Cereals speakers stress urgency of sustainable intensification

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Cereals 2014 came to Cambridgeshire and saw 25,000 farmers, technical and commercial service providers, machinery distributors, researchers and training institutions come together for 2 days to network, learn and do deals.

Agri-Tech East used Cereals as the platform to unveil our new logo and brand identity, as well as host a technical seminar to discuss how new innovations to increase yield and productivity will sit alongside the sustainability agenda.

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Dr Cristobal Uauy, wheat geneticist at the John Innes Centre and National Institute of Agricultural Botany.

At the seminar the real urgency to deliver new solutions was a theme from all speakers and questions from the floor. Dr Cristobal Uauy, wheat geneticist at the John Innes Centre (JIC) and National Institute of Agricultural Botany (NIAB) and Dr Pete Werner (KWS-UK) were agreed on the importance of academic-industry partnerships to develop new crop varieties.

Dr Uauy explained that the need for food security was driving the demand for greater productivity, but that this yield also needs to be sustainable and stable. The boom bust cycles of the present must change to provide more predictable yields.

He commented that the DNA revolution is enabling us to understand more about the tiny differences both within and between varieties of cereal, this will allow the creation of varieties that are more resilient in field conditions. Total eradication policies of the past lead to resistance, as this puts pressure on the pathogen to evolve. Current thinking, for example in yellow rust, is that it is better to tolerate some pathogen in the crop and increase the resilience of the crop. Also management strategies, such as rotation, have a role in the control of persistent weeds such a black grass.

What is needed is more information back from farmers and growers about the field conditions and performance so this can be feedback into the research and also the development of  improved ‘farmer centric’ tools that can help capture the data and improve its interpretation.

Dr Lynn Dicks from Cambridge University emphasised the importance of farmer input into the research agenda, particularly in the development of new on-farm decision-support tools. She said that although farmers were under pressure to increase yield sustainably it was still unclear exactly how you ‘measure’ the environment. There is a need for more benchmarking tools where farmers can compare how they are doing with other farms of similar size, operating under similar conditions.

She commented that many of the organisations developing tools were global operations and there is a need to tailor these tools for local conditions. This is where interaction with growers is vital to ensure that the next generation of tools are relevant and user-friendly.

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Speakers at the Agri-Tech East Technical Seminar at Cereals 2014, accompanied by the HexCam drone. From left to right: Peter Werner (KWS UK), Dr Cristobal Uauy (JIC & NIAB), Dr Belinda Clarke (Agri-Tech East), Peter Lee (Taylor Vinters LLP) and Dr Lynn Dicks (University of Cambridge).

All the panellists were excited by the potential of imaging taken by unmanned vehicles to provide an aerial view of land use.Peter Lee of Taylor Vinters, who runs the law firm’s specialist unmanned systems division said that 80% of future drone use is predicted to be in agriculture. Spectral imaging will allow a much more detailed understanding of performance of varieties in the real field conditions, for example, with infra-red it is able to measure the chlorophyll production, which is an indication  of health.

Overall it was agreed the East of England is in a prime position to be world-leading in agri-tech and that the creation of the Agri-Tech East to facilitate the development of the cluster will provide benefit at all levels.

The speakers were joined by one of the drones developed by Norwich-based company HexCam, which flew over the Cereals trial plots and featured on the BBC Look East programme that evening. Judging by the number of interested farmers who came by our stand to meet the drone, we will be seeing a lot more of them on farms.

Agri-Tech East shared its Cereals stand with the Local Enterprise Partnership which was promoting the grants programme aimed at regional agri-based businesses looking to grow or undertake new research and development. There was lots of interest in the funding scheme over the two days, which will hopefully convert into a strong pipeline of project proposals for assessment. The funds have to be committed by March 2015 (or sooner if the funds run out) and the local authorities can even help you fill in the application form.

In other Cereals news, congratulations are due to the John Innes Centre, Rothamsted Research and the BBSRC, who were awarded second prize for best large stand for their shared presence. Overall winner for best stand was Bayer, it played host to Secretary of State Owen Patterson for a joint announcement that Bayer is investing in wheat breeding in the UK again.

A great testimony to the UK’s research capabilities and one on which we should capitalise.

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