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Is holding water in the environment the secret to sustainable food production?

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Agri-TechE

As a record-breaking wet winter follows one of the hottest summers, the smart management of water resources is a key priority for sustainability. The Norfolk Broads, an ecologically vulnerable area stretching from south of Norwich to near the coast at Horsey, could provide some of the solutions.

Andrea Kelly of the Broads Authority comments: “The winter rain this year has more than topped up depleted groundwater, and water tables remain high, creating difficulty for some crops, fields, and farms.

“However, with appropriate planning, permissions, and investment these excesses could potentially be used as a supply for the dry summer periods.

“The Broads National Parks grass marshes and peatland fens are able to store this water in the environment and keeping the water levels high has other benefits.  It can reduce land subsistence levels and also the amount of carbon that is lost when the peat dries out.”

Andrea Kelly

“It is estimated that for every 10cm increase in the water table, there is a corresponding reduction in emissions of three tonnes of CO2 equivalents per hectare,” Andrea continues. “In some areas, sub-irrigation of land with pipes and dykes can be used to maintain a high-water table.

“As some crops, such as celery, prefer a wetter soil, a small rise in the water table does not preclude growing essential food, but in some areas fibre crops such as thatching reed create lots more discussion about land use and public services.”

The Horsey Wetland Project

For marginal land not suitable for food crops it is possible to produce UK-grown fibre for the construction industry. These crops can have a dual role as they can filter and clean the water. The FibreBroads Project (June 2023 to March 2025) aims to overcome the barriers to achieving commercially viable paludiculture (profitable wetland crops), including the development of bio-based construction materials.

The Broads Authority is collaborating with partners including Cranfield University to develop a global model for water table management in the Broads with more precise models available for farms in the drained peat areas of the Broads.

Andrea says that they are working with Norfolk FWAG to engage with farmers to discuss methods for holding water in the environment.

FibreBroads is participating in the Agri-TechE Innovation Hub at the Royal Norfolk Show 2024 on 26-27th June. The hub is sponsored by BBRO.

Find out more about FibreBroads at broads-authority.gov.uk/looking-after/projects/fibrebroads.

Trials show CLAWS robot can accurately target weeds with killer beam

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Agri-TechE

Pulsed light is being used to spot and kill weeds in commercial trials of the CLAWS (Concentrated Light Autonomous Weeding and Scouting) robot from Earth Rover. The lightweight robot uses 3D cameras and advanced AI to monitor the crop as well as identify and destroy weed seedlings at an early stage, without the need for chemicals.

Earth Rover Marketing executive Cristina García explains that CLAWS acquires its per-plant crop data by scanning the entire field, identifying and indexing each plant’s location and size. As processing is done ‘on the edge’ rather than in the cloud the scouting data is available in real time, offering incredible speed and accuracy.

CLAWS on-farm

Cristina says: “The robots are managed through a Farm Control and Intelligence System which generates a digital replica of the farm. This powerful tool enables growers to control CLAWS quickly and easily, and to use the data to enable a rapid review of critical information about the crops, including detailed maps, crop health status, and growth rates.”

CLAWS takes photos of the ground using its 3D cameras. Earlier field trials have confirmed that it is able to distinguish between crop plant and weed seedlings across a variety of crops. It uses a concentrated pulsed beam of light to target the growth point or meristem of the weed to kill it.

The pulsed light is safe as it dissipates after it reaches the target, unlike a laser which can bounce off something that is reflective such as a stone, glass or broken crockery. CLAWS can weed, scout, or do both simultaneously.

The high level of interest in trialling CLAWS in the 2024 season demonstrates the market pull for automation technology and the company sees the future as farmers having a fleet of robots providing 24/7 management of the crops.

The Earth Rover Team with CLAWS

Cristina continues: “Building on the success of last season’s trials, we are expanding the range of crops and enhancing the capabilities of the robot for this year and are collaborating with five growers across the season.

“We envision a future where CLAWS will become a standard tool on the farm, and the notion of robots working alongside farmers will become normalised, driving further innovation and advancement in agri-tech.”

Earth Rover welcomes expressions of interest in becoming a Pioneer for its 2025 field trials. Cristina invites growers to reach out via email at info@earthrover.farm. “We will be happy to arrange a call to discuss further.”

CLAWS is to be demonstrated in the Agri-TechE Innovation Hub at the Royal Norfolk Show 2024 on 26-27th June. The hub is sponsored by BBRO.

Ponda creating novel textiles from regen fibres

Agri-TechE Article
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Agri-TechE

Ponda is a biomaterials company developing novel textiles from truly regenerative fibres. It aims to connect the regeneration of some of our most precious ecosystems to the production of responsible materials for the textile industry.

Ponda partners with farmers and conservation groups to regenerate wetlands by cultivating Typha Latifolia, a native, shallow-water, rhizomatous perennial plant. Thriving in freshwater or slightly brackish marshes, Typha proves to be an ideal, low-maintenance crop for wetland restoration. Farming under these conditions is defined as paludiculture.

Ponda has patented a fibre extraction method to harness the seed head fibre, transforming it into a valuable insulation material for the textile industry.

Q Where did the idea for Ponda come from?

Ponda‘s origins lie in a thorough examination of materiality, addressing environmental challenges in the fashion industry. Much of the industry’s footprint originates from material choices at the beginning of the supply chain. We aimed to explore new fibres in this space. Moreover, brands and manufacturers are seeking novel, regenerative materials to replace existing, damaging textiles. Conversely, drained wetlands, often a consequence of conventional agriculture, now contribute to 5% of global CO2 emissions. These wetlands are amazing ecosystems that store twice the carbon of all trees combined and serve as habitats for 50% of all animal species. Our goal was to create a link between these worlds, where each side could benefit the other.

Our team comprises individuals united by a shared commitment to effecting positive change on a global scale. Originating from a Master’s course in Innovation Design Engineering, jointly offered by the Royal College of Art and Imperial College London, the founding team conceptualised an idea that was then turned into a company. We began as teammates and, over the years, developed a strong friendship.

Previously known as Saltyco, we underwent a rebranding process in the past year, emerging as Ponda. The name “Ponda” is derived from “Pond” and “Agriculture,” symbolising our focus on revitalising wetland ecosystems within farmed landscapes. Our regenerated wetland farms serve as expansive ponds brimming with biodiversity, fostering climate resilience across our environment.

Q. Why typha? Is a good substitute for something that is less environmentally friendly?

Typha was a natural choice for us due to its remarkable efficacy in wetland restoration. Our first product, BioPuff®, exemplifies this synergy between sustainable materials and environmental regeneration. Beyond providing warmth, BioPuff® actively contributes to enhancing biodiversity, capturing carbon, and fortifying the resilience of our industry. By significantly reducing reliance on conventional fillers, BioPuff® represents a leap forward in insulation technology. Its exceptional warmth, natural water repellency, and puffiness make it a great choice. Moreover, BioPuff® upholds ethical standards, being cruelty-free and fully traceable from plant to puffer. When compared to conventional materials, BioPuff® offers exceptional warmth, suitable for a wide range of temperatures, from chilly autumns to moderately cold winters.

Q. There is lots of clothing waste that could be recycled, and peatlands can be used for growing food – how would you justify the use of peatlands for clothing?

While textile recycling is a positive step in reducing waste, it’s insufficient to tackle our broader challenges. Issues like limited supply, quality concerns, and the environmental impact of recycling highlight the need for more comprehensive solutions. Regenerative practices such as paludiculture are crucial for advancing sustainability objectives.

When considering the use of peatlands for clothing production rather than food production, it’s essential to strike a balance that prioritises sustainability and resource efficiency. By repurposing peatlands for textiles, we can diversify land use, alleviating pressure on traditional agricultural areas and strengthening the resilience of food systems. Nevertheless, careful planning is essential to ensure that clothing production does not compromise food security or degrade vital ecosystems

Moreover, the cultivation of Typha Latifolia emerges as a key strategy for peatland restoration. Typha’s unique ability to absorb nutrients from water addresses growing concerns about water quality, making it an invaluable asset in ecosystem management. This sustainable solution not only sequesters carbon and supports biodiversity but also sustains farmers’ livelihoods through paludiculture practices.

Q. What are you wanting to achieve at the Royal Norfolk Show – if farmers are interested in growing typha what are the next steps?

The outcome of our exhibition aims to raise awareness about regenerative agriculture practices and their beneficial effects on modern farming. Through our exhibition, we strive to enlighten not just the public but also policymakers about the potential of regenerative methods in shaping the future of UK agriculture. Moreover, we aim to actively involve farmers, igniting their curiosity in Paludiculture techniques during the event. Our ultimate aim is to cultivate partnerships with interested farmers after the show, facilitating the exploration and adoption of Typha cultivation and other Paludiculture initiatives.

The Ponda team

Ponda will be exhibiting in the Agri-TechE Innovation Hub at the Royal Norfolk Show 2024 on 26-27th June. The hub is sponsored by BBRO.

Harper Adams is supporting farmers monetarise natural capital

Agri-TechE Article
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Agri-TechE

It is increasingly becoming possible for farmers to monetarise the ‘natural capital’ associated with their businesses. Harper Adams University is focused on the tools, relationships and skills to develop the monetarisation of a range of environmental services.

Since April 2024, it has become compulsory, with only a few exceptions, for developers of residential and commercial projects to enhance biodiversity by at least ten percent – already some local authorities have increased this to 20%. This Biodiversity Net Gain (BNG) is a measurable improvement for wildlife, and it can be achieved either on-site, offset, or through purchasing statutory ‘Biodiversity Credits’ that will be used to create habitat projects in the future.

Every development project will need a BNG plan to gain approval, but the calculations are complex. Harper Adams University is working with Legacy Habitat Banks to develop the tools and approaches needed to support calculations of BNG as well as to build ecological skills in specialists and other adjacent professional roles to ensure the opportunities that BNG offers are optimised both financially and environmentally.

The UK Habitat Classification is the official description and grading of habitats and feeds into the statutory Biodiversity Metric, the standard method of baselining biodiversity. However, these are difficult for non-specialists to interpret.

Scott Kirby, Harper Adams University
Scott Kirby, Harper Adams University

Scott Kirby, Agriculture and Sustainability Consultant at Harper Adams, comments: “There are real opportunities emerging for landowners to develop alternative income streams through the provision of ecosystem services and public good. Some markets like BNG are underpinned by legislation and are developing rapidly. However, they need to establish a 30-year commitment with the developer that takes into account the opportunity cost of any alternative uses for that land.

“Other services such as Carbon sequestration lack the regulatory governance and are developing in a more complicated voluntary environment with a myriad of options.

“At Harper Adams we are especially interested in horizon scanning for other ecosystem services that landowners may be able to develop. A recently established project partnering with Cranfield University is looking at how advanced remote sensing and modelling could allow landowners to monetarise and manage both high and low water flows in a catchment.

“We see a future where a range of environmental services such as nutrient removal, flood mitigation, habitat creation or peat re-wetting become an established enterprise on many farms.

“To achieve this requires good metrics to measure and manage these assets, such as those being developed by Harper Adams.”

Harper Adams University will be exhibiting in the Agri-TechE Innovation Hub at the Royal Norfolk Show 2024 on 26-27th June. The hub is sponsored by BBRO.

3CR Bioscience reduces loss of lambs through rapid ID of genetic markers

Agri-TechE Article
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Agri-TechE

49 percent of lamb mortality occurs within the first 48 hours following birth*, which is devastating for farmers and economically impactful. A new tool, developed by 3CR Bioscience, is making it easier for breeders to detect recessive gene variations that can be lethal when present in both parents.

Differences between individuals of the same species are known as traits and may result from particular sequences in the animals’ DNA. New tools developed by 3CR Bioscience for genotyping are making it easier for breeders to identify these sequence variants and select animals, or plants, with improved qualities and greater resilience to disease or environmental stress. This is key to increasing food security.

3CR Bioscience is a leader in PCR genotyping technology and has developed a patented range of reagents (PACE®) and tools that can accelerate many applications in plant and animal breeding. This includes marker-assisted breeding, pathogen detection, and gene editing, which can significantly reduce both time and costs for the breeder.

Dr Sarah Holme

Dr Sarah Holme of 3CR Bioscience explains: “DNA sequence variants called SNPs (Single Nucleotide Variants) act as useful biomarkers for breeders.

“3CR Bioscience offers a suite of productivity tools for SNP genotyping and has developed a patented range of PCR reagents (PACE®) for replicating the desired section of DNA for analysis.

“With these tools and reagents, breeders can quickly validate markers, implement genomic selection, and conduct marker-assisted selection, thereby identifying and selecting animals with desirable traits more rapidly.”

Overcoming loss of lambs

A recent project has used PACE PCR genotyping to reduce early loss of lambs in French dairy sheep**.

High mortality rates are attributable to a variety of genetic and environmental factors. Some recessive genomic variants are known to be lethal if they are present in both the ram and the ewe.

A team at INRAE in France used PACE PCR to identify these causal variants in multiple key genes. With this knowledge, it will become possible to improve the selection of rams and improve lamb survival rates.

Sarah continues: “The speed and accuracy of PACE genotyping facilitates the rapid analysis of large numbers of animals, this aids the understanding of genetic relationships for animal health as well as evolutionary patterns, and conservation efforts.”

3CR Bioscience is talking about SNP genotyping in the Agri-TechE Innovation Hub at the Royal Norfolk Show 2024 on 26-27th June. The hub is sponsored by BBRO.


*AHDB Reducing lamb losses for higher returns: projectblue.blob.core.windows.net/media/Default/About AHDB/Reducing Lamb Losses 2020.pdf

**Searching for homozygous haplotype deficiency in Manech Tête Rousse dairy sheep revealed a nonsense variant in the MMUT gene affecting newborn lamb viability. Ben Braiek et al Genetics Selection Evolution volume 56, Article number: 16 (2024)

BBRO raises a ‘wall of yellow’ against a virus set to reduce yields by 30%

Agri-TechE Article
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Agri-TechE

It is estimated that there will be yield loss of 30-50% for sugar beet growers this year due to a resurgence in Virus Yellows, a disease spread by peach potato aphids. BBRO is working hard to find alternatives to the neonicotinoid seed treatments that have historically been used to protect the crop.

Dr Alistair Wright says the organisation will be showing a ‘Wall of Yellow’ in the Innovation Hub at the Royal Norfolk Show. It will demonstrate advances in seed breeding aimed at finding varieties of sugar beet that are tolerant or resistant to this devastating viral disease.

He says: “Virus Yellows is transmitted by aphids, which – due to our mild winter – have been able to overwinter along with the virus.

“For 2024 the Virus Risk Forecast predicts infection rates without protection to be 84%; therefore, the sugar beet industry has been authorised to use a neonicotinoid product (CruiserSB). However, we are trying a host of different approaches to avoid this in the future.”

Dr Alistair Wright, BBRO
Dr Alistair Wright

A Virus Yellows Taskforce was set-up in 2023 to ‘supercharge’ the research in this area, and work includes: investigating the development of mature resistance to the virus in aphids; push-pull strategies to draw the aphids away from the crop and into flowering or brassica strips; coloured dyes to divert the aphid away from green shoots; testing for virus tolerance/resistance in existing varieties; and gene editing.

Dr Wright continues: “The change in law has opened up opportunities to explore gene editing and we are a sub-partner in a new Innovate UK project between British Sugar, Tropic BioScience and The John Innes Centre.

Virus yellows infected plants in-field

“This work will be ground-breaking when it is commercially available – but this is still a long way off. Any advancements made will have to go through rigorous testing before entering a breeding programme. But this could finally give our crop immunity to the Virus Yellows complex”.

Sugar beet production is a vital part of Norfolk’s agricultural economy, with more than half of the UK’s national crop processed in the county each year. The crop offers an opportunity for farmers to break up pest and disease cycles on their farms, such as black grass. The crop also helps to break up workloads on-farm as it is sown in the spring and harvested in autumn and winter, whilst also providing a vital habitat and food source to migrating birds such as pink-footed geese.

More information can be found at https://bbro.co.uk/on-farm/vy-knowledge-hub/.

The ‘Wall of Yellow’ will be featured in the Agri-TechE Innovation Hub at the Royal Norfolk Show 2024 on 26-27th June. The hub is sponsored by BBRO.