Norfolk MP George Freeman says farm entrepreneurs can capitalise on ‘big data’ revolution

Mid Norfolk MP George Freeman. Picture: Ian Burt

Mid Norfolk MP George Freeman. Picture: Ian Burt - Credit: Ian Burt

The application of 'big data' can help East Anglian farmers boost their productivity – and identify opportunities for tech entrepreneurs to develop the tools for the job.

That was the message from Mid Norfolk MP and life sciences minister George Freeman, after he opened the world's first Big Data Centre of Excellence.

The £11.8m Agrimetrics Institute, based at Rothamsted Research in Hertfordshire, was unveiled this week, alongside the announcement of £17.8m of government money for a new round of Agri-Tech Catalyst Fund Awards.

Agrimetrics will work with universities, businesses and researchers throughout the food chain to enable 'detailed and collective understanding' of the needs of producers, retailers and consumers by analysing large datasets from around the world.

Mr Freeman said the centre would also foster local links with the scientific community at the Norwich Research Park and the Agri-Tech East research partnership.

He said: 'The basic idea, and the opportunity, is that by using data and information we can move toward precision agriculture, reducing chemical use and pesticides, reducing waste, and delivering more food from less land, water and chemicals.

'It is also very important for consumers, so they can take an apple or a lettuce or a loaf of bread off the shelf and be sure that the supply chain is environmentally 'sustainable'. That has become an over-used word, so we want an academic team working out the science of sustainability – based on real measurements of the energy, carbon and water footprints of different products.

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'Secondly, there is a huge demand for farmers and food companies to get hold of information at the click of a mouse. Maybe they want historical meteorological or crop data, commodity prices and all the data on agricultural inputs and outputs so they can see what crop varieties and what chemicals performed best in different circumstances.

'In order to do that we need to throw a big computer at all the data sets out there. There is also some unbelievable genetic data, particularly in Cambridge and Norwich, on crops that are resistant to disease or drought.'

'Thirdly, there are a lot of companies beginning to appear in this space and by giving them the data we are giving them the ability to get started. We are going to spawn a lot of new companies developing tools and apps for farmers.'

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