Plant-microbe interactions, innovative disease monitoring, data visualisation and the opportunities for farm-based science are among the topicsto be discussed at Agri-Tech East’s conference REAP on 11 November.
Director Dr Belinda Clarke says that one of the wider benefits of the UK Agri-Tech Strategy and its related funding is the way that it has pushed agri-innovation higher up the agenda across many industries, not just those currently servicing the sector.
“Over the last year we have seen more smaller organisations and individual farmers gaining greater access to science and contributing to discussions at our networking meetings,” Dr Clarke comments.
“For example water – access, management and storage – is one area where farmers have a deep concern and extensive knowledge. There are considerable regulatory constraints in this area but these are drivers for new innovation and this is an area where bringing together people who wouldn’t normally meet can catalyse new ideas.”
Dr Jonathan Clarke is Head of Business Development for the John Innes Centre, one of the research institutes that is showcasing its latest research at REAP. He sees the development of a cluster of organisations with different perspectives invaluable.
“Increasingly we are seeing the whole value chain getting involved and this is a really exciting development. Innovation is more cost-effective if it is supported by a growers group, and if the end-user such as miller or food manufacturer has an input; this ensures that value is created from end to end.
“As a research institute we have a treasure house of scientific knowledge built up over the years. Our researchers can act as consultants for business, they understand the science and how to evaluate the literature, and are able to identify where the greatest value may be obtained from further work.
“The role of the farmer or producer is to explain the challenge they are facing and also the operational constraints; for example the solution must add economic benefit, it can’t be more expensive to implement than the value return from the crop. This requires a holistic understanding of the situation that can only come from someone with a practical knowledge of the industry.”
At REAP this year the conference starts with a Producers’ Panel, allowing farmers to frame the discussion. Brian Barker is a farmer at Lodge Farm, an AHDB Cereals Monitor Farm, with a particular interest in soils, an area where new research is currently emerging from both JIC and Rothamsted Research.
He says: “Improving the quality of the soil is a must for any farmer wanting to enhance their crop yield. We have run the farm on a 12-year crop rotation since the 1970s, to maintain yields and increase the biodiversity.
“However, we are continuously innovating and are currently trialling 6 different mixtures of green cover crops, including rye, oat and mustard, over the winter to find which one produces the best microbiota for the soil. We anticipate that this will reduce the need for fertilisers and lower costs and it would be good to compare our experiences with others at REAP.”
NFU President Meurig Raymond, who will be giving a keynote speech at REAP, agrees: “I think there are some very good monitor farms around the country, and it's important that the farming industry gets involved and actually gets behind what's happening on these monitor farms and institutions such as NIAB, JIC, and Rothamsted.
“Sadly, there is a perception through the whole food supply chain that there are ample supplies of food around the world at the moment. But we all know the dynamics –the world is going to have to increase food production by 60% over the next 30 years. That’s a big challenge, and it's going to need all the modern technology that will be at our disposal.
“Farmers need to be encouraged to invest in that technology by making it attractive and appropriate. We have to be innovative as an industry, so that the very good work that’s being done does filter its way through.
“We have the scientists, we have the institutions, we have the people. We need to make certain that it's well funded and joined up.”
REAP Conference 2015: Resilience Through Innovation, takes place on 11 November 2015, Churchill College, Storey’s Way, Cambridge CB3 0DS More information: www.agritech-east.co.uk/reap2015