We are looking for a fourth agricultural revolution. Incremental change is not enough to solve the challenges facing modern farming.” This was how Julius Joel, chair of the Agri-Tech East stakeholder group, introduced the organisation’s REAP (Realising our Economic and Agricultural Potential) conference, held at the Wellcome Genome Campus near Cambridge.
REAP was the centrepiece of Agri-Tech Week, a series of seminars and interactive events across five counties that showcased a diverse array of new technologies; some already on the farm, others in development in the laboratory. Delegates included farmers, producers, technologists, investors and scientists.
The challenges facing the industry are well known – there is a need to boost farm profitability, overcome the yield plateau, stop soil erosion, improve animal welfare and lower the sector’s carbon footprint – but this week was all about solutions. Looking at how disruptive technology from other sectors could be adopted by agriculture and how fresh perspectives from different geographies could stimulate a re-evaluation of conventional techniques.
Making the old model obsolete
The keynote speaker at REAP, Gary Zimmer, is a US pioneer of biological farming. He outlined strategies for maintaining healthy soils which could increase yields by more than fifty percent. As a dairy nutritionist he had learned how to feed his soils in the same way he had changed the diet of his cows to maximise their milk yield.
“What I am suggesting is not radical change, but a change in thinking. In the US we have never used anti-biotics in dairy. When Europeans ask ‘how are we going to manage without them’ our farmers ask ‘why do you need them?’
“You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something we need to build a new model that makes the existing one obsolete.”
Zimmer’s approach is to reduce reliance on chemical inputs by balancing soil minerals and maximise soil health. He advocates feeding ‘mini beasts’ in the soil biology and managing air and water and crop residue. This makes the plants resilient to disease, weed competition and unpredictable weather. He spent Agri-Tech Week out on farms in the region to meet farmers and discuss how his methods could be adapted for fens and brecklands.
Other speakers took a high tech approach and included Lockheed Martin and Fujitsu who explained how technology could help deliver quality food 24/7 to meet the requirements of supermarkets and urban populations. The former is looking at how LIDAR, a survey method using lasers developed for the military, can estimate crop stage and yield to improve forecasting. The latter is using semiconductor cleanrooms to produce lettuce, and knowledge capture to maintain Saki production. PA Technology described the ‘digital future’ of farming, demonstrating how the ubiquitous smartphone, reinvented with a portable £30 microscope, becomes a field laboratory capable of analysing plant health within a living environment.
Delegates were also treated to lighting presentations of the latest research and a fast-paced start-up showcase, presented Chris Dunkley, CEO of Rothamsted Centre for Research and Enterprise, which included pitches from:
FungiAlert, which is providing a ‘smoke alarm’ to detect soil-borne pathogens. to show if fungal spores are infectious or latent and change colour to indicate to the farmer.
SwiftDX, has developed a self-contained genetic test, that looks like a pregnancy test, for detecting crop diseases and monitoring effectiveness of treatment.
Hummingbird, is using drones with multispectral sensors, and identifying and quantifying crop disease at critical decision-making stages in the farming year. Working with NIAB and Cranfield it will survey 20,000 hectares next year to spot disease and then ground truth with plant samples to validate the decision support system.
PBD Biotech, is developing a ground breaking early warning system for tuberculosis in a dairy herd. It currently takes 11 weeks to get a diagnosis for TB, this test provides an answer in 6 hours and is able to detect live bacteria helping to isolate affected animals and prevent the spread of disease within the herd.
GroPod based at the former RAF buildings in Scottow, introduced a hydroponic containerised growing system which is not susceptible to the weather, captures and re-uses water, optimises the use of nutrients and removes the need for pesticides.
Dogtooth, a robotic strawberry harvester, demonstrates it is possible for autonomous robots to navigate in constricted places, select ripe fruit and pick without damage.
A third way is possible
The ‘sofa session’ at the end invited eminent plant scientist Professor Sir David Baulcombe, Julian Little of Bayer CropScience and farmer Christoph Graf Grote of Spearhead International, the world’s largest farming company to discuss the day’s events.
Prof Baulcombe said that he had gained a strong impression that agri-tech is vibrant, full of energy and the industry has an appetite for change but noted the absence of discussion of advanced breeding techniques. He concluded there is a need for greater dialogue between all parties to define a ‘third way.’ Dr Little agreed and he explained that everyone was looking to farm smarter. He gave the example of the ‘Spore Trap’, supported by Bayer, which gives farmers a 3 week window to decide if a fungicide was needed or not.
Christoph Graf Grote said REAP captured everything he loved about this region. He liked listening to cutting edge science presented in layman’s terms and the discussions of how it could be put into practice. “My ancestors have been farming since the 12th Century and we have a motto ‘we reap what we have not sown, we sow what we do not reap’, which seems particularly relevant for today and underlines the responsibility we have to ensure agriculture is sustainable.”
Agri-Tech Week inspirational
Dr Belinda Clarke, Director of Agri-Tech East commented that the membership now represents every aspect of the value chain from soil to farm gate and beyond.
She said: “I am so inspired that Agri-Tech Week has provided a forum for so many organisations to celebrate, engage and to showcase excellence in agri-tech that is happening on farms and in labs.
“We have seen a whole spectrum of technology readiness levels, from discovery research right through to the market. This shows that there are multiple entry points where partners can come together to help, whether they want to get in at a very early stage or wait until it is nearer the market.”
Dr Clarke also launched the Agri-Tech Business Plan competition, GROW, which provides mentoring from the agri-tech industry to entrepreneurs with a business concept. http://www.agritech-east.co.uk/category/grow/