Farming innovation is key to our food future

Agri-tech schedule for upcoming REAP Conference

Ahead of the REAP Conference 2018 at Wellcome Genome Campus Conference Centre on November 7, Dr Belinda Clarke of Agri-Tech East says that innovation in farming will be one of the event’s key topics.

“The agri-tech revolution is already happening, the question now is where do our priorities lie,” says Dr Belinda Clarke, director of Agri-Tech East. She says that many farmers in the membership network are already working closely with entrepreneurs to pilot smart-tech, but there is an urgent need for technologies that can improve productivity and resilience.

“The technologies of most interest to farmers at the moment are those that offer increased margins,” says Dr Clarke. “Helping them to meet customer requirements, more of the time, with less inputs. Consistency is key.”

This year’s conference will feature a lively debate on where agri-tech will offer the best returns in investment.

“If you can forecast demand using market insights it is possible to diversify, freeing up farmland for other types of crop, equally as we move more towards other sources of protein, there is no reason food components cannot be produced in urban farms. So alternative growing systems are of interest.”

Agri-Tech East is unique in the agricultural sector as it brings together players from different disciplines. This was seen earlier this year when, in a 48-hour hackathon, software used for designing driverless cars was repurposed to solve the intractable problem of blackgrass, a cereal weed that has become resistant to herbicides.

Involving farmers more closely in research was one of the features of the new Agricultural Bill. Defra will be gaining input from a number of farmers at breakfast hosted at REAP.

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Gaining insights from other geographies is also important. Dr Cui Zhenling, of the China Agricultural University, is one of the keynote speakers. He will share insights from a decade-long trial involving 21 million Chinese smallholders that has shown it is possible to improve crop yields by more than 10 per cent while cutting use of nitrogen fertiliser by almost a fifth – the equivalent of a revenue gain of £9billion.

Following a pilot with 13,123 field trials, Cui’s project team developed evidence-based advice that was adapted for local conditions and given to farmers.

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“We developed crop model simulations for optimal use of solar and thermal resources in a given region and then, according to soil tests and the needs of specific crops, were able to combine a formula of nutrients and water to support individual crop strategies,” he says. Cui’s team worked closely with farming communities to roll out the system.

The study, which was published in leading scientific journal Nature, is one of the most expansive studies into food production involving almost 200,000 collaborators, extension agents and agribusiness personnel in addition to 20.9 million smallholders.

This experience is highly relevant to the UK, where there are known to be big gaps still between potential and actual yields. Daniel Kindred of ADAS, near Cambridge, will also be at REAP – he heads up the cereal Yield Enhancement Network (YEN) which measures farmers’ best crops, helping them see how to close their gaps.

“Attention to detail seems to be the critical factor,” says Daniel. “We’ve seen some exceptional yields from farms with more resilient moisture retentive soils. We are looking to learn and share what drives high yields so we can develop improved best practice based on good science.”

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