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Research advancing food production from farm to fork

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The convergence of new research and technologies is providing unique opportunities that have the potential to transform many farming practices.

BBSRC is supporting research into precision agriculture, using drones, satellite data, and robotics, which together with advances in genomics, crop and livestock breeding, offer unprecedented opportunities to revolutionise farming systems.

Predictions of population growth suggest that by 2050 the world’s population will have expanded to over 9 billion and 60% more food will be required to avoid mass malnutrition and starvation. A huge boost in agricultural productivity will be needed to meet this demand. It is not simply about using more land for food production, but maximising efficiency of land use and resources, increasing the resilience of food supply chains, while at the same time protecting the environment.

The Hands-Free Hectare project at Harper Adams University is the first ever in the world to plant, tend and harvest a crop via autonomous vehicles and drones. It provides a glimpse of how innovative technology can transform the current harvesting routine.

Professor Simon Blackmore, Head of Precision Farming at Harper Adams University, said,“The technology is sweeping through many sectors across the UK and around the world, improving established procedures by delivering more accurate information and targeted solutions, such as destroying individual weeds with lasers rather than wasteful and potentially harmful chemicals. The use of smart technology in agriculture could provide the biggest change since mechanisation.

“Technology is not altering agricultural progress; technology is offering us the ability to transform the future of farming,” added Professor Blackmore.

At the at Earlham Institute, an Agri-Tech project is utilising remote sensing, computer vision and machine-learning modelling to monitor and estimate crop–climate interactions, so valuable information can be provided to farmers on the ground, helping them make decisions to optimise agronomic inputs and crop management.

The project is led by Dr Ji Zhou, who said, “Sustainable agriculture is about producing healthy and economically viable food whilst preserving farmland for generations to come. Another key challenge is to quickly determine the right timing and amount of fertilisers and chemical applications in response to changeable growing conditions”.

Melanie Welham, Chief Executive of BBSRC said, “Deployment of smart technologies and integrated digital solutions on the farm, field and in the factory, coupled with new crop and livestock species, has the potential to transform the entire ‘farm to fork’ supply chain, greatly enhancing resilience.  With autonomous systems and digital technologies providing farmers with real-time sensing, testing, measuring and reporting capabilities, the UK would be in a much stronger position to farm sustainably, producing healthy, nutritious and economically viable food, while preserving farmland and protecting the wider environment for generations to come. The UK has the world class research capabilities in institutes, centres, universities and businesses that could deliver such a transformation”.

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