The report, The Future of Food 2040, speculated that driverless electric vehicles, remote sensors and robotics had the potential to remove many manual jobs in the agriculture sector and create greater precision and efficiency.
With the prospect of a no-deal Brexit threatening to limit the availability of seasonal workers, food and drink manufacturers looking to automate, in a bid to plug the looming skills gap, could learn from following the examples set out by the NFU report.
One case study presented in the report detailed the use of robotic arms to pick strawberries at Wilkin & Sons in Tiptree, Essex in partnership with the University of Essex – a task that traditionally could only be performed by a human.
However, the technology is in its relative infancy, meaning more work is needed to make an artificial intelligence for the robot that can replicate the speed, expert eyes and judgement of an experienced picker.
Wilkin & Sons manager Andrey Ivanov said forecasting the development of robotics was a challenge, thanks to how rapidly the technology was evolving.
“Once cost-effective and efficient robots have been developed for use on fruit farms, they may be used on a wider scale in the UK and overseas,” said Ivanov. “Interesting times ahead.”
To help safeguard the future of food production in the UK, the report also detailed a number of specific policy interventions that would be needed. These were in addition to free and frictionless trade with our nearest markets in the EU, as well as for the industry’s workforce needs to be met after Brexit.
Embrace domestic agricultural policy
The NFU called on the Government to fully embrace a domestic agricultural policy that addressed the fundamental challenges of volatility, productivity and the environment, as well as to factor in proper transition time to exit the current Common Agricultural Policy framework.
NFU head of policy services and author of the report Andrea Graham said: “This report is a catalyst to encourage us all to start the debate about our food and our future, so we can start to plan ahead. It is also a reminder for government, at a critical time in British history, to put domestic food production as a strategic priority in all policy-making.
“This includes a future domestic agricultural policy, which must enable farm businesses to take advantage of the many opportunities that will present themselves over the coming years.
“There are many possibilities for the future of farming, but one thing is certain; food is a fundamental part of life and British farmers will continue to put the public goods – including the provision of safe, quality and affordable home-grown food – at the heart of all they do.”
Meanwhile, look out for reports from this year’s NFU Conference, due to take place on 19 and 20 February, on this website.