Cream of the crop

Bruce Grieve is director of a new innovation centre that will use engineering technologies to help agribusiness feed the world’s growing population.

Ever since humans first began living in organised societies, agriculture has walked hand in hand with engineering innovation. A glance through the earliest issues of The Engineer reveals the publication was largely obsessed with the latest developments in farming machinery.

In the past 100 years both industries have changed almost beyond recognition: farming is no longer the domain of small family enterprises but a large-scale industry subject to the insatiable demands of multinationals. And while engineers still know how to design and build a tractor, they now operate in fields that their Victorian forbears could never have imagined.

Yet the links between engineering and agriculture are still there — from autonomous GPS-enabled combines that plough fields the size of small countries, to the computer hardware behind the latest advances in crop science.

Now an innovation centre, to be launched this week at the University of Manchester’sengineering faculty, demonstrates how this relationship between factory and field might develop over the coming years.

Funded by biotech behemoth Syngenta, the Syngenta University Innovation Centre (UIC) hopes to tap into Manchester’s expertise to investigate how today’s breakthrough technologies in sensor science could benefit the agriculture industry.

Formed seven years ago from the merger of the crop science businesses of Astrazenecaand Novartis, Syngenta specialises in the selective breeding of seeds and the development of pesticides and herbicides. It has become one of the giants of the global agribusiness industry and, with sales of about $8.1bn (£3.9bn), shares the stage with Dow, Dupont, Bayer, BASF and Monsanto.

While its vital statistics are impressive, Syngenta knows the world in which it operates is changing fast and, according to the UIC director Dr Bruce Grieve, that is why the centre has been established. ‘According to the World Bank, by 2050 the world’s population will grow from six billion to nine billion — so the sector has to become a lot better and more efficient at producing food,’ said Grieve.

‘There’s the whole debate over land usage for food and fuel, and you’ve got to be more efficient about how you use chemicals in order to be environmentally sound. On top of that, the shifting of world populations towards cities means that the use of resources gets very biased, particularly in developing countries where you’ve got populace moving away from farming areas in to cities. This means a big draw on water supplies away from agriculture.’

Grieve is convinced that the latest advances in sensors, telemetry systems and wireless communications could help define the way the world of agribusiness reacts to these challenges. ‘If you look at what the business does at the moment, it puts the seeds out there which have certain traits that the consumer or farmer wants, it makes fruit taste a certain way or develops corn which will last longer when it goes through food processing. It does all the chemical inputs to prevent attacks from pests. This is all very nice but it’s effectively looking at treating the symptoms rather than the diagnosis and cause.’

For instance, one important area in which the centre’s research is likely to play a major role is in the struggle to develop drought-resistant crops.

Grieve said in order to gain an understanding of a particular crop’s resistance to drought, firms such as Syngenta employ thousands of people to walk up and down the fields and look for different phenotypes: things like an extra ear of corn that could be associated with how quickly a crop is growing.

Using modern sensing techniques based on process tomography body-scanning technology borrowed from the healthcare industry, Grieve and his group hope to detect these tell-tale signs far more quickly and at an earlier stage in a plant’s development. ‘We can stick these systems in the subsoil and look at early effects. We can pick up indicators way before anyone can see them and pick up features people haven’t been able to find before without digging the plant out of the ground and cutting it up.’

Another exciting application and, according to Grieve, the area of research that is likely to produce the first commercial product, addresses a big issue in the biofuels business. Syngenta is already heavily involved in breeding grain that will release more ethanol. However, the bio-refineries that buy the grain have no quick and easy way of telling how much additional ethanol they will get from these new batches. Using lab-on-a-chip microfluidics technology borrowed from the pharmaceutical industry, Grieve hopes to develop a system that will do this on the spot.

He said: ‘What we’re looking at doing is, at point of sale, monitoring the amount of ethanol that will be released by the grain. It affects the value of the grain and also affects the refinery downstream because you control the refinery according to how much ethanol is going to be released by the grain.’

He said a product capable of doing this could be released within the next two years.

Crop protection is also a key area of research, and Grieve believes the centre’s work could help make farmers’ crop-spraying strategies more efficient and less hazardous for the environment.

While many farmers use precision-spraying systems that map the field and spray crops accordingly, Grieve said many spray ‘prophylactically’.

The problem with this approach is that the properties of a field are not uniform. ‘There’s a lot of subtlety around a field,’ he said. ‘One of the big issues is drainage into the water course. If you spray a certain part of a field in certain conditions, instead of going where it’s meant to go it ends up straight in the water course. That means that you get blanket regulations on how much material can get sprayed per hectare.

‘If all you’re going to do is blanket spray then that’s a very inefficient use of chemicals and you’ll end up with poorer yields as well spending loads of money on chemicals that will end up in a water course, which you must then treat.’

He said that, by working closely with the machinery manufacturers, it should be possible for them to develop a system of field-based sensors that will detect when particular crops need to be sprayed and indicate this to the spraying machines.

Looking further into the future, Grieve also anticipated the development of sensing systems that could be used for the non-invasive tracking of ripening crops. Such systems could, he said, be made from low-cost printed polymers, tuned to detect particular volatile emissions that might correspond to the ripening of a crop.

While the Manchester UIC might be the first of its kind for Syngenta, the notion of a commercially funded research centre will be familiar to readers of The Engineer. And Rolls-Royce, which has a number of university technology centres across the UK, has been a particular source of inspiration for Syngenta.

Grieve said although Rolls-Royce has been both an influence and a direct help in setting up the new centre, the Syngenta model is slightly different. As well as longer term research areas it is, he said, also keen to stimulate the development of products that will hit the market in the next two to five years.

He said while the shorter-term work will involve technology that has been cherry-picked from other applications, longer-term projects will need to seek funding from the BBSRC and EPSRC. He also stressed that the agreement between the university and Syngenta enables the UIC to work with other companies outside the crop science sector.

For instance, Grieve revealed that his team is collaborating with an unspecified, large UK pharmaceutical company on applications of sensors in consumer health products.

But the primary focus is on agriculture, and the sheer scale of the industry could, said Grieve, represent a huge opportunity for the numerous sensor manufacturers scattered around the UK.

‘Syngenta needs a supply chain of companies that can supply these widgets. Once we’ve done proof of concept we will then start looking at either licensing the proof of concepts or incubating spin-out companies to tap into the markets formed by Syngenta.’