Food for thought

Engineers are joining forces with farmers in an effort to satisfy our spiralling demand for food. David Fowler reports

Produce more food from less land, with less impact on the environment: that is the challenge facing world agriculture. Many believe that this challenge cannot be met through existing agricultural practice and that the farming and food production industries must look beyond their traditional boundaries and existing technology to bring in ideas from engineering and the physical sciences.

Precision farming - satellite guided combine harvesters could help maximise yields

This is the background to the recent launch of the Sustainable Agriculture and Food Innovation Platform by the Technology Strategy Board (TSB), the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC). Up to £75m will be invested in the programme.

The initiative is something of a departure for the TSB, which is normally regarded as oriented towards engineering and the physical sciences rather than the domain of Defra and the BBSRC. But according to the organisation’s head of development, Paul Mason, its remit covers any part of the UK economy, provided it meets the following criteria: there must be potentially a large worldwide market; the UK must have the capability to exploit the technology; the timing must be right with the ideas normally about three to five years from being market ready; and the board’s intervention must add value, for example, by helping UK firms beat competitors to market.

The board identified agriculture as one of the areas where it had no presence and where new technology-based solutions are required. It is adopting a ‘challenge-led’ approach for the sector. ‘We define a problem and let all sorts of competing technologies come forward to try to solve it,’ said Mason. Although ‘agnostic’ about the solutions, he expects that engineering and physical science knowhow will contribute.

The innovation platform will concentrate on four areas: crop productivity, including protection and nutrition; sustainable livestock production; waste reduction and management; and greenhouse gas reduction.

Significant opportunities and markets exist in all these areas, believes Mason. The whole concept of ‘precision farming’, in which technology from sensors to satellite imaging could be used to monitor crops, soil and other conditions, and might allow fertilisers and pesticides to be applied as needed rather than being sprayed generally, is a very exciting area, he added.

Regarding waste, Mason said: ‘There is a huge rate of attrition between harvesting the plant and it reaching the plate. If you could waste less that would be a good place to start.’ He also pointed out that food production and agriculture are together responsible for around 18 per cent of UK greenhouse gas emissions, split roughly evenly between them, with more than half of agriculture’s contribution arising from the use of fertiliser. ‘If we in the UK can come up with technology to overcome the problem it will be marketable to people everywhere on the planet.’

New approaches to food production are needed to avert a crisis in supply
New approaches to food production are needed to avert a crisis in supply

A hypothetical example of the sort of idea the initiative wants to encourage could be a tractor towing a fertiliser spray, using a sensor to detect the nutrient content of the soil in real time and adjusting the application of fertiliser accordingly.

Other opportunities might include remote sensing to detect pests and diseases automatically; improved design of harvesting machines to reduce waste; and rethinking field layout and design, with civil engineering playing a part, suggested Mason.

The innovation platform’s first initiative is a competition for new approaches for crop protection in which £13m of public funds is to be invested. It formally gets under way in January, and applications are invited from industry-led collaborative consortia that must match the public funding project by project.

An area expected to have significant applications in agriculture is the use of sensors. Syngenta, a producer of crop-protection chemicals, set up the Syngenta Sensors University Innovation Centre within the School of Electrical and Electronic Engineering at Manchester University to develop applications for this technology. ‘The use of disruptive technology such as sensors and informatics is a major development in agriculture,’ said director of the centre Dr Bruce Grieve, who joined the university from Syngenta to set it up.

He added that the aim is to work in partnership with established agricultural research institutes. At present, agriculture specialists ‘try to shoehorn existing sensor technology into their projects’. If instead a joint understanding of the problems can be arrived at, more effective, bespoke sensor solutions could be developed.

One of the areas the innovation centre is looking at -along with agricultural specialist HRI Warwick -is non-visual methods for picking out weeds in horticultural crops.

With the centre, Syngenta plans to submit a spore detection system for the crop protection competition. This would allow quick remedial treatment rather than preventive spraying to control disease, replacing the current approach in which weather information is used to predict the probability of disease and guide farmers when to spray crops.

A sensor network would be used to pick up crop disease early, when it could be dealt with by localised application of a non-selective herbicide, reducing the amount of chemicals used, and hence emissions. It could also help to get around the problem of specialised herbicides disappearing under the EU ban.

Although precise details of the system are being kept under wraps, Dr Grieve said: ‘We’ve done enough background work to be sure all the elements with a high technical risk will work.’ The School of Electrical and Electronic Engineering is extending this approach under the banner e-Agri, to engage widely with the supply chain and stakeholders over potential applications for sensors. ‘To make things happen you need to talk to physicists, chemists, insecticide manufacturers, computer scientists and so on,’ he added. Manchester Business School, the Brooks World Poverty Institute and the Sustainable Consumption Institute, all based in Manchester, are closely involved, with the business school playing a pivotal role in generating business models for disruptive technology concepts. E-Agri research themes range from early detection of genetic traits in plants to monitoring the quality of fresh perishable produce.

In this last category a key ambition is the development of a battery-free radio frequency identification device cheap enough to allow items to be individually tagged. The tag would record changes in temperature and humidity during the transport of produce from the farm to its ultimate destination, identifying any conditions that could make the produce unsaleable or result in a reduced shelf life. ‘Farmers can grow the best produce in the world but they have no control over it when it’s put into the supply chain,’ said Grieve.

The challenge is getting everyone in the supply chain to adopt the idea and give it priority. ‘The business model relies on all those involved in the supply chain talking to each other,’ he added. ‘That’s what we’re trying to develop -linking to other businesses outside crop protection.’

Food test reaping rewards

The TSB hopes to encourage new approaches to crop protectionThe Technology Strategy Board (TSB) will invest £13m through a collaborative R&D competition to help crop growers respond to the challenges of increasing crop productivity while reducing the environmental impact of production. The initiative aims to help meet new and existing EU regulations on the approval and use of pesticides. The competition is for businesses and practitioners across the agricultural supply chain, including those in arable crops, horticulture, grasses and forage crops, and crops for biofuels and other non-food uses. Not just technology but also business models adapted from other sectors can be submitted as possible candidates. The competition opens on 10 January 2010, with the deadline for expressions of interest on 25 February.