Some of the best ideas have been pioneered for one use before making a difference elsewhere. Agriculture and horticulture are no exception and right now we’re getting inspired by the potential for arable-focussed solutions being applied in the fruit industry. And in parallel, the fruit industry is pioneering other technologies to move out of the glasshouse and into the field.
A role for drones
Take drones, for example. Not just for mapping field and soil variability and the performance of broadacre crops, increasingly they are being used to monitor orchards where counting individual blossoms can help predict fruit yield. Similarly, much of the plant breeding and genome technologies developed for large scale commodity crops has been applied to top, soft and vine fruit, with genome mapping and marker-assisted breeding transforming the speed of development of new varieties.
The potential “wins” for technology in the UK fruit industry are huge. Extending both the season and the shelf-life of perishable-but-popular berries is key, as well as innovating for new markets such as on-the-go snacks, new flavour profiles, and products with added health or nutritional benefits.
Harvesting and disease control by robots?
Effectively managing pests and diseases remain a challenge, whether the crop is grown undercover or outside – and the need to support or enhance the effectiveness of flower pollination is particularly pertinent given that just the pollination services of just 3 bee species provide a value of more than £600m a year to the UK economy through better crop yields and quality.
We hear a lot about the “rise of the robots” and the potential for automation, and the fruit industry appears poised to be one of the early adopters for these technologies. Not only are labour costs rising, but the availability of labour is also declining, with disturbing quantities of unpicked fruit crops rotting on the plant.
Robots lend themselves well to validation in a clean glasshouse rather than a muddy field. Automated fruit harvesters can also detect degrees of ripeness and sweetness but also increase efficiency and speed of crop management and harvest. So a robot that proves its worth indoors can help pave the way for application in more challenging and changeable environmental conditions.
With the pressure on to reduce the carbon footprint of the industry, the potential for new, greener packaging solutions and application of the so-called “circular economy” to add value from waste is significant. Unused berries, for example, can be a rich source of vibrant colourants for the cosmetics industry.
In general, the supply chain for fruit tends to be shorter, with fewer players than for commodity crops. But this puts additional pressure on logistics, supply chain management, predictive crop modelling and process automation to ensure supply meets demand. Here, again, technologies from arable production as well as the outdoor salad industries can help.
Fruit Focus 2019 is to be held at NIAB EMR (previously East Malling Research Centre), New Road, East Malling, Kent, ME19 6BJ