“THERE'S A way to do it better – find it,” said prolific inventor, Thomas Edison, the man credited with inventing the light bulb, among other things.
His approach transformed everyday life across the globe in a way that could never have been anticipated. And a similar transformation is exactly what is required in agriculture if we are to meet the sustainability challenges ahead.
Here is the problem. Population growth means that there are going to be a lot more mouths to feed in the next 15 years. Yet increasing urbanisation will put pressure on land area, and resources such as water, energy and chemicals will be constrained.
It is anticipated that we need to produce around 50 per cent more food by 2030 with fewer inputs. And, if that isn't a big enough challenge, we also need to do this against a backdrop of increased climate disruption. What this calls for, then, is a dramatic improvement in agricultural productivity.
But here’s the rub. Whilst UK agricultural productivity increased dramatically in post war Britain, it pretty much plateaued in the late 1980s and throughout the 1990s. It has improved slightly since then, but in 2013 was at the same level as in 2004, suggesting that little progress is being made. When you look at absolute output, the story is similar. Many farmers have left the industry, and whilst those left are producing more, total output in value terms is actually slightly worse today than it was in 1988. Yields are also stable. In 1948 wheat typically yielded three tonnes to the hectare. By 1993 this had increased to around eight tonnes – broadly where it lies today.
So, we have a huge hill to climb, particularly after 20 to 30 years where no meaningful improvements have been seen. But in the words of Edison “…there’s a way to do it better – find it.” And that is exactly what is happening.
The Government is leading the charge with significant investment into research and development, with a £160m funding pot for the delivery of its agri-tech strategy. And there is significant activity going on.
“There is work across a huge number of areas that is focused on increasing agricultural output so that we can feed 9bn people,” explained Dr Adam Staines, Head of Agriculture at the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC). “This ranges from increased investment into plant breeding and genomics through to the application of technology and information systems.”
There is the potential for dramatic progress, too. “The genomic revolution, for example, is really exciting,” said Adam. “The speed with which scientists can now sequence genomes means that they can identify which genes control which properties of the plant, which means that breeding for specific traits can be much more precise than it used to be.”
Indeed, there is a £17 million project led by the John Innes Centre that is focused on understanding different traits at a genomic level, for hundreds of varieties of wheat, including those that are no longer commercially used, to identify useful genes that can help move productivity forward.
“This is not just about absolute yield, but also about creating new plant varieties that are more resilient to extremes of weather, can cope with different seasons and are more disease resistant,” Adam added. “There is also a real focus on crop quality – which would enable farmers to grow products with higher nutritional status and more suited to end use, which could reduce food waste.”
One business that is really focused on advances in crop husbandry and breeding is Westfalia Fruit, one of the leading growers of avocados and a world leader in avocado research. “One of the big issues for avocado growers is root rot,” explained Matthew Churchill, Technical Manager – Exotics at Greencell, which is the UK subsidiary of Westfalia. “It ultimately leads to tree death, and consequently reduces yield and quality. We’ve developed disease-resistant rootstocks and 60 per cent of trees planted globally are now on these rootstocks, which has made a massive impact on productivity. We have also developed varieties that are pest resistant, with improved yield, reduced reliance on pesticides and extended growing seasons.”
Additional focus has been given to agronomic practices, with new pruning techniques being developed by Westfalia to even out the natural biannual fruit bearing and improve orchard yields. “An approach has been trialed in recent years that sees us pruning one side of the tree very hard one year and then the other side very hard two years later,” Matthew said. “This has given much more consistent annual harvests, which improves supply chain efficiency as well as farmer output.”
As well as numerous new approaches to plant breeding and agronomy, perhaps unsurprisingly in the modern world of IT, data management and interpretation is also seen as an area with real potential.
“The so-called Big Data Revolution means that large amounts of data can now be collected and analysed more rapidly using cloud processing, so it is already possible to have more accurate information and disseminate it more rapidly to allow it to be used for decision making,” Adam explained. “The ability to capture data is also changing. Sensor technology is improving all the time, with sensors getting smaller, cheaper and more capable. We are not far away from a time where sensors could be mobile phone-based or even wearable, connecting back to farm IT systems wirelessly over the Internet to allow immediate analysis and decision-making on farm about everything from weather information to pathogen detection. We really are looking at a time in the not too distant future when there will be a laboratory on a microchip.”
What this will mean in practice is more accurate and precise management information will be available to farmers more quickly, improving farm operational efficiency.
Of course, some growers are already benefiting from advances in technology like this, particularly in the more intensive sectors such as glasshouse production.
“Computer-controlled glasshouse management has made a huge difference to yield and quality for products such as tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers,” explained Matthew Simon, technical manager at Glinwell. “We are constantly implementing new technology as we expand glasshouse area, and modern systems can manage heating, ventilation, fertiliser application and irrigation, CO2 levels and light very precisely. We have our own weather station monitoring wind, rain, temperature and light levels and the computers then adapt the atmosphere in the glasshouse to ensure that conditions are optimised for the crop and stage of growth.”
This technology-based solution implements changes much more accurately and easily than manual intervention, resulting in better yields and, importantly, better crop quality, improving total output and returns. Crucially, it also helps minimise the use of inputs such as energy and water, so it really is win-win.
Another grower who is seeing the benefits of such technology is Peter Taylor from Westland Nurseries. Westlands grows micro-leaf and baby leaf crops under glass and computer systems provide Peter with a host of management information, as well as precise control over growing conditions. “We have invested significant capital in technology,” explained Peter, “but the benefit is that we have far more control over the crop and can deliver consistent growing conditions for optimum crop quality. We get better germination rates and can manipulate the production cycle to adapt to customer needs, so we are more flexible too.”
Such technology is starting to find its way into field-based agriculture too. High value crops are often managed with machinery that has complex GPS systems, and variable rate sprayers, fertiliser spreaders and liming equipment are all widely used. The livestock sector is also seeing the prevalence of electronic ID systems increasing, and intensive livestock systems will often have computer-control at the heart of atmospheric control methods as well as feeding systems.
What’s interesting though is that new thinking is coming to the fore. “The development of agricultural mechanisation systems has been linear for years,” argued Simon Blackmore, Head of Agricultural Engineering at Harper Adams University. “What this means is that the next generation of machines have tended to simply be larger versions and more powerful versions of previous generations to deliver economies of scale in farm operations – more work with less labour.”
This is all very well, but Simon reckons that this approach is flawed moving forward. “Larger and larger machines only make sense in a world where energy is cheap and we know that is not going to be the case in the future. There are also disadvantages to larger and heavier kit – more soil compaction and difficulty in doing more than one job per pass, but we are locked into the mechanisation systems we have so we can only do certain things differently.”
The answer is a completely new way of thinking, Simon suggested. “The future will revolve around smaller, smarter machines,” he said. “If we start with a blank sheet of paper – literally redefine what’s required – then technology will allow us to have agricultural robots that can do all the traditional jobs in a much smarter way.”
Examples of what is possible include laser weeding machines that can recognise 26 different weed species, see the meristem, or growing point of the weed, and ‘zap’ it with a low power laser to rupture the cell walls and prevent the weed from growing any further. Another system uses micro-droplet spraying to recognise the leaf of the weed and apply spray only on that area, saving 99 per cent of pesticide by volume and providing more effective weed control.
Work has also been undertaken to develop autonomous tractors, with thermal cameras to recognise irrigation status and multi-spectral cameras to recognise nutrient and weed status, whilst LIDAR can measure the extent of the crop canopy.
This isn’t all science fiction either. “The technology is there now to bring this into reality,” Simon explained. “The only thing that is stopping commercial production of these machines is access to capital – there is no reason at all why they couldn’t be in use within five years.”
Cash may not be the only barrier to technology uptake, however. Cultural acceptance of new ideas will prevent progress, particularly when those ideas break away from convention, and consumer preferences can also come into play – witness the sizeable consumer backlash against GM as an example of a reluctance to embrace every new idea.
What does seem clear, however, is that there is plenty going on in terms of R&D and many real opportunities to address the productivity challenge we face in the food supply chain. Thomas Edison would be proud…
This feature was published in The Marketplace, Reynolds' in-house publication.