Farm fields dyed with bright colours to confuse crop pests

Soil is being dyed in different colours to confuse disease-carrying aphids in this BBRO 'camo cropping' trial at Morley Farms

Soil is being dyed in different colours to confuse disease-carrying aphids in this BBRO 'camo cropping' trial at Morley Farms - Credit: BBRO

Scientists are spraying coloured dyes onto farm fields to confuse crop pests as part of their efforts to find natural alternatives to chemical pesticides.

The "camo-cropping" trial by the Norwich-based British Beet Research Organisation (BBRO) was one of the many industry innovations on display at the Royal Norfolk Show.

Soil is being dyed in different colours to conceal the emerging crop from disease-carrying aphids, which have become an increasing problem in the absence of banned pesticides. 

Ches Broom of the British Beet Research Organisation illustrating "camo cropping" soil dye trials at the Royal Norfolk Show

Ches Broom of the British Beet Research Organisation illustrating "camo cropping" soil dye trials at the Royal Norfolk Show - Credit: Chris Hill

The trial at Morley Farms, near Wymondham, is part of the BBRO's search for "nature-based solutions" to protect the region's sugar beet crops.

They include trying to attract beneficial insects and natural insect predators into the crop by planting alternative host plants, such as the aphids' preferred brassicas, alongside the sugar beet.

Ches Broom, knowledge exchange manager for BBRO, said the "camo-cropping" idea came from a farmer who had used under-sown barley in a sugar beet crop in an effort to stop wind-blow problems - and found they had also reduced pest and virus levels.

"We know it works, but we did have a problem in trying to destroy the barley without knocking back the sugar beet," she said.

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"So we are using food-based dyes instead. We spray the soil, and the aphids flying over don't see the beet coming through so they are flying past.

"If we have flowering plants or a brassica strip around the field, the idea is that they will miss the sugar beet and go there instead.

"We are trying some weird and wacky things, but it might be the thing that we need.

"As an industry we don't want to be using too many chemicals. We want natural solutions."

Beneficial insects such as ladybirds are being encouraged into sugar beet crops

Beneficial insects such as ladybirds are being encouraged into sugar beet crops as natural predators to control disease-carrying aphids - Credit: Chris HIll

Other innovations at the show ranged from hi-tech commercial machinery created by well-funded research and development teams, to home-made prototype inventions forged in farm workshops.

Dr Belinda Clarke, director of Agri-TechE, which hosts the show's innovation hub, said: "I think what is really exciting is that innovation can operate at a number of levels.

"It can be the highly-complex, expensive R&D that needs very sophisticated equipment and PhD-level skills, or it can be innovation at farm level - even a change to a business model, or something as simple as spraying a different colour on the land to confuse the senses of insects."