East of England innovation ‘will lead way in boosting crop yields’

Belinda Clarke, Director Agri-Tech East Belinda Clarke, Director Agri-Tech East

Saturday, July 26, 2014
6:00 AM

Innovation emerging from the East of England is providing farmers with new tools to boost production, an agri-tech expert told Commonweatlh business leaders this week.

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Dr Belinda Clarke, of Agri-Tech East, an organisation which brings together farmers and growers with scientists, breeders and technologists, discussed food security at an event in Glasgow this week ahead of the Commonwealth Games.

With global wheat consumption exceeding production in six out of the last eight years, the need to increase yield to meet demand is becoming more pressing, alongside the need to improve resilience against adverse growing conditions caused by factors such as unpredictable weather patterns.

Dr Clarke explained how innovation emerging from the East of England is providing farmers with new tools to boost production in a panel discussion chaired by James Townshend, Business Ambassador for Agriculture and chief executive at Velcourt Farm Management.

She revealed how the region’s tradition of agricultural innovation is being reinvigorated with the emergence of new technologies in areas as varied as plant breeding, DNA sequencing, information management and advanced engineering.

“Traditional wheat breeding has focused on improving yield by selecting for desirable characteristics, but this can be at the expense of other attributes such as tolerance to drought or disease. This tends to create varieties that perform best when conditions are ideal and are often dependent on high inputs of fertiliser and pest control so a new approach is required,” she said.

“The East of England has considerable knowledge of plant breeding with one of the largest global collections of wheat landraces. These are local varieties of domesticated wheat that are adapted to the natural and cultural environment and are stable under adverse conditions.

“These ancient varieties could provide alternative sources of yield, quality, drought tolerance or pest and disease resistance traits for current plant breeding programmes. This will help combat climate change, improve food security and better utilise current farming inputs.”

The international landrace collection was built up in the 1920s by University of Cambridge Lecturer Arthur Ernest Watkins. He encouraged staff at British consulates worldwide to collect over 1200 samples of wheat. The Germplasm Resources Unit is now housed at the John Innes Centre (JIC) on the Norwich Research Park alongside one of the most powerful genetic sequencing engines at The Genome Analysis Centre.

Other germplasm resources are available at Rothamsted Research in Hertfordshire which has collated 150 different types, or lines, of ancient wheat called Triticum monococcum to identify lines that have natural resistance to pests. Some of the best ancient wheat lines are now being crossed with modern wheat varieties using a novel breeding technique.

“Now with new techniques, such as DNA marker assisted selection and others, we have more precise tools to help breeders to understand variation. This will allow us to re-evaluate older varieties and create crops that are naturally more resilient in the field,” said Dr Clarke.

Velcourt’s research and development team has been working with JIC to investigate the use of markers to improve yield. Differences in a single “rung” of the DNA helix can impact the grain width, length and the number of spikelets.

“Although the differences are barely perceptible, over an entire field these changes can increase yield by roughly 5%, the equivalent of 700 loaves of bread per hectare,” said JIC wheat geneticist Dr Cristobal Uauy.

Farms in the region are also being used as a test bed for new technologies such as remote sensing and imaging which can support precision agriculture. Spectral imaging measures the health of the crop and also identifies areas for selective pest control, which is particularly beneficial where there is resistance to certain herbicides.

Dr Clarke said the valuable data, from field trials collected with drone imaging and from yield data emerging from smart combine harvesters, are among the inputs that are driving an information revolution. Recent research by law firm Taylor Vinters estimates the agricultural market for unmanned systems will be worth $30billion over the next decade with applications in precision farming, monitoring and land use inspection.

“Agricultural management is data rich and automating the collection and management of data will greatly assist on-farm decision-making, “ Dr Clarke said. “We are seeing companies from the Cambridge cluster currently working in other industry sectors, looking with interest at agri-tech and seeing potential for applying their technology to collating, visualising and interpreting this complex data. We anticipate that the market for agri-informatics will be a major growth area.”

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