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COP26 agenda on agriculture ‘disappointing’, says Agri-TechE ahead of annual conference

With Agri-TechE 2021 running next week starting Monday (November 8), the agriculture sector’s views will be heard as COP26 attempts to address issues of global warming which will affect how the world is fed for the foreseeable future.

A drone using Cambridge-based Outfield Technology’s airborne measurement platform
A drone using Cambridge-based Outfield Technology’s airborne measurement platform

The Intergovernmental Panel On Climate Change’s 2019 Special Report on Climate Change and Land estimated that agriculture is directly responsible for up to 8.5 per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions, with a further 14.5 per cent coming from land use change – mainly deforestation in the developing world to clear land for food production.

This year’s Agri-TechE will showcase the efforts the farming community is going to embrace new technology and updated working practices to address the endemic problems the sector faces – the poor nutritional condition of the soil after decades of over-farming and pesticide use, the damage being caused by climate breakdown, the effects of (in this country) Brexit and supply chain problems, and changing consumer choices.

On Monday the conference will look at precision nutrition, and possibilities of collaboration in the East of England (to consider the willingness across the regional food chain to engage in collective solutions).

On Tuesday the topic is ‘overcoming barriers to the implementation of robotics in soft fruit’.

Agriculture remains a big user of glyphosate-based herbicides
Agriculture remains a big user of glyphosate-based herbicides

Wednesday (November 10) sees the conference-within-a-conference that is REAP, which will look at advances in technology and breakthroughs in science.

Thursday’s themes are ‘Science in Sustainable Agriculture’ and ‘Catalyst Farming – Exploring the Collaboration Triangle: people, technology and data’, while the closing day’s focus is on ‘Carbon avoidance or carbon capture? Which is the best strategy for Net Zero?’.

The centrepiece REAP conference tackles agri-tech and new approaches to farming, including regenerative agriculture, which offers “ways to improve soil health and agricultural productivity while reducing negative environmental impacts”.

The organisers note that “land can also store carbon and lowland peat areas in the Fens are seen as a huge carbon sink”.

“REAP is very timely this year, as it features new research, innovation and practices that are already positively impacting the climate change agenda,” says Dr Belinda Clarke, director of Agri-TechE, the UK’s agri-tech innovation ecosystem which is based at the Hauser Forum.

Dr Belinda Clarke, director of Agri-TechE
Dr Belinda Clarke, director of Agri-TechE

“These range from a more restorative and regenerative approach to land management through to earth observation technologies that generate unprecedented insights into the performance of soils, crops and woodland.

“Emerging agri-tech is supporting precision agriculture to enable more efficient application and utilisation of synthetic inputs such as fertilisers and feed. Also predictive yield models to reduce waste and improve forecasting and smaller, lighter robotic “field workers” that help reduce soil compaction (a cause of flooding).”

Speakers at REAP include:

- Cambridgeshire farmer Tom Pearson, who changed the family farm from conventional to regenerative farming and is on the farmer advisory board of Small Robot Company.

- Professor Alex Web, whose team at the University of Cambridge have cracked the mystery of how plants measure time, which could unlock the potential of multiple harvests a year or a reduction in the cost of vertical farming, thereby cutting food miles.

- Airbus, the Satellite Applications Catapult and European Environment Agency – how ‘broadband in the sky’ will enable earth observation, robotics for harvesting and autonomous vehicles across the supply chains.

Successful implementation of a plan for sustainable agriculture is urgently needed
Successful implementation of a plan for sustainable agriculture is urgently needed

One of the high spots is likely to be the screening of a film about a nitrogen robot on Manor Farm, Caxton, demonstrating the type of technology that will make a big difference on farm.

Nitrogen is the nutrient with the biggest impact on crop growth but also has a big impact on greenhouse gas emissions as most added nitrogen comes from artificial fertilisers and it can be washed into rivers creating pollution. Monitoring how much nitrogen is used by the plant is problematic. The nitrogen robot detector offers automated intelligent soil and plant nitrogen diagnosis, creation opportunity for precision application when needed by the plant.

But Dr Clarke is concerned that the crucial role agriculture has to play in feeding the world’s 7.7bn population sustainably is not being properly heard at the Glasgow climate change conference.

“The potential for GHG emission savings across the agri-food supply chain are significant – which makes its absence from the COP26 themes even more disappointing,” says Dr Clarke.

Further details here.

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