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Standards and regulation in agri-tech

Standards and regulation in agri-techCould early sight of transformative innovation by regulators and consistent standards help to drive innovation?

With the wealth of emerging new agricultural technologies, products and services, it is difficult for regulation and standards to keep pace with developments. Rethinking the relationship could mean these elements become enablers rather than barriers.

Lack of standards barrier to adoption?

It is well documented that we are on the cusp of new ways of working in the agriculture and horticulture industry. Precision spraying drones, autonomous farm vehicles, new tools of advanced plant breeding and use of bio-inspired crop protection products are poised to transform the industry and increase efficiency, productivity and sustainability.

Yet ensuring enabling regulation and the development of appropriate standards to which the industry can develop new solutions often lags behind the technology, presenting a barrier to market entry and commercial adoption by farmers.

Standards are particularly crucial when developing technologies that need to work with other existing solutions. ISOBUS is a communications protocol for the agriculture and forestry industries, designed to ensure compatibility and inter-operability between farm machinery, software and implements. This internationally-agreed framework ensured that manufacturers of farm vehicles and electronic devices use a common format for the creation of data networks, hopefully ensuring seamless transition between the different instruments.

Inter-operability essential for connected world

International standards for collection and use of so-called “big data” are also important, not least to ensure that on-farm data collection is inter-operable with farm management software, mapping and satellite image data and other analytical solutions. Ensuring this is a massive global challenge, as anyone who has tried to share files across operating systems will know.

Regulation is one of the most important influencers

At a stroke, use of a new technology can be decreed or deposed. Regulation can also rapidly change user behaviour – as the introduction of a charge on single use carrier bags in supermarkets has revealed.

At present crop spraying using drones is not yet permitted in the UK, despite the technology being reliable and robust. Regulations around new crop varieties developed by advanced breeding tools such as gene editing have also impacted their future adoption and production in the UK, as well as the royalty payments for breeding companies. With the anticipated reduction in availability of certain agri-chemicals, there is likely to be an increase in the development of biologically derived crop protection and growth enhancement products to replace them. Again, appropriate regulation around their approval will be crucial to their commercial success and impact on the industry, and to encourage ongoing investment in their R&D.

Early sight needed for regulators 

Yet too often we hear of a disconnect between innovators and those in charge of regulation and standards. It is, after all, a big ask for regulators to keep abreast of all new developments across so many different areas of the sector. Yet equally the costs of regulatory approval or lack of industry-approved standards prove a significant barrier to business growth and technology impact.

We therefore need a mechanism for “early sight” for the regulators around crop breeding, use of chemicals, machinery, data management and other transformative innovations, and for innovators to engage early to help ensure a smooth transition to commercial adoption.