Researcher looks back and ahead at ground-breaking ag innovations

Dr Toby Bruce

Twitter: @Toby_Bruce @Rothamsted

Biog:  A senior researcher at Rothamsted. Toby joined Rothamsted in 2000 and has a background in Biology and a PhD in Chemical Ecology. He is convenor of the Association of Applied Biologists Biocontrol and IPM group, a Visiting Professor at the University of Greenwich Natural Resources Institute and Visiting Lecturer at Nottingham University. Current projects are: an Agri-Tech Catalyst project developing a lure-and-kill system for the pea and bean weevil; a project in Kenya on maize varieties that respond to insect egg laying by releasing odours that attract natural enemies, and CROPROTECT which is providing an online knowledge sharing resource for UK farmers and agronomists.


Title: Researcher looks back and ahead at ground-breaking ag innovations

In my opinion, innovation in agriculture is vital for many of the major global challenges we face. Food and water security is a prerequisite for political stability and essential to society. The connections between human health and the environment - via agriculture - need to be recognised.  Agriculture uses huge areas of land and resources globally and improving resource use efficiency can have major positive environmental impact. Human health can be improved by providing suitable nutrition as inadequate nutrition is the main cause of child mortality worldwide.  Therefore, I would like to see the whole area of developing innovations for the future taken more seriously. Complacency that crept in from the success of the green revolution in the 20th century and overproduction in Europe in the 1980s has no place in the 21st century. Waste needs to be reduced throughout the whole food supply chain and innovation is needed at many different levels to achieve this.

Agricultural R&D is hugely important because it underpins national and global security, as well as environmental stability. Although often taken for-granted, the outputs of farming systems really are a matter of life and death because none of us can survive without food. Thus, effective farming systems are essential for human health and political stability. This has very recently been summarised in the Thomson Reuters #9billionbowls report.

Furthermore, the inputs into agricultural systems are vitally important (See Picture 1 below). Food production takes up almost half of the planet's land surface, it is the biggest user of water (approx. 70% of extracted freshwater globally) and also uses huge amounts of energy and nutrients. How to minimise the resource footprint of agriculture while meeting rising demand from population and consumption growth - during climate change - is one of the biggest challenges humanity faces this century. Agricultural R&D can make farming systems more efficient.

Pic 1: Use of natural resources: Food, water, energy and material resources are vital to human society. The way they are secured affects human health and well-being directly, as well as indirectly through impacts on the environment

 






Research Councils UK timeline

Ground breaking research contributions are nicely summarised in a timeline infographic published by the UK research councils: http://www.rcuk.ac.uk/RCUK-prod/assets/documents/documents/RCUKAgriScienceTimeline.pdf

Growing more with less

A remarkable achievement, although it has not received much of a fanfare, is the increasing resource use efficiency of UK farmers. Much has been heard about the wheat yield plateau but wheat yields have been maintained over a period during which fertiliser use has declined. This means that the amount of fertiliser needed to produce the same amount of wheat has gone down. This has come about through incremental improvements in farming systems rather than any one technological breakthrough.

Technologies

The ability to collect and share farm data in a multitude of technological ways has already made a considerable impact on farm performance, but – in my view - will have an even greater impact in the years ahead. Whether delivered by an App, a drone or a tractor-mounted guidance system, customising treatments to local conditions for individual fields and for spot treatments will make a big difference.

Already, soil measurements allow the correct balance of micronutrients to be applied and insect and disease monitoring systems deliver valuable early warning of crop threats. Online information sharing has also meant that farmers can share experiences with each other much more easily resulting in farming becoming a less isolated occupation. Mobile phone Apps such as the farm crap App are cheap or free and are already proving both practical to use and useful.

Biologicals

Using more biological solutions is an innovative trend which is likely to continue as the availability and cost of chemical solutions limits their use. Disease resistant crop cultivars are increasingly utilised to reduce fungicide costs. Some farmers have been using no-till and cover crops to improve soil structure and organic matter content and hence fertility.

As conventional pesticides are increasingly restricted, I would like to see alternative approaches made available such as biological control, resistant crop plants and design of agricultural systems that are less vulnerable to attack. Increasing resource efficiency of agriculture is a win: win scenario because it benefits both the environment - by reducing the footprint of agriculture in land, water and energy use and it reduces input costs.

New crops, new opportunities

We also need to consider crop choice and crop quality as well as the quantity of agricultural produce. For example, at Rothamsted, Camelina plants have been engineered to produce omega 3 fish oils up to successful field evaluation. This land-produced fish oil has the potential to revolutionise the aquaculture industry, while conserving marine sources of fish oils. It would also provide farmers with a high value crop.

At Rothamsted, we have a new building called the LawesOpen Innovation Hub (See picture 2 below). It provides a space where companies can set up a base in close proximity to our research centre – it even has a physical bridge to us. It opened in July 2015 and I hope that suitable companies will locate here so that synergies can be developed between the more fundamental and more near market research to improve the field delivery and commercial availability of new technologies and innovations in agriculture.



Pic 2 below: The Lawes Open Innovation Hub at Rothamsted: open for innovation to help you grow, come and join us! VIDEO here: https://youtu.be/VSS7OHhxbEA


Nichola Bell

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