Posted 13 June
“Work at Harper Adams and elsewhere, particularly in the UK, has shown the potential for agricultural robotics and AI – and Agri-Tech in general – to better integrate natural systems and food production systems."
Advances in agricultural automation, artificial intelligence and more have the potential to help tackle food security issues in the UK and across the globe, a Parliamentary committee has heard.
The Environmental Audit Commons Select Committee invited Professor James Lowenberg-DeBoer, the Elizabeth Creak Chair of Agri-Tech Economics at Harper Adams University, to give evidence to their inquiry on Environmental Change and Food Security.
The committee examines how the policies and programmes of government departments and non-departmental public bodies contribute to environmental protection and sustainable development, and audits their performance against sustainable development and environmental protection targets. Its inquiry into food security aims to assess how prepared and resilient the UK is to face future food supply stresses and shocks caused by climate change and biodiversity loss.
Professor Lowenberg De-Boer was invited to give evidence to the inquiry following his role in the development of a report which set out plans to boost productivity and innovation in UK agriculture.
He told the Committee: “Resilience of any system – and this is in particular the food system - requires diversity.
“That is, if you depend on one, or two, or three sources of food, those can be easily disrupted – and history gives us ample examples of what happens if you depend too much on imports, and disruption of imports by war or natural disaster causes a problem.
“If you depend only on corporate farms, then there are other issues that happen. So having a diverse food system with different kinds of producers, different kinds of farms with different specialties, different sizes in different parts of the country and different parts of the world creates resilience.
“Secondly, I would like to emphasise the role of farmer livelihood – if farmers can’t support their families by producing food, then the whole food system is undermined – and I would like to remind the committee that in many ways, food security is a public good.
“Food itself is a private good – if you eat it, I can’t eat it, but food security, the sense that the whole society is going to have enough food, is a social creation.”
Professor Lowenberg De-Boer referred to his personal experience on the matter, when he was working in the Sahel region of Africa in the late 1980s, to illustrate how food insecurity in one part of a community affects the community as a whole.
Both the Professor and author and campaigner George Monbiot – who was the other witness giving evidence to the inquiry – then took a range of questions from committee chair Philip Dunne MP and from other Members of Parliament on the Committee.
Among the topics covered by the committee and their witnesses were the impact of the Covid pandemic on the supply chain, the effects of both climate change and conflict – and ways in which the UK and global food systems could strengthen their resilience.
The impact of technology offered new tools to help resilience, Professor Lowenberg De-Boer told the committee – and used examples from his own direct experiences in Shropshire to illustrate his point.
He added: “Work at Harper Adams and elsewhere, particularly in the UK, has shown the potential for agricultural robotics and AI – and Agri-Tech in general – to better integrate natural systems and food production systems.
“In the past, with mechanisation, that favoured large roughly rectangular fields, eliminating other kinds of hedgerows, infield trees and so on. With autonomous machinery, with AI, with Agri-Tech, we can do a much better job of integrating different kinds of crops and plants into the same kinds of systems – producing resilience, but also allowing room for biodiversity and all the benefits that that brings with it.”