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Agri-Innovation Den: Pushing forward with innovation in crop science

Innovation is the name of the game when it comes to crop science, and the cutting edge is as sharp as a knife.


Scientists are making huge strides forward in plant health, dealing with pests and diseases, nutrition and sustainability, but many successful research projects fail to translate into work in the field.

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Innovation comes when farmers, plant breeders and other innovators get on board. The Centre for Applied Crop Science supports partnerships between industry and research, and has identified 15 ‘grand challenges’. In terms of early warning, monitoring and surveillance, it highlights providing bespoke and timely advice to farmers, actively managing pesticide resistance and horizon-scanning for new crop threats.


When it comes to precision applications, it prioritises deploying variable rate control and improving application efficiency of control products. Those working to deploy control technologies should be developing adaptable, resistant varieties and harnessing the potential of soils, it says. The centre also stresses the importance of convening expertise from across the food chain.


Prof Les Firbank, of Leeds University and the N8 AgriFood Resilience Programme, says collaboration is critical. “We need food and farming systems which can withstand the shocks of extreme weather and variable profits, as well as intensify production sustainably.”


He defines sustainable intensification as ‘changes to a farming system which will maintain or enhance specified kinds of agricultural provisioning, while enhancing or maintaining the delivery of a specified range of other ecosystem services measured over a specified area and specified time frame’.


The N8 Research Partnership, a collaboration of the eight most research intensive universities in the north of England: Durham; Lancaster; Leeds; Liverpool; Manchester; Newcastle; Sheffield; and York; is bringing some of the brightest minds in crop science and sustainability together for the 2017 Annual Conference on Food Production for the Future, in Durham, on July 11-13.


As well as exploring measuring sustainability, the conference will look at the meaning of nutritional value at different levels within the food chain. Stephen Long, professor of crop sciences at the University of Lancaster, will be discussing his work on making photosynthesis more efficient.


There will be a showcase for new approaches to increasing yield, including biotechnological and robotic approaches, and an attempt to unravel abiotic (climatic) and biotic (pest and disease) stresses which most affect agricultural productivity, including ways to boost productivity under stress.


Researchers at the John Innes Centre (JIC) field trials station at Bawburgh, Norfolk, are grabbing this bull by the horns. They are in their second year of trials to assess the impact of drought on 177 different progeny of Spanish wheat variety Garcia and UK bread wheat Paragon.


This Defra-funded research aims to identify drought resistant plants and provide seed breeders with markers highlighting the genes responsible, which could be incorporated into commercial wheat varieties. Dr Cristobal Uauy, project leader in crop genetics at JIC, was a finalist in the social impact category of the BBSRC Innovator of the Year Award 2017 for his work sharing technologies for wheat breeders worldwide.


Dr Uauy has compiled the most complete DNA sequence analyses of the wheat genome, and uses molecular genetic techniques to investigate productivity traits, such as grain size, nutritional quality and nutrient remobilisation. He has included breeders in projects to identify priority cultivars for breeding and developed sequence data for four UK wheat cultivars.


So breeders can use the latest discoveries, Dr Uauy introduced training and tools to improve accessibility of important data and methods. One such open-access tool, PolyMarker, allows identification of markers breeders can use for some of the most important genes used by industry.


Jacob Lage, head of wheat breeding at plant breeder KWS, said: “Dr Uauy has practised an ‘open door’ policy. We applaud his understanding of a public good and believe this approach will lead to tremendous impact for society.”

See Defra’s Sustainable Intensification Platform at siplatform.org.uk, and PolyMarker at polymarker.tgac.ac.uk

The 2017 Den

The search is on once again for a new crop of agricultural entrepreneurs. Launched in 2014 by Briefing Media, in conjunction with Co-op Food, Agri-Innovation Den aims to give entrepreneurs with an interest in farming an opportunity to develop their ideas and innovations.


Finalists stand to gain a share of the £20 million investment pot in exchange for a stake in their business, a guaranteed Briefing Media promotional package worth £5,000, as well as on-going help and business support.


If you are an entrepreneur, farmer or a student with a great product or concept you believe could help farmers, we want to hear from you. Applications close July 7, 2017.


For more information, visit www.aginnovationden.com

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