Agri-Tech Week: 'Shiny Kit and Smart Drivers' at Easton and Otley College
The future of crop protection chemicals - and the machinery innovations needed to deliver them with optimum precision - were discussed at an Agri-Tech Week event outside Norwich.
Prof Rob Edwards, head of the School of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development at Newcastle University, was the keynote speaker at the Shiny Kit and Smart Drivers event at Easton and Otley College.
He said 40pc of the world’s food production would be lost without crop protection chemicals, but outlined a “perfect storm” of challenges – with pests and diseases becoming resistant to existing products, which are also under threat of bans, with few new breakthroughs in the pipeline.
Prof Edwards drew parallels with the health sector, where the challenges were similar but the response was more “bullish”. He said the adoption of new medical technologies was much faster due to more effective links between clinicians, patients and researchers – meaning a rapid deployment of new science.
Learning from this, industry leaders are working on a strategy to improve integration and knowledge-sharing between the scientific and farming communities, while working more pro-actively with regulators.
But Prof Edwards also said innovators must play a key role in ensuring more effective use of the remaining arsenal of pesticides and herbicides, through better diagnostics of crop disease problems, and optimal application of sprays.
“To do that we need detection methods that work at the same pace as farming,” he said. “If we need to send something off to a lab and get it back in two months, that’s not going to work. We need quite complex diagnostics within 24 hours. That is the sort of thing you might get from your doctor, but we need to be able to do it in agriculture.
“We need real-time detection, linked to control systems. We can already measure the presence of specific genes or proteins in 20 minutes, and this technology has gone from something that occupies a whole workbench to something the size of a laptop.”
To showcase the latest precision data, application and guidance equipment, the event also included an interactive machinery masterclass with Norwich-based John Deere dealer Ben Burgess.
Delegates were shown how GPS-guided equipment could accurately deliver sprays while minimising wastage and drift, while collecting and analysing data to aid future management decisions.
David Purdy of John Deere said: “Technology has a fundamental role to play in delivering more from less, and we are very much beyond the level of just driving machines up and down in a straight line. We have collected so much data about our machines that we are beginning to see clear trends, and that is helping us to make decisions before something becomes a problem.
“You need optimised machines and well-trained operators. If you have bought a £200,000 machine and run it poorly, you are not just affecting the machine, you are affecting everything that machine does.”
The event at the Easton Campus outside Norwich was organised by the Royal Norfolk Agricultural Association (RNAA) and Easton and Otley College.
Greg Smith, chief executive of the RNAA, said East Anglia’s farming, research and innovation expertise made the region a fulcrum for change.
“It is easy to think of these global issues as not being our problem, and that we can sit back in Norfolk and keep doing what we have been doing,” he said. “But that’s not true.
“Food security, water security and feeding a growing population are huge issues that can be tackled by agriculture, and it can start here in Norfolk.
“That is something as the crucible of agricultural revolutions we are deeply involved in. These big issues seem distant, but they are not. Everything we are talking about today can help solve these big problems.”