). They, of course, would not work in a bubble – there is also the question of affordability in terms of cost and time, as you highlighted.

Worth thinking about hyperlocal networks and sharing economy as potential catalysers for consumer behavioural change.

CHARLIE: Absolutely. Education is critical here and the current lockdown represents an opportunity for generations who have missed out on growing produce as part of their education to experiment, understand and be inspired by the value of growing food. Whether it is sprouting seeds on windowsills indoors, or planting beans and potatoes in the garden, there is lots to learn for kids/adults alike at the moment. Unrelated to growing your own, but people like Chris Bavin have been doing great things over the past few years on TV around education and should be supported: https://twitter.com/Chris_Bavin

 

If thinking about the interwoven social and environmental issues inherent in this field (issues like labour, climate (carbon emissions and sustainable treatment of the soil, use of resources, etc., and nutrition), I’m curious to hear from the panellists how they try to take decisions that maximize impact in those areas. or whether there are inevitable trade-offs. 

CANSU: Fairness – responsible/ethical consumerism, fair wages, immigration; inclusivity – affordable, transferable to different geographies and unintended consequences – any negative impact created as a by-product i.e. trade-offs in some cases.

 

Are there signs of the government actually putting in place support for farmers? Is Innovate UK helping with funding of longer-term projects which may help increase the UK based food production?

CHARLIE: Government are rapidly putting in place lots of support for innovation through I-UK, but support for farmers is slower. Worth checking https://www.fwi.co.uk/ and https://www.nfuonline.com/ to stay up to date on support for farmers specifically.

I-UK is indeed accelerating support for UK-based food production. See here for some more information on the related grant calls for this: https://apply-for-innovation-funding.service.gov.uk/competition/461/overview

 

What do you think about cost per item of aeroponic compared to traditional agriculture technique? Profitability can be driven by local supply/demand dynamics – but do we have a real cost advantage?

ANDY: We focus on provision of Deep-Water Culture hydroponic growing and the substitution of rockwool and coco coir with our technology, so can’t comment specifically on the aeroponic costs. However, substrate growing of tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers is the ‘traditional’ approach and our substitution of it with DWC is intended to reduce input costs, so far from growing produce at a higher cost than the market, we would be aiming to produce it for less.

 

What are the key barriers to being able to grow closer to consumption in the UK if we know we can grow many crops here?

ANDY: Given the seasonal nature of growing, growers understandably adopt a conservative mindset and finding early adopters can sometimes feel a challenge! Demonstrating the efficacy of new approaches by ‘side by side’ trials is one way to overcome this and ‘seeding’ the large scale adoption through the creation of collaborative ventures drawing together growers, wholesalers, retailers and land owners is another.

CHARLIE: I would say the key ones are lock-in to traditional supply chains, awareness and financial support structures for new technologies. Bringing in new technology can take time and requires the right narratives and strategy through from government level to farmers/growers to consumers. The roll-out of renewable energy (wind/solar) can be looked at as examples to follow for our food system to really bring about large-scale change.

 

Congratulations to Charlie for his appointment to the advisory board of UK Urban AgriTech. What does the UK Urban AgriTech organisation do, who does it feed its ideas into and what projects might come out of its work?

CHARLIE: Thanks! There is more info here on the work we are doing with UKUAT – https://www.ukuat.org/ – and I would be happy to discuss further with those interested. My main work/focus is on advising the strategy direction for the whole industry and gaining greater representation at government level.

 

How do you get consumers to do their bit – consumers seem fickle and contrary – they say nice things about wanting to be sustainable, and responsible, but they behave differently in their purchases – price remains the most important factor for most consumers – just look at the high street. Does self-sufficiency have to be imposed, or can it be market led?

ANDY: I think you are right that price remains the biggest choice factor for the majority of people and, of course, the environmental/social costs are often not represented within it. But there are some structural shifts that will make UK produce more attractive e.g. tariffs flowing from Brexit with non-agreement on trade deal and increases in transport costs (not in the immediate term with negative forward oil prices!)

 

Agriculture and its supply chain is a highly complex sector, especially when it comes to innovation. With a lot of the research undertaken in labs and farmers resistance to change and digitisation; how does the panel see the role entrepreneurs and investors playing in developing a more robust ecosystem which includes key players such as these?

CANSU: With co-design and not top-down innovation. Innovation equals not taking things online or throwing sensors at things. Food security/resilience encompasses farmers’ financial security and they are acutely aware of the changes that come with climate crisis – tech that leverages that and addresses fundamental farmer worries will be adapted faster. How do we help shield them from volatile weather? How do we make sure they keep producing while making a decent living? Big questions that require policy action, in terms of tech innovation some exciting things are tech to manage insurance for no-yield crops, disaster preparedness tools in multiple languages, and as ever predictive analysis and data for sustainable supply chains. In the current crisis we talk about enough food for all but the second step of it is affordable and nutritional food for all – tech to help more biodiverse farming ecosystems, tech that help incentivise farmers by nutritional value (quality) over production volume (quantity).

ANDY: Resistance to change is common, as we discussed in the webinar, and risk is a key part of the problem. Entrepreneurs and investors can play an important part in bringing together players to mitigate risk. We are trying to address this by establishing new collaborative growing ventures that draw together growers, wholesalers, retailers and landowners to jointly support projects.

Speaker Profiles:

Cansu is Senior Partner at Bethnal Green Ventures, Europe’s leading early stage tech for good VC, where she leads on fundraising for their investment vehicles. Previously, she was with the global accelerator Startupbootcamp, first building their MENA branch in conjunction with a micro-fund in Istanbul, then scaling their industrial IoT programme to London and running it. She has been in the tech industry as founder, operator and early-stage investor for a decade. Her background is in international politics and human rights law, before going into investment she worked with IGOs and NGOs like Amnesty International, the Council of Europe, and the UN in Turkey and France. Currently based in London, she is an ambassador for the UK Government’s Tier 1 Tech Nation Exceptional Talent scheme.

Charlie is co-founder and Managing Director of LettUs Grow, an agricultural technology company on a mission to reduce the waste and carbon footprint of fresh produce, whilst increasing the sustainability and resilience of our global food system for future generations. With a background in renewable energy consultancy and engineering design, Charlie is a proponent of tech for good and passionate about all manners of sustainability, whether in food, energy, resource efficiency, waste valorisation or the circular economy.

With LettUs Grow, Charlie won Shell’s Young Entrepreneur of the Year 2019, has been a finalist in the global Green Challenge sustainability award and won numerous awards in the sustainability and Tech for Good space, including multi-category winners at the 2018 UK Tech Founder of the Year Awards and the Vodafone Techstarter Awards. Charlie is a founding member of the UK Urban Agritech Advisory Board and a judge for the Postcode Lotteries Green Challenge.

Andy is CEO of Phytoponics, an agricultural technology company with a vision to make fresh produce abundant and more sustainable through the use of its patented Deep Water Culture technology. Andy has a family background in the produce sector and an early career in engineering, design and operations and went on to co-found a successful project management consultancy.

He joined Phytoponics 12 months ago to lead the commercialisation of the company’s technology and is passionate about the major contribution that its ‘substrate-less’ growing systems can make to addressing the global food challenge whilst simultaneously reducing environmental impact. He is currently leading commercial growing trials using the company’s technology and gearing up manufacturing plans as Phytoponics looks to scale up its efforts in 2021.

Contact details

Matias Wibowo, Energy & the Environment Sector Lead

matias.wibowo@clearlyso.com