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UK Food Supply Chains and Controlled Environment Agriculture.


“Cnoi cil” gyda #TechTyfu “Food for Thought” – This month, our bulletin looks at UK food supply chains and how controlled environment agriculture (CEA) could help cope with supply and demand of fresh produce.

UK supply chains.

The procurement of goods in the UK has been under pressure across most sectors. Reasons for this stem from the adaptation to the Brexit deal and the ongoing Covid pandemic. Such pressures to procurement strategies have resulted in issues in the UK supply chains, with shortfalls in products throughout the summer of 2021. The matter has been escalated by empty supermarket shelves, fuel shortages and consumer panic buying.

News channels have reported food being left on farms, unable to be picked up from haulage companies. The issues in the UK is down to staff shortages. According to the Chief Executive of the Food and Drink Federation, Ian Wright, the food supply chain in the UK is down 12.5% of the staff needed to keep the flow of produce running.

The haulage sector is one of the key industries within the UK supply chains which is suffering from the shortage of staff. There have been shortfall estimates of up to 100,000 drivers, after the Brexit process in the UK. Many have pinpointed the blame of this shortage to drivers choosing to avoid the UK due to Brexit and Covid.

However, elsewhere in the EU, countries have experienced similar issues. Germany and Poland have seen staff shortages which cannot be blamed on the UK leaving the EU. Mr Shapps, the UK Transport Secretary, stated that Covid was the main reason for the shortfall of staffing in the UK food supply chains. With issues such as the closure of the French border in December 2020 being one of the many possible reasons at the forefront of this discussion, in terms of the impact Covid has had on supply chains.

There needs to be a stronger working connection between the UK and the EU. However, businesses may have to start procuring produce close to home, locally, aiming to prevent food supply chains from continuing to fail to keep up with the demand of consumers.

Supply Chains and CEA

It is clear that food supply chains are under pressure. For most of the produce which fills the shelves in the UK supermarkets, it originates from conventional agricultural methods. However, with produce being left on farms through staff shortages in the supply chain. The current supply chain is failing.

Our farming methods and supply chains are also hurting the environment. The problems that supply chains are coming up against in recent times are escalating the agricultural and environmental issues. For instance, produce travels long distances to reach the consumer. On top of this, transportation of fresh produce saps the nutrients, before arriving at the end destination in the supply chain. Vegetables also pass through many different hands, which in the wake of the pandemic, poses a threat to the welfare of workers and consumers.

There is a need to shorten the food supply chain. One way this could be done is through controlled environment agriculture (CEA), often referred to as vertical farming. For the most part, vertical farming has become much more popular over the recent decade throughout urban settings. Vertical farming is a process where crops are grown indoors in a controlled environment. CEA offers the opportunity for a transparent and safer food supply chain, which can also be shorter and more local to the point at which produce is consumed. This is largely down to CEA’s ability to allow farmers to grow produce all year around, with higher crop yields in urban and rural locations. With the scale-up of vertical farming, the UK’s dependence on the EU supply chains can be reduced.

Many businesses use Just In Time supply chains (Garnett, Doherty & Heron, 2020), when it comes to ordering fruit and vegetables. This is to ensure that the produce on the shelves is fresh for consumers. Just In Time supply chains are proving to be unsustainable in the current economic climate, and new horticultural methods are needed to compliment the UK food supply chains. CEA is an option which needs to be heavily invested in by businesses, growers, and farmers, to shorten food supply chains, keeping fresh produce on supermarket shelves, and making our supply chains more resilient.

The traditional procurement methods for produce in the UK needs to change. Otherwise, there is likely to be a continued shortage in the supply chain, due to issues such as the lack of heavy goods drivers in the haulage industry. Traditional methods do not need to be eliminated from the conversation, but the integration of vertical farming can help grow more produce throughout the UK, in urban and rural areas.


Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning


“Ruminating” with #TechTyfu – Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML) = A technology that could make ‘Vertical Farming’ more efficient. This bulletin aims to introduce Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning, and provide examples of how these new technologies can be used in vertical farming systems.

Artificial Intelligence

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is a term used to describe how machines are used to imitate human skills and emulate human intelligence. The added value created by AI is projected to reach $13 trillion across all industrial sectors by 2030, and $164 billion in the agriculture sector (Source: McKinsey Global Institute).

There are two main categories of AI:

  1. Artificial intelligence (Artificial narrow intelligence – ANI); AI that does one thing, e.g. smart speaker, self-driving car, web search, AI in agriculture and manufacturing.
  2. Artificial intelligence (AGI), which does anything that a human can do. The biggest progress made in ANI and to a lesser extent in AGI, which – while exciting to new researchers – is some time away.

AI solves problems differently from traditional computing, which takes rules and data as input and output results. AI solves problems with no pre-programmed rules.

Machine Learning (ML), the driving force for AI, takes data and results as the collective rules of inputs and outputs. A process of training leads to AI finding patterns and relationships between data and results and creating its own rules for how they relate to each other. AI solves problems that we do not know how to solve ourselves. Machine learning systems are built with artificial neural networks (ANNs), also known as neural networks. Artificial neural networks are inspired by the biological neural networks that make up a biological brain. Artificial neural networks learn to perform tasks by considering examples, but not programmed with any task-specific rules.

Artificial Intelligence and Vertical Farming

In vertical farming, artificial intelligence can be used to produce greater yields and improved efficiencies, by making the best use of nutrients and water. It can also be used to improve crop quality in terms of taste and nutrition.

A start-up Tech Agriculture company, Plenty www.plenty.ag from San Francisco uses AI and robotics to continuously improve the quality of crop growth, using 95% less water and 99% less hand. This is achieved through Controlled Environment Agriculture (CEA) technology that uses AI to control the temperature, humidity and gases in the atmosphere.

AI enables continuous optimisation of these variables through self-learning with Machine Learning about how to grow larger, faster and better quality crops. Plenty uses robots to carry large racks of growing vegetables, moving them to where they are needed. LED panels are used in place of sunlight, resulting in food grown 24/7 inside vertical farms. AI also helps regulate the combination of blue, red and white light to maximise plant growth as they respond to different wavelengths of light.


Digital Tools to Manage a Start-up Growing Business


“Cnoi cil” gyda #TechTyfu “Food for thought” – This month, we take a look at a selection of software tools that allows growers to manage their business efficiently.

Software as a Service for Business

Software as a Service (SaaS) is a software licensing and delivery model in which software is licensed on a subscription basis and is centrally hosted. As an on-demand software that is Web-based/Web-hosted, it can be accessed anywhere using a suitable device (Laptop/PC/Tablet/smartphone) giving you greater flexibility whether you’re in the office, warehouse or out and about. SaaS can help you to improve efficiency, provide better information and insight, promote your business, boost security, and often reduce costs. However, reliable, and fast connectivity is important to make the most of these services.

Finance

Finance software enables you to control all your finances in one place. From creating customer invoices, entering supplier invoices, to bookkeeping. This software is usually available on a monthly subscription where different types of packaging depending on your needs. Some of the more advanced software will allow you to analyse your data in the form of reports to show profit and loss, forecast cashflow, manage a stock inventory, auto input supplier invoices, and connect feeds to your bank accounts. You can also export of give an accountant access to your data auditing.

Finance software providers:

SAGE – www.uk.sageone.com

XERO www.xero.com/uk/

QUICKBOOKS ONLINE – www.quickbooks.intuit.com/uk

CMS

A content management systems (CMS) is used to manage the creation and modification of digital content such as a website or ecommerce website. Online sales and marketing is a direct route to market, easy to set up, and a huge part of the UK economy that is growing year on year. The software available enables you to create different types of online presence, from simple page-based website advertising your business, to shop fronts and platforms that help you trade on established sites such as Amazon or eBay.

CMS software providers:

GoDaddy – www.uk.godaddy.com

Shopify – www.shopify.co.uk

Magento – www.magento.com