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Good work, CHAPs

CHAPS

Dr David George describes the role of CHAP (Crop Health and Protection) in driving forward the agri-tech revolution.

According to a 2016 Defra report (British Food and farming at a glance) the value of UK agricultural production is estimated to be over £25bn, accounting for 70% of UK land use and employing nearly half a billion people. Growing demand from this sector for sustainable produce with reduced chemical inputs and environmental impact puts increasing strain on arable and horticultural production. There is a need to produce more and more food, with fewer and fewer inputs, from fixed field sizes. The current political and legislative environment is also placing significant stresses on our food production sector. Future farmer support systems, supply chains and access to plant protection and production products are all unclear in a post- Brexit Britain.

CHAP (Crop Health and Protection) at Sand Hutton near York, one of the Government’s four Agri-Tech Centres supported by Innovate UK, has been charged with the task of finding scientific and technological solutions to the practical problems facing growers. We bring together leading scientists, farmers, advisors, innovators and businesses to understand industry challenges, drive research and innovation and develop and trial solutions to transform crop systems. Our aim is to translate and promote these solutions for market adoption and so improve crop productivity.

Two of the most significant challenges to UK food production are pest and disease control and limitations on available land for crop production. At present, the bulk of pest and disease management is achieved through the use of synthetic plant protection products. Nevertheless, continued, longer-term use of these products, at least in their current forms, is becoming increasingly viewed as unsustainable due to practical (e.g. development of chemical resistance) and societal (e.g. consumer acceptance) constraints. Creating additional land area on which to produce crops is arguably an even greater challenge, though not necessarily an insurmountable one.

Two of the most significant challenges to UK food production are pest and disease control and limitations on available land for crop production.

Pest management

Where pest management is concerned, novel chemistry, biological control and biopesticides are beginning to phase out conventional chemical insecticides in many areas, though such approaches are arguably less well developed to target plant pathogens. Growth of the biostimulants sector has also been progressing rapidly of late, due to the benefits that can result from producing a healthy, happy plant with an innate ability to respond to, or even tolerate, pest and disease attack. Though often highly effective, such biologically-based products and crop production programmes are typically more sensitive to external influences (such as temperature, humidity and UV exposure) than synthetic chemicals. As a result they require more considered approaches to demonstrate their efficacy during the development and demonstration phases. Biopesticides, for example, include a wide range of product types – from living microbial organisms to botanical plant extracts – all of which have varying and inherent ‘needs’ that must be met if they are to work well in practice.

To ensure product-tailored, robust, reliable and fully repeatable approaches can be developed and deployed using these new products and practices, CHAP has invested in an ‘Advanced Glasshouse Facility’ (AGF), based at Stockbridge Technology Centre (STC) in North Yorkshire, a site with more than 50 years’ experience in running applied trials for the crop protection industry. With a flexible design and multiple enhancements, CHAP’s AGF is not just a glasshouse, it is also home to a fully replicated suite of sixty deep-water hydroponic tanks, available for either crop or aquatic ecotoxicology work, and precision field and hand-held sprayers to allow optimal product testing both indoors and outdoors. Perhaps most importantly of all, the AGF is supported by STC’s in-house expertise to design methodologies to ensure that effective new products that could be of benefit to the industry do not slip through the cracks of conventional testing protocols.

The E-Flows mesocosm is a ground-breaking project encompassing 2.7 hectares of land and is the first truly, flow through, field scale mesocosm facility in Europe.

Environmental impact testing

E-Flows mesocosm

Another exciting new CHAP facility that has recently been officially opened is the E-Flows mesocosm, an Edge of Field Waterbody Safety Assessment Facility at Sand Hutton. As plant protection products are developed and registered, there is a requirement to ensure they are safe when they reach bodies of water and aquatic environments. The E-Flows mesocosm is a ground-breaking project encompassing 2.7 hectares of land and is the first truly, flow through, field scale mesocosm facility in Europe. The E-Flows consists of 60 realistic streams up to 2m wide and 10m metres long, each with its own continuous supply of water. This facility provides a large scale, controlled system to examine the environmental impacts of plant protection products for higher tier regulatory risk assessment, as well as other research projects assessing the effects of plant protection products on lowland aquatic habitats. The majority of mesocosm facilities already available are either static, or they simply recirculate water. This is not representative of what actually happens in the field, where fresh water is constantly flowing in streams and ditches, and where chemicals are naturally broken down. To overcome this, the E-Flows mesocosm is supplied with a continuous flow-through of aged, fresh water; the flow in the test units is closely controlled.

Plant breeding and polyculture

In addition to new product development, there is increasing interest in other avenues, such as plant breeding and polyculture, which aim to sustainably increase yields returned from finite agricultural and horticultural land. Though by no means a novel technique, polyculture – the growing of more than one crop together - could address multiple challenges being faced by the arable and horticultural sectors. These include erosion control, reduction in surface water pollution, addition of soil organic matter, improved soil structure and tilth, fixing of atmospheric nitrogen, recycling of unused soil nitrogen, greater soil productivity, increased soil biodiversity and improved pest, disease and weed control.

Research indicates that polyculture utilising flowering plants can promote on-farm pollinator conservation, which if delivered over large field areas could greatly increase the conservation potential of UK crop production, adding to the valuable work farmers and growers are already doing in this area with measures such as flowering field margins. Such a significant shift away from our traditional monocultural methods of crop production could offer multiple gains, but would require a complete step change in our approach to food production that could only be justified from a farm-business perspective if the benefits outweigh the costs. Despite the benefits of polyculture demonstrated to date, commercial uptake in UK arable farming has remained low due to concerns over production conflicts and practical difficulties in the management of polycultural systems.

CHAP can help here too by providing access to modern machinery that is being utilised in multiple European projects at STC to validate and demonstrate farm-friendly approaches to maintaining cereal yields whilst cropping into permanent ‘living mulches’ of clover. State of the art strip-tillage machinery is of particular importance to demonstrating compatibility of living mulches to modern arable production, allowing crops and clover to be simultaneously sown into cultivated bands in a single machinery pass. CHAPs Baertschi Oekosem ROTOR Strip Tiller, coupled to precision agricultural technology, has the ability to achieve just this, and the CHAP and STC team are aiming to demonstrate that it can revolutionise drilling into permanent ground cover, overcoming past and present constraints of polycultural approaches to realise more sustainable, more profitable, mixed species production models.

Measuring crop health

LED growth facility, Stockbridge

CHAP has a globally unique Soil and Crop Health facility. Operating at pilot scale (<1m2 – >20m2), the facility can dynamically simulate the interrelationships between soil health, water use and biotic factors (pathogens and weeds) in the production of diverse agricultural commodities, whilst controlling the many environmental variables that influence crop yields and ultimately gross margins for farmers. The facility recreates every stage of the production process from ‘field to fork’, from cultivation (from intensive through to no-till systems), drilling, plant establishment, crop development to harvest and post-harvest. Uniquely, the facility can operate over multiple cropping cycles and is not season dependent thanks to the integration of a glasshouse.

Supported by funding through Agri-EPI, this glasshouse is equipped with state of the art sensors monitoring and controlling crop and soil health at pilot-scale above ground (RGB camera, FLIR IR Camera, Laser scanner, PRI photochemical reflectance sensor) and below ground (mini-rhizotron cameras, handheld hyperspectral sensors to collect soil moisture information, moisture sensors, temperature sensors and a weighing platform for water usage). Cranfield University’s long track record and expertise in applied soil science adds further value to the Soil and Crop Health facility. This ensures translational research with tangible, positive outcomes for industry.

Availability of arable land

For some crops, modern technology is beginning to overcome issues of restricted land availability. Vertical farming systems have been developed on a small scale in the UK and Europe over the last decade. Crops are grown on tiers of stacked production benches in fully enclosed ‘Controlled Environment Facilities’ (CEF) and lit by LEDs that deliver controlled wavelengths and intensities of light.

In addition to obvious efficiencies in terms of the amount of crop that can be produced per unit of land area, other benefits of this production model include year-round and optimised cropping cycles, decoupling of food availability and climate, and sustainability gains driven through minimised waste and use of renewable energy.

Large-scale commercialisation of vertical CEF has already been established in some countries, e.g. USA and Japan, and is now under development in the UK, focusing on key horticultural crops, such as salads and herbs. These larger scale operation models, however, will need to compete more effectively with standard crop production practises, both in terms of volume and price points, meaning that efficiency savings will be critical to ensure economic viability.

Though significant opportunity exists to deliver efficiency savings in large scale CEF systems, for example in terms of light selection, sensor integration, automation and plant breeding/varietal selection, extensive work in this area has yet to be undertaken in Europe, largely due to the lack of commercially representative research facilities able to undertake such projects. Similarly, evaluating pertinent pest and disease risks, and options for effective management in these systems has yet to be fully addressed in commercial production models.

Recognising the importance of CEF to the future of food security and sustainability in the UK, CHAP has recently completed construction of the UK’s ‘Vertical Farming Development Centre’, allowing research and demonstration projects in this field to be conducted in Europe for the first time.

The facility consists of two identical climate-controlled 120m² growing rooms, split over four tiers, allowing comparison of current vertical farming ‘best practise’ against optimised models driven by integration of innovations, such as those mentioned above. The facility also houses a germination room and cold store, allowing for work covering all stages of crop production pre-farm-gate. Based at STC, also home to the LED4Crops Facility, where research on CEF has been ongoing for almost a decade, this CHAP venture combines the UK’s leading expertise in LED-driven cropping and CEF.

Information flow

Effective translation of new approaches to crop management and two-way conversations with the crop production sector are key to CHAP’s mission. CHAP’s ‘mobile laboratories’ have been busy up and down the country, interacting with state of the art conferencing and training capabilities, which have been put in place at key Technology Translation sites, such as STC and Cockle Park (Newcastle University). These help to ensure that knowledge can flow both ways, shortening the 10-15 year lag phase between new solutions being developed through research and being realised commercially on farmers’ fields or in growers’ glasshouses.

Dr David George

Stockbridge Technology Centre, Selby, North Yorkshire, YO8 3TZ

Email david.george@stc-nyorks.co.uk

For more general information about CHAP please contact: Charlotte Milligan, Head of Policy and Communications, CHAP

Email charlotte.milligan@chap-solutions.co.uk

Web chap-solutions.co.uk



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