Agri-Tech East is bringing together some of the country’s leading innovators in agriculture, technology and engineering. These reports provide a digest of some of the key points that have emerged from these discussions and cover a range of topical issues.
The reports are available to all members (just make sure you are logged in before you click the links) and to others on the discretion of the secretariat; if you would like to find out more please do contact us.
These are publicly available to view
The challenges we face in delivering food of sufficient value and quantity for the rapidly growing population are too great to rely solely on the incremental change that has underpinned growth over the last forty years.
To achieve profitable farming and healthier food we need to make a big change, however it is difficult to imagine how to do things differently.
The idea behind REAP 2016 was to bring together experts from other industries and other geographies to challenge us with new perspectives. This report aims to capture some of the ideas and discussions that came out of REAP.
What does resilience mean to you?
It stimulated many inspiring discussions at the 2015 REAP conference and our hope is that this will translate into new collaborations and innovation. To get a flavour of the event we have produced this report to capture the key themes, discussion points and outcomes.
We now have a perfect storm where there is a clearly articulated market need for innovation within the agri- food industry and an appetite for change. This report looks at the requirements for new technology by all stages of the value chain and identifies different models for supporting innovation in the industry. It provides an evaluation of the current situation and proposes ways forward.
Agri-Tech East is already making a significant impact on the agri-food industry through its pragmatic approach and this report aims to support the next phase – fast-tracking innovation from lab to field.
REPORTS FROM SPECIAL INTEREST GROUPS
Sustainable intensification (SI) aims to increase farm output and productivity while simultaneously delivering benefits to the environment and countryside. In this event we looked at how farmers can implement best practice.
Discussions about the adoption of new decision support tools covered the key points of usability, benefit and trust. There were also questions around who is best to lead innovation and SI implementation. Several case-studies were presented from organisations who shared their knowledge of SI and the tools they provide.
The findings, discussions and case studies from the event are captured in this report.
Now that a small satellite can be built and launched for the cost of family car, access to remote sensing data is becoming much more accessible to agriculture.
“Geomatics” combines remote sensing with image processing around geographical information systems (“GIS”) and technologies for measuring geo-spatial positioning.
A potential application is soil mapping, giving an indication of the nutritional wellbeing of the soil in different areas of a field.
Knowledge about soil biology is revealing that microbes in the soil have an important role in unlocking nutrients and making them more available to plant roots. Additionally microbes provide other ecosystem services such as controlling soil erosion and nitrogen cycling.
Developments in soil mapping and interpretation of satellite data were among the topics discussed in this meeting.
DEFRA plans to become a department ‘open by default’ from June 2016, creating an opportunity for its datasets to become available for a range of applications.
Michael Rose, the newly appointed Head of Data Engagement at DEFRA, outlined how the plan was to make the first tranche of datasets available and then consult with industry on what they would find useful, how the data should be references and the requirement for processing to make it accessible.
The value of openness was accepted but further discussion was around how data providers will be rewarded with benefits and the need for enablers to make sense of the data and make it usable.
REPORTS FROM POLLINATORS
Many of the technical challenges around designing autonomous robots that can work 24/7 in unstructured environments have been overcome.
In particular there have been advances in soft robotics, or the ‘hands’ of the robot, which need to be sensitive enough to handle perishable items such as fruit and vegetables, and machine vision, which allows the robot to differentiate between an onion seedling and a grass weed, as well as in the mapping which enables the robot to navigate.
The issue now is how to create agricultural systems that use their strengths and also where the funding will come from to commercialise the R&D.
This report summarises a new approach to soft robotics, together with other discussions from the Pollinator surrounding the mechanics, limitations and feasibility of using robotics in agriculture.
Drone imagery of the NE Salmon farm showed that 88 per cent of a sample field had been impacted by heavy machinery – Controlled Traffic Farming (CTF) is designed to reduce this, significantly improving the structure and fertility of the soil.
NE Salmon Ltd has invested in CTF on its 1,964 ha farm and the 2016 harvest will be its first under the new system.
Benefits already seen include: shallower cultivation with greater tilth, increased number of plant tillers and more plant available water.
There are challenges however and the benefits and the learning points are summarised in this report.
Each year, 170 untreated crop trials are carried out, and the data from crop performance over the last 3-5 years is collected and crunched to calculate the disease ratings for different varieties and the relative risk of breakdown of disease. The results are presented as the Recommended Lists.
The science and investigations behind the lists were discussed at this Pollinator, and how they can help producers and breeders determine where the greatest risks lie.
There were also discussions about monitoring disease and disease resistance, and how the new technique of field pathogenomics is helping to provide disease screening across larger areas more cheaply and quickly than other methods.
This report provides a summary of the insights and discussions at the meeting.
LED lighting to simulate day length, vision systems to direct robots, underground urban farms to bring production closer to user; were all discussed in this Pollinator which looked at experiences of early adopters of the latest technology
The industry is seeking game-changing technologies – such as no-need-to-wash products and those with enhanced tastes and health characteristics. Innovations in undercover growing may help provide insights that can explore the potential of some of these disruptive and transformative technologies for application into other areas.
“We are truly in a new world of farmer-scientist partnerships” was the take-home message from this Pollinator, which discussed field labs.
The Innovative Farmers programme is the second phase of the Duchy Future Farming Programme coordinated by the Soil Association. It is creating a network of farmers involved in on-farm testing, and aims to support robust field research.
A key priority is to help farmers determine what research interventions are making a real difference and to offer scientific evidence alongside anecdotal observations.
This report gives an overview of two case studies from the programme, including how cultural methods can be used to control black grass and the effect of compost teas on spring-sown cereals.
The benefits and problems of fungi were explored at this Pollinator, together with how best to tackle the increasing issue of invading Spanish slugs.
We heard about beneficial soil-dwelling fungi from Dr Uta Paszkowski, and how they can help to improve the quality of soil, while Jasper Depotter from NIAB discussed new research and diagnostic tools to consolidate information about the disease Verticillium.
The (b)ugly was represented by an examination by Dr Jon Clark of the John Innes Centre on how to counter and cope with the effects of increasing numbers of non-native slugs using novel and emerging technologies and ideas.
This report summarizes the discussions and outcomes of the meeting.
REPORTS FROM SPECIAL INTEREST GROUPS
It is important for a business to be able to distinguish between data which is interesting and that which is useful. By not making this distinction the value of data is often defined by its cost of creation, not what it can be used to achieve. This is creating a situation where farmers are collecting more and more data, not using it but wanting to hold onto it in order to extract “value” at a future date in a way that is currently unknown.
There is a need for new tools for data presentation that can be used with for confidential information and also for benchmarking approaches that allow the comparison of results in order to drive up productivity.
This report discusses the issues.
Charts are a good way to present raw data but graphics help to make data much easier to understand and digest. Currently the majority of delegates at the meeting said that they used Excel to analyse data but they found the interface was not intuitive, and as a result only limited information was being extracted.
Among the presentations held at the SIG was a look at products already available to simplify data visualisation. A speaker from Tableau describes how its products allow the creation of visuals with a simple drag and drop interface.
The report provides an overview of the discussions held in the SIG including an overview of the challenges facing delegates, the limitations of current systems and the opportunities for future developers; such as the need for both smartphone and tablet applications to provide in-field analysis.
Investing in the adoption of new technologies for sensing and monitoring requires a compelling business case – easier to present for protected crops under cover than in the complex and challenging environment of the open field. The disconnect between the users and developers / providers of technology is a major issue.
Farmers believe that technology providers often lack real insights into their needs, while admitting they often don’t understand the technology offering and associated business case. A lesson in the need for clearer communication there. Similarly, farmers and growers need confidence that new technology won’t quickly become become obsolete following a significant investment.
This reports summarises the current state of play.
Irrigation precision has been assisted by the introduction of soil moisture sensors that can make measurements at different depths of soil, indicating the water available for roots and also canopy sensors that give an indication of the crop requirement.
The report describes the different types of sensor technology and the current challenges.
Over the last ten years, the use of images from Earth Observation Satellites by agriculture to advise fertiliser application has reduced input costs by around £27/ha and boosted crop yields from 3-8 %. This report discusses the benefits of imaging and how a drop in the costs of imaging components (including cameras) and the introduction of easy, secure storage of data “in the cloud”, is leading to a vibrant service industry. This service offers aerial remote sensing and monitoring for agronomy, yield forecasting, field mapping and even crop insurance. Yet delivering these new services at scale, at a price point that is acceptable to farmers and integrates with their existing farm management systems, can be a challenge.
With water availability a potential limiting factor to the business growth and food production, there is little doubt of its importance.
Yet with agri-food water usage significant knowledge gaps remain in several key areas, including effective measurement (of water volume and quality), the link between water potential, soil variability and crop performance, and the effective use of remote sensing and monitoring technologies to guide short and long-term decision-making.
A workshop brought together key players and this is a report on the outcomes.
The Wensum catchment area is the location for a long-standing project on the Salle Farms Estate which has seen the levels of phosphorus and nitrogen in run-off being measured every 30 minutes since April 2011. This has revealed a big spike in phosphate and nitrate in water courses after heavy rain. These findings have led to consideration of different farm management techniques to conserve fertiliser and reduce run-off, for example the increased use of cover crops.
For further discussion please see the meeting report which is available free to members and to others on request.
2015 was the hottest year on record and future climate models suggest that the UK is going to experience wetter winters and drier summers, creating a driver for improved water management.
This report looks at a number of issues and strategies including how sharing investment in infrastructure could help increase resilience and bring more security.
Soil “health” is vital to crops yet is a poorly defined concept, which leads to challenges in measuring, improving and maintaining it. There are many different soil types with very different behaviours, each with unique interactions between the organisms living there.
Recent research by Prof John Crawford, Associate Director at Rothamsted Research and co-chair of the SIG, has shown that microbes play a fundamental role in maintaining the structure and nutritional content of soil; the launch meeting of the Soil Health SIG discussed this and other factors which play a part in keeping soils healthy.
A number of key points were also raised to be addressed in the coming years of the SIG, such as how to better link the science of soils with on-farm practice, and how to provide better and more specific data to farmers to give them a fuller understanding of the benefit of investment in soils.
REPORTS FROM POLLINATORS
The public sector agri-tech funding landscape is complex so to help de-mystify this important area we asked a number of funders to explain their offerings.
This reports offers insights into funding available for business growth, R&D and academic-industry collaborations. What is clear from talking to BBSRC, Innovate UK, the Eastern Enterprise Network, ADAPT Group and the Eastern Agri-Tech Growth Initiative is that while public money is available it is important to understand the eligibility criteria from the outset.
“Something big is on its way but we are not quite sure what form it will take” was one of the messages from the Pollinator “Internet of (Agri-)Things” which brought together companies such as Microsoft Research, nWave and RedBite who at the forefront of this technology.
The Internet of Things refers to objects communicating with each other and this is becoming more feasible with the development of low cost, low energy, electronic devices.
This is creating the opportunity for new types of decision-support for farmers but technologists need to have feedback from the agricultural community on applications that would bring the greatest benefit. This report gives an overview of the current state-of-play and the considerations that technologists need to make if their solutions are to meet the needs of end users.
Given that by 2050 there will be an estimated global population of 9.6 billion, this puts a huge pressure on the 35 growing seasons between now and then to really increase yields, using inputs more effectively and paying more attention to detail of parameters such as crop performance and soil health.
Estimates suggest that the global market opportunity for precision agriculture is £50bn, but as discussion at the Pollinator reinforced, we are still a while way from routine use of precision agriculture in the field. This report provides an overview of emerging technologies and the current situation.
While everyone generally agrees that collaboration can bring real benefits, it isn’t always easy. Getting started can be a problem – how to find the right person to help solve your problem, or reality-check your new idea is often the first step. This report includes case-studies of successful collaborations and learning points from partners.
New models of “open innovation’ are being adopted by large agri-businesses – driven by the increasingly complex world for growers and farmers. This is particularly seen in the area of crop protection, where the value is likely to shift away from the chemistry towards innovative technologies being used to deliver products.
Engineering developments can make a major contribution to keeping products in use by increasing the precision of application; reducing concerns and risks associated with use of some products Additionally, adjuvant technologies can help optimise the use of some products by improving adhesion, penetration, reduce spray drift and aid compatibility of chemicals in the spray tank.
The decline in bee diversity in the UK is a serious concern to many and can be attributed to decline in food resources (nectar and pollen), combined with other pressures that are more difficult to quantify such as fewer nesting sites and over-wintering sites, diseases (such as mites and viruses) and exposure to pesticides.
Various approaches to improving the environment for pollinators, while enhancing agri-production, were discussed at this Pollinator and the conclusion was that there is an opportunity for cautious optimism.
One speaker, Lynn Dicks, a Research Fellow at the Dept of Zoology at University of Cambridge, discussed her recent paper which provided a simple calculation for farmers.
To provide enough pollen to support six very common crop-pollinating bee species in the UK, this equates to approximately 1-3 ha of flowers, or 500m – 2km of flowering hedge per 100 hectares of crop, at lowest estimates only, using the minimum available estimates for bee density and pollen demand. These calculations have helped inform the new Wild Pollinator and Farm Wildlife Package as part of the UK’s Countryside Stewardship Scheme.
CamBridgeSens is a cross-department initiative in the University of Cambridge around sensing. Expertise includes gas sensor diagnostics, accelerometers, fibre optics sensors, data analysis, and wireless communications. The technologies being developed by CamBridgeSens and others were discussed at this Pollinator, which brought together technologists with their potential end-users.
Many new tools and technologies for crop breeding have been developed to help speed up the process of developing new varieties, but as was discussed at the Pollinator, many are not in routine use by the industry and yet offer great potential for breeders. This report provides an overview of the techniques.