Kasi will tell us what benefits and opportunities Agri-Epi offers to agritech and foodtech companies in more detail, we'll learn about Agri-Epi's Smart Farms and Satellite Farms portfolio and how businesses can get involved. Kasi also speaks about what businesses should consider from a farmer's perspective and her prediction for the changes we're expecting to see on-farm over the next five years.
Rob Ward 1:18
Kasi, this is the Forward Food Tech podcast and you are very, very welcome to be the next person to be on this because as of yet we haven't had time to talk about something to do with the livestock sector or even the aquaculture sector. And you're right in the hot seat of this from a world perspective. Tell us about the key areas you're working in now and where you do that.
Kasi McReddie 1:40
Sure, so as the business development manager for both livestock and aquaculture at the Agri- Epi centre, it's within my remit to work with technology companies to build solutions to some of the grand challenges in both livestock and aquaculture production. The challenges I mean broadly similar across all the sectors in terms of there being sustainability challenges relating to the environment, relating to on-farm economics, etc. I'm related to the social aspects of farming as well. And we work with technology developers, be they digital technologies, they could be biotechnologies could be anything from satellites. And we support them to develop solutions towards these challenges.
Rob Ward 2:28
You've achieved a lot already, I can see that there's a lot of energy there. And it's taken a lot to get to where you are. So, who's been an inspiration to you, who would you like to thank to recognise the influence they've had on you?
Kasi McReddie 2:40
This journey for me in agriculture started, I could quite literally say when I was a toddler, and I was sitting on the tractor seat with my dad, I come from a farming family. So there, of course, the whole family to thank. In terms of me as a professional. I was very, very much driven by a couple of professors at my university to pursue sustainability in agriculture. It's always been agriculture for me, but actually focusing on sustainability. I had two professors in particular, and John Conway and Richard Baines at the Royal Agricultural University, who very much sent me in the direction of pursuing a career in sustainability in agriculture. After university I, I've been to various countries, I've lived in the US and I've lived in Egypt, and I spent some time in India. And that was doing different things, actually, with the UN in India, which was absolutely fantastic, Representing the UK at the World Youth Conference, sort of discussing sustainability and agriculture, or working as an agricultural analyst in Egypt and my international experience studying on the Global Village Leadership Programme in the US as well. And this has allowed me to recognise the agricultural community as a global one, the experiences that we have in the UK, they're facing the same environmental challenges or similar environmental challenges around the world. Hence, my interest in international smart farms. And my journey at the agri tech centres began in 2018. And I'm very, very grateful to CIEL, especially their CEO, Lindsay and my colleague, Casey who was there at the time for actually allowing me to start there as an intern. I really had to do a good job of convincing them that I was the right person. And since then, the support of CIEL, and of Agri- Epi as well, especially, my current boss, Lisa Williams, for taking a chance on me. I'm young, I'm female in the agriculture space. And so I'm not always the obvious choice for a role in agri tech. But I hope that my drive and determination to work towards better farming shine through and that's what I want to use to help technology developers.
Rob Ward 4:47
If there's one thing I believe AgTech will do is dispel any myth around age or gender if you're any good at something. And we're seeing that all the time and so many interesting people coming through. It doesn't matter who you are and where you are from. What matters is how you do things. And you're doing a lot so that's fantastic. Just tell me a bit more about what Agri- Epi is?
Kasi McReddie 5:07
Yeah, so I Agri-Epi is an agri tech centre. So we're one of four agri tech centres that exist in the UK. And we were set up by the Department for Business Energy and Industrial Strategy back at the end of 2016. As part of this transforming food production movement from the UK government, and we, as I said, we're one of four centres we have three sister centres there's CIEL are the Centre for innovation, excellence in livestock, and they focus entirely on r&d in livestock, and I actually worked for CIEL before I worked for Agri-Epi. And we also have CHAP, crop health and protection who focus entirely on plants, crops, horticulture and supporting technology developers in that space. And then we have AgriMetrics as well, the big agricultural Data Centre of Excellence. Agri-Epi is the only centre that covers all the major livestock sectors and the agriculture sector. So livestock crops horticulture, aquaculture, etc. And so we're an ag-tech centre.
Rob Ward 6:14
That's great that infrastructure's there but if I were, if I was a brand listening to you, I think you're right, what how do I get help? Incidentally, does this only affect UK businesses? Or can anybody from anywhere come in? And does it require costs? Or how does that work? Tell us about that first.
Kasi McReddie 6:31
So Agri-Epi is a membership organisation the same as all of the ag tech centres, there is a cost associated with membership. And at the moment that stands at £300, excluding VAT per annum. And it's absolutely open to any companies in the world, not just in the UK. And it's not just open to technology companies either. It could be anybody interested in the agriculture sector as a whole, over 50% of our current 170 members are tech developers, just because we're geared up to supporting their r&d process for the majority. But other players in the supply chain, your processes, your retailers, industry, bodies, etc, are all members of Agri-Epi as well. And like I said, it's not just open to UK companies. So there are a lot of benefits of joining Agri-Epi as an international company, not least because Agri-Epi provides a sort of, or enable a soft landing pad in the UK. So perhaps you've developed technology that's suitable for the dairy market in a completely different market, or maybe a similar market to the UK and you're wanting to sort of hit the ground running in the UK with some trials or some validations, or you're wanting to network with the British supply chain. And that's a major benefit of Agri-Epi being able to help in that respect.
Rob Ward 7:47
It costs £300 and I get all of that?
Kasi McReddie 7:50
Yeah, so some of the membership benefits are wrapped up in that £300 membership fee. Additional costs are associated with on-farm trials, and tests and validations and projects and so on. So in terms of expertise and advice, that all is rolled up in the membership fee. If you wanted to go on and say you've got you to want to do a three month trial of your product on x farm, and you want to know how it improves milk yield animal health and other sorts of x, y, z parameters, then we would cost that project up either on a commercial basis or as part of a grant-funded project. So we very commonly work with both and actually one of our membership services that are rolled up into that £300 annual fee is support to actually find funding right bids and go out and win grant funding as well.
Rob Ward 8:44
There are the different steps, aren't they to this journey for developing innovation and you've got prototyping if you want to call it as a group there. And then you've got these trials we've already mentioned and testing that part. How much prototyping are you involved with?
Kasi McReddie 8:57
So I'd say we come into being able to support companies that have already reached around the TRL 3 levels.
Rob Ward 9:06
What does that mean?
Kasi McReddie 9:07
Yeah, we would expect companies to already have a proof of concept. And they might have a prototype and not a final product, but they have something physical. And the concept for that is proven in a lab setting or on a desk, but it's not yet proven on a farm. This is not the only example of technology we work with. But this would be the sort of minimum that a company would have. Basically, we need them to have something that is able to be put on farm or to be tested in a real-life setting. Similarly, we work with companies that have reached TRL 10. They've got a product, it's completely commercialised, it's very successful in the market but maybe they haven't done any validation trials using that product for 10 years or more and they want to go back and undertake another trial with a modern herd for example and see how it impacts Animal Health and productivity today. So it's not just the early-stage technology developers, we work, it's everybody across the board. And before proof of concept area, before something's maybe proven for even safety or efficacy, sort of lies within the academic research base, which is sort of just a step before Agri-Epi, it's critical to remember that Agri-Epi's network of farms are commercial farms. And the farmers are driven by farm economics as every farmer is. And therefore we wouldn't expect to be trialling technology that hadn't had its safety tested, or that we were very, very unsure it was going to be impactful on-farm.
Rob Ward 10:42
So if you took a tech parallel, it's a beta test in that case, yeah. I guess it's trying to see how it's gonna be a benefit to the farm, or in the farms of busy people, as you just said, the unit economics are tough, and how they got time for that. So so and so this is just to clarify this, it's a good way, for instance, for an international brand to test their products in this climate this marketplace. Yeah, that's, that's the one side it could be, there are technical changes to be made because of that change. Or it could be because of livestock, as you mentioned, different breeds and different. So all kinds of fine-tuning. And this is a verification process.
Kasi McReddie 11:23
Yeah, so we exist to as well as to actually optimise a product, it's very common that a product that's suitable for one market might not quite be suitable for another and it needs some tweaking, it needs some optimization. It might need a further level of ruggedisation. Say you're coming from quite a warm climate and all of a sudden, you want to put some sensor technology in the Highlands of Scotland, while it's maybe going to act a little bit differently in that environment. So you know, absolutely, we expect people to even perhaps very slightly change and optimise their product over the r&d lifecycle. Yes, international companies are very, very welcome to come and use the Agri-Epi facilities as a soft landing in the UK.
Rob Ward 11:58
Okay, when I talk to VCs or people that want to invest in this industry, the biggest criticisms they have is this traction, trying to get the sales machine going, and the resistance to that. So you're clearly doing all of this to help make that happen, brands that are trying to grow in this sector. What are the mistakes that you see that they do that you wish they would stop doing?
Kasi McReddie 12:18
I think for me, the number one is, of course, all these solutions are being developed to address grand challenges like climate change, and antimicrobial resistance to name a couple of big ones in the livestock and aqua sector. What you've always got to remember, at the end of the day, it's the farmer or a representative of the farmer within the supply chain is going to be purchasing this technology. And so you absolutely have to focus on their interest, which is always going to be economics, first and foremost. What is the return on the investment for this piece of equipment? And I think it quite often gets missed in the r&d process to figure something like that out. You can get to the end of a product lifecycle, and you might have an absolutely fantastic product that does reduce methane by X per cent, and it does improve productivity and animal health. But if you don't know the stats on your return on investment on-farm, then you're going to find it very, very hard to sell into the market.
Rob Ward 13:18
You know, Kasi, it's so true, we see so many decks coming through us. And the unit economics they talk about is the businesses you can not the customer. And yet, and what we want is that case study, and I guess you're all about building that case study to get that value proposition fixed at a farm level.
Kasi McReddie 13:34
Absolutely. Agri-Epi is not just about the physical validation or optimisation or ruggedisation, or whatever of the piece of kit. But alongside that we can do a return on investment analysis, your cost analysis, we can help with the environmental analysis. So it's actually getting all the stats and figures and numbers around that piece of technology to help you when you do reach the market.
Rob Ward 13:57
Brilliant. And so you are a specialist in animal livestock and fish farming or aquaculture. Talk us through the innovations without breaching any confidentiality. Or take us through some of the things that you think are really exciting that you think oh, wow, that is a big leap, seismic change. What sort of things are you seeing?
Kasi McReddie 14:16
Well, I mean, first and foremost, in terms of being a specialist, I'm surrounded by a lot of experts and I have a certain level of specialism and expertise in this area. aquaculture is a new area for me. So this is my first role in aquaculture. And I'm actually currently in the process of learning more about that sector. So my background, which I'm sure will go on to is in dairy farming, and that's where I'm most comfortable in terms of my level of expertise. In terms of interesting technologies, I'm personally always more interested in biotech and just because my sort of background is in biology and animal health and I have a better level of understanding there. So I'm always excited to see new discoveries in science and new discoveries in the research space, especially in human health that can translate over to animal health as part of a one health approach. And I think it's a space that moves a lot more slowly than digital technologies because it requires a lot more regulatory approval, but we can see some technologies coming through where novel biomarkers have been discovered for some endemic diseases in the UK. And by using sort of novel innovative diagnosis techniques, we can use those biomarkers to identify diseases very, very early. And I think there's a really interesting piece around biotech and digital tech coming together to use vision technologies like cameras, for example, to identify those diseases early and validate with biotech. So early disease detection is a really interesting area for me.
Rob Ward 15:56
I guess welfare could sit with that, too, as in assurance around welfare..
Kasi McReddie 16:02
Absolutely, health and welfare, are different. They're very sort of interchangeable in a lot of senses. And you could almost say that animal health incorporates animal welfare, but animal welfare isn't entirely made up of animal health, it sort of is often interchangeable in that way. But yes, being able to monitor animal health status as part of animal welfare all year round and round the clock rather than just on a once a year assurance scheme type model is of major major benefit to everybody within the supply chain, not least the consumers that are the ones that are demanding and should be demanding higher levels of animal welfare.
Rob Ward 16:43
And this would be dairy, particularly or across the board?
Kasi McReddie 16:47
Across the board. I think what we've just generally seen over the years is dairy is sort of the low hanging fruit area of the livestock industry, in terms of ruminants, which are your cattle, sheep, as opposed to your monogastrics which are your pigs and poultry simply because it's more intensive, and they're digital, therefore, digital technologies can be implemented better. Whereas with your beef and sheep sector, which is more extensive, it's difficult to implement digital technologies in that environment. But that is a challenging area that technology developers are working towards, for example, it's an extensive setting. So rather than physical connectivity gateways on-farm, how can we use satellites, reliably in those expensive settings?
Rob Ward 17:34
I guess there are some technologies out there that are really exciting at the same time, commercially not affordable. Have you seen any of the facial recognition cameras or the movement recognition, more importantly? When I've looked at those and tried to have conversations with farmers about that they sort of like it at the same time go, "How much does it cost? Well, I'm not paying for that" you know, a circulating problem, isn't it? Perhaps it takes all of those different stars to align together better health, welfare, carcass performance, market added value, traceability, all these different touching points come together and suddenly, you've got a whole massive need there.
Kasi McReddie 18:09
In terms of the cost of technology, something I learned simply from growing up in the farming sector and from working with and being a farmer myself, is that it's not how expensive something is that matters, it's the returns you're going to make from it. So I suppose every farmer would rather spend £10,000 on something useful, that's working towards their goals of improved productivity and improved sustainability, etc, rather than £10 on something useless. Another factor with affordability and farm economics that you've got to consider is, as the UK has left the EU, we're moving away from the subsidy system under the Common Agricultural Policy, we don't quite know what the subsidy schemes are going to look like for investment of tech on farms in the future. And there may well be a move away from the government being able to provide big grants for farmers to invest in sustainable infrastructure on farms. So it's something that technology developers have to consider very, very closely, is affordability. If it wasn't the farmer themselves with no help that was going to have to purchase something.
Rob Ward 19:19
What we're seeing is whole new ways of paying for things, I think the opportunity to be able to pay as a sort of partner and the way that you pay on the upside, or the benefit that's been created and share on that rather than saying as a couple of costs. Good luck, see you next year, hopefully not. Interesting that in more food tech areas that we're working on, we're seeing that and I suspect it'll migrate into true hardcore agtech.
Kasi McReddie 19:41
I think it's migrated and is migrating. There are various business models. I don't think it's always, it will be sometimes I don't think it's always fully necessary to expect a farm to invest in capital equipment. You have business models that are more like subscription as a service, but then also beginning to notice technology developers moving away from his the thinking that every farmer has to invest in an individual piece of technology. Well, actually, could something be portable? Could it be shared between a group of farmers, you know, there's all these different options that should absolutely be explored, as well as valorising, the outputs for other areas of the supply chain. So actually, could a piece of technology that's used on farm be paid for somewhere else in the supply chain? Is that data useful to the retailer? Is it useful to the processor to industry body to the government for measuring sustainability metrics, etc. So if you can valorise it into the rise of the supply chain where it is more affordable, perhaps that reduces the costs on-farm?
Rob Ward 20:42
That's a technology ring, rather than the machinery ring, sounds great. Absolutely. Just an aside, you maybe think about something, then is that as a farm, if they are using camera technology, it's important to sort of square this. How transparent does a farm really want to be? There's quite a lot of conversations around different ways of doing protocols like farm assurance, or whatever the protocol that a farm might be wherever they are in the world, and then moving away from somebody with a clipboard and a white coat coming around every now and again to digitalise in that process. And if you say to a farmer, it's gonna save you money, and they go, "Okay, great". How actually genuinely transparent does a farmer want to be, if you are opening up everything visually, to potentially your marketplace. Do you think that's got legs? Do you think that's going to happen?
Kasi McReddie 21:30
It's going to be of utmost importance that every technology developer considers data security as part of their innovation. Because, yes, absolutely, we are moving towards a more digital world. And there are going to be naturally, especially with camera technology, more pictures and videos produced on-farm. Now, 99% of the time, that's absolutely not an issue in the UK, we have very, very high standards of animal welfare, and you would naturally just see a beautiful barn with happy animals. But in the wrong hands, it could be quite damaging information. I think those videos and those images as long as the data is secure, and it's used in the right hands for farm assurance, etc. But we shouldn't downplay how useful that is by thinking about the worries around data. It really just is a case of making sure that your data security on-farm is very, very high. And that as a technology developer, that's something that you've thought about because it is a concern of farmers. This is an area where you know very much is activist activity. And we do want to avoid data getting into the wrong hands and being sort of mistranslated if you like.
Rob Ward 22:40
Well, yes, demand mistranslation is a good point, should you be scared of stuff?
Kasi McReddie 22:44
No, I don't think so. I think actually openness and communication is key. I think if you're holding back and you're scared of sharing information, it will only lead to a wider gap being pushed between the active consumer and the farmer. And so no, absolutely, I encourage the exact opposite. I think the mistranslation is the concern. As farmers, when we see a photo or we see a video of an animal, we know exactly what we're looking at, we can see something that to the untrained eye may look like an example of low animal welfare, but we know it's just unnecessary undertaking to feed a calf that hasn't had to drink for a couple of days because then feeling a bit off colour. So it's just making sure that and this absolutely shouldn't come from on-farm cameras that used to farm assurance. But any pictures or information or videos that do make it off-farm and into the public domain, are accompanied by very, very clear communication.
Rob Ward 23:41
It's written down, be careful what you wish for. Next, what's going to happen do you think over the next five years? What do you think it will look like in five years time, your specific area of expertise?
Kasi McReddie 23:50
The farming sector is very, very much focused on improving its sustainability in the environmental remit. So I think over the next five years, we're going to see, it's going to be a lot more data. I mean, there's been technology coming down the pipeline for a long time that improves productivity improves health, but actually being able to monitor and measure these changes on-farm is going to be absolutely critical. I think over the next five years, we're going to see a lot of farmers moving towards monitoring things like carbon sequestration, and producing data to show them move towards being more environmentally friendly, especially as the world begins to open up to accept the carbon credit trading markets as well that are going to be very, very important for farmers.
Rob Ward 24:39
From an animal perspective. What do you think will be the big changes?
Kasi McReddie 24:42
I think we're going to see a lot more technology used but in harmony with old fashioned techniques. I think it will be wrong to think that if you think for five years isn't a long time, you know, robotic milkers have been around for a long, long time before that, and they're still by no means the majority of how we milk cows on-farm. So I think we're going to see a lot more use of technology that supports the movement towards environmentally friendly. So a lot of focus on technology that improves animal waste. So I think what people are going to start focusing on is it's not just milk that you're producing on that farm, you're also producing slurry, which could become a commodity in trading. And you can valorise that waste for use off-farm or on farmer's energy or biogas or whatever it may be. I just think it's going to be the uptake of a lot more technologies that reduce the environmental impact on-farm.
Rob Ward 25:39
And there's a lot to do there. And as you say, five years isn't very long.
Kasi McReddie 25:42
Well, we can see, the NFU has set goals of net-zero by 2030. And we see a lot of the retailers making even more ambitious goals than that, you know, 2025, and so on. So farmers do need to be thinking about where they're going to be in four or five years time. But no, there is a there's a really short timescale on this.
Rob Ward 26:04
Exciting though, great for an ambitious person like yourself, with a lot of talent.
Kasi McReddie 26:08
It certainly presents an opportunity. I think it's one of the reasons the UK is such a huge opportunity for tech developers is because we have a government, a food producer base, and consumers that are all very, very actively pushing to achieve these goals that are sort of national and international agendas. And therefore really, the market is ripe for technology developers to come in with the right innovation at the right price.
Rob Ward 26:31
It's fantastic. I know you're working, you're a lead on the Smart Farms part. Can you just explain a bit more about that, and also, the International platform you're building with that?
Kasi McReddie 26:41
Yeah. So I work with a team on the Smart Farms. I'm by no means the lead. I support the team. And but no, absolutely. We have a network of what we call Smart Farms and Satellite Farms. And I'll explain the difference. The satellite farms of which there's currently 25 in the Agri-Epi network are farms that are not owned by Agri-Epi. They're owned by commercial farmers and they are run in partnership with Agri-Epi and they exist to facilitate commercial validations of technology and on-farm R & D. They differ from our Smart Farms in the way that our Smart Farms are wholly are part-owned by Agri-Epi and exist in partnership predominantly with academic institutions, for example, Scotland's Royal College and Harper Adams University, and exist as sort of an earlier TRL stage. So if you haven't quite reached that commercial validation stage as well. And we do have international smart farms as well. So we currently have a smart farm in Paraguay, we have a smart farm in New Zealand and we have two smart farms in China. And I'm currently supporting pressing ahead for our first aquaculture smart farm in Sub Saharan Africa, in Kenya, and another aquaculture smart farm in Singapore and we are absolutely always open to opportunities to provide more smart farms internationally. And the benefit to Agri-Epi members of the International smart farms is similar in the way that the UK is a soft landing into agriculture for international companies inward. Outwardly, those smart farms become soft landing pads for a UK tech developer to explore that new market.
Rob Ward 28:29
So if anybody's listening that wants to be a smartphone around the world get in touch with Kasi.
Kasi McReddie 28:33
Yes, absolutely. What we don't do is take a piece of land and build a farm from scratch and build a smart farm. What we do is we partner with, for example, in New Zealand, we partnered with Massey University, the partnerships in China, where were they a commercial company, commercial food producer. So we would take an existing farm. And we find the funding which is absolutely critical bit grant funding on commercial funding. And then turn your everyday farm into a highly technology-advanced farm and basically see what that can do for food production in that setting.
Rob Ward 29:12
Brilliant. Okay, I'm very excited about getting involved with that, well done. So we're just drawing to the close now. It's been really nice catching up with you and sharing your thoughts. Here's to that future. I hope it does come in five years for both a healthy lifestyle that is aligned to sustainability goals that you're working on. And at the same time farmers that can make a living and enjoy their job. You've laid that out beautifully today. So thank you for that.
Kasi McReddie 29:36
No, it's key. It's key, a transition is 100% necessary. There is a future that we are working towards and we have to achieve that. But for me and it's a keyword, it has to be a just transition. It has to work for everybody in the supply chain, not least the farmer and that's my focus and those people are my family and that's why it's important to me. And so it must be a just transition And that is socially acceptable for everybody involved.
Rob Ward 30:03
And Agri-Epi are making that physician more possible than it ever was before.
Kasi McReddie 30:08
Abundantly clear, we're bridging a gap that has existed for so long between farmers and technology developers. So pulling those people together, enabling those people.
Rob Ward 30:18
Thank you so much for your time today. It's been great talking to you, I hope to stay in touch and anybody who wants to get involved with Smart Farms, the farmer or even getting involved as a brand into the agri network. Kasi's details will be in the notes of this podcast. And please get in touch if that's okay, with you, Kasi.
Kasi McReddie 30:35
Yeah, please do. Look, we're looking to hear from anybody working in this space. And Rob, thank you so much for having us. It's been great to sort of, you know, say some things out loud that we're always discussing internally.
Rob Ward 30:47
Thank you so much for your time today and speak to you soon. Take care!
Kasi McReddie 30:51
Brilliant, thank you so much!
Rob Ward 30:52
It was a great podcast because it's so brilliant to see such an energetic person with all the background of practical farming coming into the industry and driving forward innovation. So pleased to hear some of Kasi's calibre that wants to be part of the sector and wants to make that difference. But it's come out of all the hard work you've put into it. In her studying, all her education, but also her international experiences to now place in this great role to then take things forward. It does mean that we have to change a lot in farming, the Agri-Epi team are very keen to do that. And so if you want to get involved with them, contact them directly through the notes here or contact us or one issue to them. Either way, it's an exciting place to be in the cracky agrifood tech industry is absolutely flying, things are really going to take off. So the questions about what is open, transparency around freeing up the whole visibility of farming and the possible dangers around that. So it does feel that from what's been said today is that that's something that's got to be done, whether it is always going to be desirable to see or not, it's important to do it but then making sure that the farms in charge of that data and what they do with that is critical. I look forward to our next podcast where again, anybody interested in talking to us about anything to do with the agri food tech industry, be it a provider brand, or technologists or VC or if anybody was funding who wants to get involved with this. Forward Food Tech is all about bringing everybody together. So with that, I'd like to thank you and look forward to the next podcast.
Iliyana Dimitrova 32:19
Thanks very much for listening. If you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe, give us a five-star review and share the podcast with your friends and colleagues. For more information and takeaways from this episode, please visit forwardfood.tech. See you next time.
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