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by Staff reporter
10 March 2021
Associate feature: Fresh fields and digital farming

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Associate feature: Fresh fields and digital farming

For the first time in decades, the UK is no longer subject to the rules of the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy (CAP).

While CAP structures remain in place for now, the Scottish Government will use its devolved powers to reshape environmental and agricultural policy to better serve the public and rural communities.

Creating a new system is nothing short of a monumental task, but farmers across the UK are also mindful of the opportunities.

Specifically, NFU Scotland believes it will be possible to create a more efficient and profitable sector, less reliant on direct support from government.

What happens to the sector after 2024 is up for negotiation and the tough decisions on what this means for farmers, sectoral support, climate change and environmental policy, and rural communities more broadly are being had now.

A vital component of this discussion is, naturally, how to make farming sustainable for the years to come. According to Leidos, a global tech firm with experience of designing and implementing innovative solutions to meet government ambitions, this means greater and more creative use of digital technology and data.

Dr Shirley Cavin, head of data science at Leidos, explains: “We have seen the benefits of using state-of-the-art technologies in many sectors that will impact the wider community, including farming. For example, robotics for food picking, weed control and crop monitoring, or the use of the internet of things like sensors to collect data to improve crop and livestock management, improve the quality of the crops and the welfare of animals, and serving rural areas which are the target of agricultural innovation.”

Cavin says new technology can be deployed to help farmers work in “more precise, sustainable and efficient ways”. But it can also bring benefits for the wider supply chain and consumers, for example by providing information about the food we’re eating, how it’s been produced and even how it’s been transported from farm to plate.

This is increasingly important as we are becoming more aware of the impact our personal food choices have on the world around us, be that for our carbon footprint, ensuring we’re paying farmers a reasonable price for their produce or any one of our other social responsibilities.

“One of the most important benefits is it enables greater transparency – not just transparency in the way that products are produced, but also transparency for the farmers to make the right decisions and for the government officials to take informed actions,” Cavin adds.

There is already an abundance of data about our food, our farms and how land in Scotland is being used. The key to unleashing the benefits is about creating an overarching structure on how to use it.

Leidos’ Scottish Government account manager Jillian Giles says: “There is a realisation that a lot of different organisations hold similar data, but it’s not necessarily held in the same way and it’s not necessarily held in the same format.

“Forestry and Land Scotland for example will hold data about land use, SEPA will hold data about land use, the Rural Payments and Inspections Directorate will hold data about land use – that’s not to mention some of the other organisations and the farming communities themselves. It might not be in a database, but they’ll hold those records. It could be paper records.

“All this different information relating to our land and how it’s used and how it might be used is there. The trick with any of this is knowing what you’ve got and how to use it, and then actually do something with it which shows benefit.”

This will require government to work with industry and other stakeholders. By ensuring there are clear outcomes and targets, the services and systems making use of this data can be tailor-made to suit these demands. Giles adds: “With any of these systems, what happens first is policy. The government is really working towards developing what policy they want. What does Scotland need from agricultural policy going forwards? We know the current system will be in place for a couple more years. What comes after that? What do we want to achieve as a nation? What is our objective?”

Collaborating with farming communities will provide a better understanding of “their pain points, their frustrations, and also their ambitions, their aims,” she says. It could also create room for services which look at each farm individually, providing bespoke support rather than broad-brush application of policy.

It is already clear that one big ask is to reduce the red tape to allow farmers to do what they do best – help feed the nation. Giles says this will be a natural result of really listening to communities and using their expertise to develop services, rather than continuing to do something in a certain way because that’s how it has always been done.

She says: “A lot of the perception about red tape comes down to people, and we all are guilty of this, not understanding the purpose of the information that’s being collected. By collaborating, by bringing in all the stakeholders, working together and developing an understanding of what it is going to be used for, gives you the opportunity to say, that is information that is of value, therefore as an individual I won’t see that as being red tape. I will perceive it as being of value.”

Cavin adds that ongoing communication and education throughout the transition process will be of the utmost importance. Once people understand the new system, benefits will quickly follow.

Implementing new public sector IT infrastructure and systems is not for the faint hearted though. Government often has challenges bedding in new IT systems and it’s important that there is continuity in farm payments during any period of change.

But Giles believes collaboration and making it an iterative process will make it easier. “The Scottish Government has been very strong about bringing in the community, the stakeholders to help shape the strategic vision. It’s taking that on and going, we have these people, we know they’re enthusiastic, we know they want to work with us. When we get further down the line, let’s talk about how you do things and from that, you work on your systems.”

And there are lessons to be learned from the legacy systems in Scotland, as well as bringing together knowledge, experience and best practice from system deployments in Northern Ireland, England and the Republic of Ireland by Version 1, a Leidos partner.

The key message is one of collaboration and joint working to tailor policy and deliver an ambitious programme for farmers, rural communities and indeed the nation as a whole.

Cavin says: “We can take all that knowledge, all the experience, of partners and suppliers, to provide a very good, holistic approach that will be suitable for Scotland, that meets the goals of the Scottish Government, the Scottish people and the future of farming.”  

This feature was written in association with Leidos.

Read the most recent article written by Staff reporter - In times of crisis: Q&A with Mairi Gougeon

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