New sources of funding and the opportunities for collaborative research were among the themes discussed at the Agri-Tech Week event hosted by Rothamsted Research in collaboration with the University of Hertfordshire and supported by the Green Triangle.
Sources of funding
AgRIA is a £2.7M fund to support innovation projects that bring together researchers and small businesses. The business contributes £8k to gain access to academic brains for a six-month project to the value of up to £65k. The next round is to be advertised in March 2020.
One of the companies to benefit is Phytoform Labs, a biotechnology company which aims to help breeders to cut down plant breeding times from decades to years using new gene editing technologies. CEO Dr William Pelton discussed the progress so far.
SHAKE Climate Change programme is specifically designed to attract entrepreneurs or start-ups who have developed early stage science or tech-based ideas that can have a significant impact on climate change and form the basis of a sustainable and socially responsible business within the sector. As well as receiving funding under the programme, entrepreneurs will benefit from mentoring and training programmes to help make their projects viable.
A good example of this is Th!nk Food, founded by Rothamsted Research scientist Sajeev Erangu Purath Mohankumar. The company is looking at how gamification can encourage consumer engagement in low carbon food production. The aim is to demonstrate the environmental impact of food systems, but visualising the carbon footprint of components in a food basket. The produce will allow users to track emissions and nudge for alternative food options, it captures metrics around seasonality and provenance.
It is not just retailers and farmshops that would have an interest in this concept; some towns are also adopting sustainability, for example Letchworth Garden City is involved in an initiative to support a healthy and sustainable food economy.
Students from UCL, University of Hertfordshire and Cranfield University, together with Rothamsted Research, are working on industry projects such as a programme with Syngenta to understand the factors that affect pesticide disposable foliar residues, and another with ADAS to investigate interactions between fungal pathogens.
Yongjui Han spoke about how her PhD student, James Fortune at University of Hertfordshire, had gained confidence, commercial awareness, practical agricultural experience, networking and multi-disciplinary experience from participation in collaborative research, linking academic with practical field research for ideas, developing assays and methodologies, and helping academia increase their capacity for commercially relevant research.
FarmInn is a programme run by Rothamsted to connect their farmers and scientists. It started in February 2019 and currently has eight active projects including:
- Cross drilling in wheat
- Beef quality produced from permanent pasture
- Seed treatments to delay the emergence of winter wheat and allow blackgrass control
- Managing fungicide input on winter wheat.
One of the FarmInn projects was suggested by local farmer Ian Pigott, Managing Partner at Thrales End Farm, who is working with Rothamsted scientist Andrew Riche to investigate the use of biological soil actives and/or liquid fertiliser within a zero tillage system.
Within a no-till system, there is an incentive to plant autumn crops a week earlier when soil is warmer. As the soil is not being moved there isn’t the oxidisation and release of carbon which gives seeds a kick start, so farmers find the crop is slow to get away. The question being answered by the project is ‘would the use biostimulants allow a delay in drilling and still enable the crop to get up and away before the winter?’
The idea is then to apply liquid fertiliser in the spring to benefit from when the soil warms up.
Ian’s idea is innovative and to disseminate project findings they are using social media to reach groups of farmers internationally.
The event concluded with facilitated workshop groups discussing some topical issues including:
- Farmer-Led Innovations – What ideas could be tested on-farm to help create a more resilient and competitive UK agricultural industry?
- What will the world look like in 100 years if nothing is done to combat the effects of climate change.
- What should government and society prioritise to enable sustainable food?
- What do delegates consider the most useful emerging technology to be?