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ATW23: Research to tackle the impacts of climate change 

Agri-TechE Article
Norwich Research Park Norwich Research Park

At Agri-Tech Week 2023, “Ferrari” sugar beet met “Caveman” sea beet. Delegates learned that soil carbon can be categorised as either “scones with jam and cream” or “Brussels sprouts”, according to a soil carbon fate model, and heard about a novel cover crop proposed by the farmers  – all inspired by research underway at the Norwich Research Park

Roz Bird, CEO of Anglia Innovation Partnership. Photo by Farrel O’Keeffe, Norwich Research Park

All Carbon is Not Created Equal 

A “soil carbon fate model” developed by Brian Reid at the University of East Anglia (UEA) is providing a better understanding of the long-term fate of this increasingly valuable commodity in our soils.  

Crucial to this is the recognition that not all carbon is the same. Some, such as the carbon from fresh and degraded crop residues, is degradable and supports soil life, health and ecosystem services. Other organic carbon, such as humus, is stable, and delivers long-term carbon storage.  

“The degradable carbon is like jam and cream scones in the soil!”

Brian explained: “It’s the preferred and easy choice to be broken down and digested. The longer-term storage is not so easily degraded by life in the soil. Thus is the “Brussels sprout” option when it comes to being chosen by soil life to support itself.” 

Understanding the ratio of the two, and how to enhance them is key to UEA’s model and for informing payments that farmers might receive for their carbon. Profiling carbon stability, advised Brian, will help with decision-making around how best to manage soils for effective carbon management.  

Of Prof. Brian Reid, UEA

Cavemen and Ferrari – breeding better sugar beet 

Sugar beet accounts for 50% of the UK’s sugar demand and is proving not only a model system to understand crop domestication, but it also yields new insights into options for disease resistance.  

“Sugar beet was only relatively recently domesticated from its wild relative – sea beet,” explains Mark McMullan from the Earlham Institute.

“You can imagine one is a high-performance Ferrari, while the other is a relatively undeveloped caveman. But the caveman version is well adapted for the conditions in which it is growing. So, there’s a big, untapped reservoir of locally adapted genetic diversity for UK growing conditions which we can potentially introduce into commercial beet varieties.” 

Working with the British Beet Research Organisation and breeders KWS, the team at Earlham is working to identify novel genes for disease resistance and other “climate sensitive” genes that could improve the UK sugar beet crop. Over 50,000 sea beet seeds have been collected from populations in East Anglia, the Humber and Merseyside and they are being screened for genes that have a potential role in breeding for the climate of tomorrow.  

The grass pea’s promise and peril: overcoming its toxicity barrier

Grass pea is a highly nutritious relative of sweet peas and, like all legumes, it can fix atmospheric nitrogen and is drought tolerant, due to its origins in parts of Africa and Asia. Surely a wonder crop ready to transform agriculture and food security? 

Alas not – or not yet anyway.  

“Grass pea currently has one big drawback,” says John Innes Centre PhD student, Jasmine Staples: “It is toxic to humans and livestock if eaten in large quantities over a long period of time”.  

This toxicity has created a stigma about the grass pea which Jasmine’s research aims to address, by transforming the performance and reputation of this legume. There are few commercial varieties, so identifying the genetic pathway of the toxin’s production would pave the way for breeding new varieties in which this toxin-producing pathway removed.  

Toxin-free grass pea could be a major new opportunity for both human and livestock nutrition which – as one delegate pointed out – could make for a very exciting new cover crop if sheep could safely graze it down.  

Nick Goodwin, Anglia Innovation Partnership; Sanu Arora & Jasmine Staples, both JIC; Mark McMullan, Earlham Institute; Jonathan Jones, The Sainsbury Laboratory

P(r)ea-dicting root rot in pea crops 

Sticking with the pea theme, the John Innes worldwide pea collection has been harnessed to help understand more about the genetic basis of disease resistance in peas.  

Group Leader Sanu Arora is working with the Processors and Growers Research Organisation (PGRO) to tackle yield instability in green and dry peas.  

“Peas are susceptible to many pests and pathogens,” explained Sanu, “they differ across the world but in the UK it is mainly root rot and downy mildew, and key chemicals to combat them are starting to be withdrawn.” 

By screening the JIC pea collection, a “genetic diversity panel” has been developed which is helping identify new ways of identifying root rot. This has led to a new diagnostic, to predict if a field is low, medium or high risk for root rot.  

Sanu is looking for farmers keen to help trial the new device – those interested should get in touch with us and we will connect you with Sanu.  

New Genetics for a New Revolution 

Today’s talk made clear that it’s the combination of traditional plant breeding and new tools, such as gene-editing, that holds the key to a new, genetically powered agriculture. On behalf of the Royal Society, Jonathan Jones, Senior Scientist at The Sainsbury Laboratory has just co-authored a new report entitled “Enabling Genetic Technologies for Food Security.” 

Alongside the world-leading technologies and science being deployed at the Norwich Research Park, one thing is certain – biology is the future for adapting to climate change.

BBRO showcases novel spore detectors

Meet the Network
British Beet Research Organisation British Beet Research Organisation

The British Beet Research Organisation (BBRO) is pleased to be sponsoring the Royal Norfolk Show’s Innovation hub again this year. They will also be showcasing their own innovation in the way of some rather special monitoring stations and novel spore detectors that are currently in action across the sugar beet growing region.

Data is key in any research project, but for agricultural organisations such as the BBRO, the collection of robust in-field data is often thwarted by weather conditions. Certain foliar diseases and pests may prove a major headache to the sugar beet industry one year, but then not seen again for years. For this reason, BBRO is developing new tools to monitor actual in-field environments alongside the early detection of pests and spores to ascertain how the two correlate.

Dr Alistair Wright is leading this work, utilising knowledge gained from travels in America and Canada where diseases such as Cercospora leaf spot are having a major impact.

Dr Alistair Wright

Novel spore detectors

Alistair explains: “One of the most striking features of our monitoring sites is the ‘Spornado’ spore collector. It’s a 3D printed vacuum system, powered by solar that literally hoovers the air for small particles which are collected on a fine mesh for lab analysis.

“At the moment we are looking for Cercospora spores but as we develop the technology and our capabilities, we will be able to identify many other fungal spores, and maybe even pests, to provide an invaluable early detection system for sugar beet growers.

“Whilst understanding the presence and level of spores is important, we also need to define the weather conditions required to cause infection and have therefore introduced a network of Sencrop weather stations on each site. These collect general weather info to determine, rainfall, temperature and humidity levels but also incorporate a leaf sensor that is hidden in the crop to ascertain the actual conditions within the crop canopy.

“By monitoring spores and changing weather conditions we hope to be able to predict the potential level of disease pressure and therefore take action before disease development.”

Spornado at Fincham

Defence against virus yellows

“There are 12 of these special monitoring sites which also form part of the BBRO wider yellow water pan network, monitoring the presence of aphids (particularly Myzus persicae a carrier of Virus yellows),” Alistair continues. Further Information relating to the aphid survey is available on the BBRO.

“We have also added several moth pheromone traps to monitor the presence of the Beet moth that caused major destruction to areas of the crop in 2022, particularly in the Bury area.

“Data from all sites will be collected twice a week for at least 12 weeks, which is a huge commitment from those involved. We are indebted to BBRO staff, our partners and supporters for their help in delivering this project.”

More information about BBRO


BBRO is sponsoring the Innovation Hub at the 2023 Royal Norfolk Show.
Read more about the 2023 Innovation Hub >>

Innovation Hub 2023

BBRO and Sencrop develop indicator for Cercospora disease risk

Meet the Network

IPM BBRO at Innovation Hub 2022
Simon Bowen discusses Integrated Pest Management in the Innovation Hub

Cercospora is a fungal disease of sugar beet, that can spread if temperature and humidity are both high. If there is severe disease pressure, lesions on the leaves coalesce and the entire leaf can be lost.

BBRO is working with Sencrop, developers of connected weather stations, to create an agronomic indication for Cercospora disease risk that will provide early alert through the Sencrop mobile app.

Humidity key to Cercospora disease risk

Following a year of high levels of Cercospora infection in 2020, British Sugar funded an extensive network of weather stations in sugar beet growing areas. These included 40 Sencrop Raincrop connected rain gauges and  Sencrop Leafcrop leaf wetness in-crop sensors. These were used  to monitor the risk of Cercospora in sugar beet crops in the 2021 harvest season.

BBRO head of knowledge exchange, Dr Simon Bowen comments that the relative humidity is a big factor in disease development: “Cercospora development is relatively suppressed at low humidity, even when temperatures are quite warm. However, when we start getting humidity levels of more than 90% for 10-15 hours per day, the disease becomes more active, even at lower temperatures.”

BBRO provided additional information on Cercospora control to growers and agronomists in twice-weekly updates during the 2021 season, using additional SMS (text) messaging when required with information also available via the BBROplus area of BBRO’s website.

Simon says that feedback from the farmers was very positive. “The 2020 season showed how quick and aggressive the disease can be and that you cannot give it the opportunity to get established. For 2021 those who got the fungicide on early, in response to the warning, and kept a tight spraying interval got better control of Cercospora than those who didn’t.”

Cercospora agronomic indicator on mobile app

Sencrop weathertech at Groundswell Cercospora disease risk
Sencrop weathertech at Groundswell

This season, BBRO and British Sugar staff are monitoring the 40 Sencrop weather stations every day via the Sencrop mobile app which displays the Cercospora agronomic indicator. The indicator will be used to give farmers an early warning of when their crop is at risk according to their postcode, along with advice on how, whether and when to spray via SMS text message, the BBRO website or BBRO Bulletin.

The Sencrop Raincrop connected rain gauge is an agricultural weather station that gives farmers real-time weather updates straight from their fields. Sencrop’s mobile app allows collection and analysis from a farm’s weather stations and other stations around. This allows farmers to make informed and targeted decisions concerning crops, anticipating risks and diseases, prioritising actions and applying treatments at optimal times.

Head of product at Sencrop, Kevin Guibert says: “We have worked hand-in-hand with BBRO to develop an accurate and easy-to-use tool. The indicator was tested for more than a season before its launch this month.

“We welcome feedback from sugar beet growers on how the tool can be further improved so we can keep progressing it.”

More about BBRO

More about Sencrop