• Written by Andrew Davis
  • Posted on Jan 08, 2020
  • Articles

It is a truism that the pace of change is inexorable and accelerating.  As we embark on a new decade and life outside the European Union, farming faces a new future.  Changes will both be caused and facilitated by leaving the Common Agricultural Policy.

Last week I had lunch with my neighbour Simon who is involved in the IT of precision farming.  He explained what can be achieved and what the future might hold.  The average yield of winter wheat for the 2018 harvest was 8.6 tonnes per hectare whilst those clients of Rhiza, the precision farming arm of Agrii, managed over 10 tonnes.  To put that in perspective, the record crop was 16.52 tonnes per hectare and the genetic potential is put at 24.  So, what are the limiting factors and how can we realise more of the potential?

By bringing together a lot of data such as field records, weather and detailed maps obtained from soil sampling and satellite photography, fields can be mapped showing variable crop growth.  Satellite images at a scale of 3 by 3 metres can be accessed daily if there is not too much cloud, radar if there is.  The normalised difference vegetation index and the green chlorophyll vegetation index can be assessed giving the growth stage and health of the crop.

Limiting factors can be explored and variable applications of fertilisers and pesticides planned.  All the latest sprayers and fertiliser spreaders are capable of applying varying rates across the field according to the plan drawn up using satellite technology.  Interestingly, this rarely results in a saving in the cost of inputs, because some areas benefit from higher rates, but increased yield more than covers the costs, including the £2 per hectare fee to Rhiza.

There is huge potential to take this further.  Drones can be used to take photographs at a resolution of 3 mm which makes it easy to identify weeds, pests and diseases.  The problem here, however, is that the law in this country requires a drone to have a pilot with line of sight.  An experienced operator flying the drone makes this an uneconomic option for all but the highest value crops so there needs to be a change in the law before this technology can be exploited.

The technology already exists to allow field work to be done by robotic equipment.  It is possible for lasers to kill weeds so that herbicides will no longer be required but it is difficult for grass weeds, such as blackgrass, to be distinguished from a cereal crop.  More development and investment is required before this becomes mainstream on farms, but that might not happen within the decade.  However, the prospect remains exciting of small scale robotic machines trundling back and forth across a field rather than huge tractors driven by operators, not least in terms of soil compaction.

The other major area of innovation is biotechnology.  Genetic research by scientists at top stations such as Rothamsted, John Innes, Roslin and the Sainsbury Laboratory at Cambridge is amongst the most advanced in the world.  Genomes have been fully identified giving the opportunity to edit the genes to enhance desirable characteristics.  Excitement is growing that major breakthroughs may be imminent in terms of providing nutrients for cereal crops.

Legumes such as clover have nodules on their roots that contain symbiotic rhizobia bacteria that fix atmospheric nitrogen turning it into a form that can be used by the plant.  This means that applications of nitrate fertiliser are no longer required.  It has been a goal for many years to transfer this ability to other crops such as cereals and reports suggest that significant progress is being made.

Another strand of research by the same team is attempting to enhance the relationship between plants and soil fungi, known as arbuscular mycorrhizal symbiosis.  The fungi form ultra-fine filaments that can extract sources of phosphorus that are otherwise unavailable and exchange the nutrient for carbon from the plant.  This process has largely broken down as farmers apply phosphate which is absorbed by the crop negating the symbiosis.

For many decades, plant breeders have manipulated genetic characteristics by means of selective breeding.  Gene editing is the same process but is speeded up in the laboratory by altering the effectiveness of different genes using advanced technology known as Crispr.  It is now possible, for example, to produce potato varieties that are resistant to blight, cutting out the need for repeated sprays of fungicide.

But genetic modification is not allowed commercially in the European Union despite that fact that the technology has been used in many other parts of the world for decades.  GM may be transgenic, where genes are exchanged between species, or sysgenic, where only the existing genes within a species are manipulated.  In a serious blow to progress, the European Union ruled last year that gene editing came into the same category as transgenic processes and thus subject to the same regulation.

With the UK outside the EU, it remains to be seen whether such draconian regulation will be relaxed to allow the exploitation of biotechnology.  As the use of fertilisers and pesticides comes under increased scrutiny and many crop protection products are withdrawn or banned, biotechnology offers alternative husbandry that can bring significant benefit to the environment.  Will our politicians have the courage to allow farmers to benefit from these innovative technologies in the coming decade?