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ATW22: Friday: Farming resilience and how greater crop diversity can contribute on-farm

Agri-TechE Article
Agri-TechE

Addressing climate change and its impact requires farmers considering crop diversity to have confidence in profitable cropping outcomes, this Agri-Tech Week event, hosted by NIAB looked at the options and highlighted some of the top runners. 

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Diversifying crop species, whether in agriculture, horticulture or livestock farming, has the potential to increase farm resilience, reduce crop inputs and help improve the environment.

Although there are an estimated 369,000 known species of flowering plants, only about 7,000 have been cultivated for food, forage, fibre or fuels, with 30 underpinning the world’s food supply.

In the UK, 75% of arable-farmed land grows just three crops: wheat, barley and oilseed rape. Similarly, apples and strawberries account for a large proportion of the UK’s fruit production, and carrots, onions and brassicas are the leading vegetable crops. However, a range of energy crops are now gathering momentum following a slow start.

Diversifying crop species, whether in agriculture, horticulture of livestock farming, has the potential to increase farm resilience, reduce crop inputs and deliver environmental benefits. Yet farmers need to have confidence in profitable cropping outcomes.

Tree-Mend-Us

Willow and Miscanthus both have the potential to deliver in a net zero system, according to Neil Watkins from Energy Crop Consultants Ltd, and Michael Squance from Terravesta.

Neil Watkins discussing the potential of willow and its multiple benefits

Agronomically (relatively) straightforward and suitable for non-productive land, both are ideal where there are local markets for fuel or other purposes. Short rotation forestry poplar and eucalyptus are also options, although as Neil pointed out, “farmers need to decide which crop suits them best” – with pros and cons for each.

Feeling Fruity

The area of UK fruit production has declined in the last decade, according to NIABs’ Felicidad Fernandez, but outputs are stable due to increased efficiencies. A recent study for Defra in collaboration with NIAB’s Lydia Smith revealed 32 potential alternative fruits and vine crops which could be grown in the UK, but, according to Feli, “the barrier to adoption of new crops is that they are not profitable or there is a limited market.”

Table grapes are the most consumed fruit in the UK, and climate change is meaning that UK production is now a real possibility, along with apricots and the exotic-sounding “honey-fruit” (haskap). Nut production is also an option – especially with the demand in plant-based milks increasing……….hazelnut milk, anyone?

Building on Strong Foundations

Much is talked of the potential for plant-based materials in the construction industry, but as Chloe Donovan of Natural Building Systems Ltd commented, “Scaleable isn’t sustainable, and sustainable isn’t scaleable.” The so-called “embodied carbon” within the construction materials accounts for around 11% of the carbon footprint of the industry, so new products like HempSil™ enables modular building panels to be created for new builds with better environmental credentials.

Hemp is one of Nature’s most efficient carbon capture mechanisms and as a replacement for timber (much of which is imported to the UK), there are high hopes. Chloe’s vision is for 100,000 homes to be built of bio-based materials by 2030 which will sequester over 2 million tonnes of carbon equivalents.

Applying Gene-ius Thinking to Crop Diversity

Heather Oldfield of Elsoms Seeds showing plant-based alternatives for automotive parts

Modern crop varieties are not as genetically diverse as their wild ancestors, explained Elsoms’ Heather Oldfield. As a business that has been aiming to develop varieties adapted to a changing climate, Elsoms has discovered many genes have been lost over time as habitat destruction and environmental changes mean these species are lost.

But new varieties of crops such as hemp, flax and mallow are in development, with mallow being considered as a form of soluble fibre for the pig feed market as a zinc oxide replacement.

“We Don’t Know What We Don’t Know”

The farmer-focussed element was provided by NIAB’s Colin Peters and Nick Sheppard of Upton Suffolk Farms. Both agreed that growers need to get value for money and an economic return, but as Colin reflected “We still need to understand more about the life cycle of crops and pests in order to ensure they are being managed properly and make it easier for farmers to grow these alternative crops.”

Closing comment of the day rests with Colin “What the fossil fuels industry wants, and what plants can deliver, are actually very similar. They just don’t know it yet.”

You can now watch a recording of the event at  niab.com/farming-resilience-hybrid-seminar.

More about NIAB

 


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Agri-Tech Week is a partnership initiative founded in 2014 by Agri-TechE with the Royal Norfolk Agricultural Association. The week features a mix of in-person and virtual events that are designed to showcase exciting developments in agri-tech. It is coordinated by Agri-TechE working closely with partners across the innovation ecosystem and aims to provide opportunities to attract new customers and partners and to broker collaborations and international connections.