Visit creates fertile ground for growth of UK-China Smart Farm project

New opportunities arising from the UK-China SmartFarm collaboration were the subject of fruitful discussion at Agri-EPI Centre’s Northern Hub in Edinburgh today (18.12.19).

Agri-EPI hosted a visit by a high-level delegation from the northern Chinese city of Tianjin, along with representatives of Innovate UK, the Foreign & Commonwealth Office (FCO) and the University of Strathclyde.  The purpose was to explore Smart Farm opportunities with the Tianjin Municipal Commission of Agricultural and Rural Affairs and Tianjin Food Group.

Agri-EPI is helping to realise Innovate UK’s SmartFarm concept to develop a holistic approach to the food supply chain for a more efficient and sustainable approach to farming and food production. SmartFarm is a key component of the Agri-Tech Flagship Challenge, one of the major deliverables under the UK-China Science Technology and Innovation Strategy signed in December 2017 in London.

With the Agri-EPI-led pilot ‘SmartFarm 1.0’ already well underway in China, the plan is to create a transferable model for utilising a range of technology to gather data on inputs and outputs, in order to measure and reduce variation and increase productivity at all levels of the supply chain.

Agri-EPI Centre has been working closely with a variety of Chinese and UK partners to deliver SmartFarm 1.0. The project has now come to the attention of officials in Tianjin, who wish to explore how the project’s activities and positive impact may be extended to their region.

The delegation comprised senior representatives from the Agriculture and Rural Affairs Commission of the Tianjin Municipal Government, Tianjin Food Group Company, Tianjin Jinhai Husbandry Group and Tianjin High Quality Agricultural R&D Demonstration Centre.

Ian Cox, Innovate UK’s Innovation Lead for the Agri-Tech Centres said: “The China SmartFarm project is looking at how Chinese food production can utilise UK technologies to improve efficiency and reduce its environmental impact. We are delighted to have had the opportunity to discuss how we can build on current activities to further support sustainable food production in China.”

Dave Ross, Agri-EPI Chief Executive said: “It has been a pleasure to discuss further SmartFarm opportunities and we thank the delegation from Tianjin for their interest in Agri-EPI and the current activities in China. We have already developed exciting collaborations with several Chinese partners and are keen to build on existing relationships to extend the reach of the China SmartFarm initiative.”

Agri-EPI Centre welcomes new COO

Kirk Siderman-Wolter has joined the growing Agri-EPI team as its new COO, working to support CEO Dave Ross and taking responsibility for the operational, financial and support functions of the organisation.

He started on the 1st of December, with a vision of ensuring Agri-EPI has the infrastructure to empower world leading precision and agricultural technologies.

Kirk has an extensive career ranging from work in central government to social enterprise and innovation companies. He has worked from audit to board level in the private, public and charities sectors all round the world, and has held posts with the Ministry of Justice, BEIS, the Home Office and the Foreign & Commonwealth Office.

A Chartered Accountant, he also holds an MBA from the London Business School and is a Fellow of the Royal Society for Arts. His undergraduate degree is from the University of Guelph, Canada’s largest agricultural university.

Committed to the idea of giving something back to the community, Kirk is also a non-executive director of PTSD999, a charitable affiliated group for PTSD sufferers within the emergency services and is a governor for the Education & Training Collective (formerly Stockton & Riverside College Group).

Having worked with everything from start-ups and rapidly growing companies to large and multinational organisations, he has a strong understanding of what it takes to run a business and how to work with central, devolved and local governments; as well as socially minded organisations.

More recently he has also worked with an innovation house, supporting their growth from two functioning operational units to a site with seven highly advanced research and design facilities, bringing technology and skills with global relevance.

“I am excited to be joining this dynamic and rapidly growing organisation,” he says. “I have a vision of Agri-EPI operating as a fulcrum to bring our members and partners together with government and the investment community to create a fertile and productive environment to support agri-tech innovation in the UK.”

A word from the acting Chair Vincent Gillingham, Director AgSpace:

“I have the pleasure to congratulate Kirk on his new role as COO, I know the whole Board is wishing him a successful mission. Agri-EPI has made an excellent choice based on expertise, experience and talent.“

Bridging the gap on climate change

Japan is embracing climate-smart technologies and practices for sustainable agriculture; and Agri-EPI is now helping to advance this for global benefits. 

At Defra’s invitation, Agri-EPI’s CTO Shamal Mohammed attended an international workshop in Tokyo on scaling up these technologies in early November, where he presented several case studies on bridging the gap between science, technology and farming.  

The key case study – the Satellite Farm Network – aims to increase the use of smart technologies to help reduce greenhouse gas emissions and mitigate climate change, he says. This fits nicely with the SmartFarm concept being rolled out in China through Innovate UK – something in which the deputy director from the Ministry of Agriculture of Japan showed interest – see Agri-EPI’s China visit for more information. 

Shamal also discussed using technology to maximise productivity, with some UK studies demonstrating that 11m tonnes of carbon can be saved just by improving efficiencies.  

Linked to this is research into helping farmers understand limitations of productivity. “If soil is not in good condition and there are compaction issues, more fertiliser won’t increase productivity, but will increase emissions,” explains Shamal.  

Other case studies were presented from every delegate country, with the Canadian Living Lab proving most interesting as it put forward ideas in union with Agri-EPI’s initiative to unite science, technology and farming practice. 

Additionally, Agri-EPI shared ideas about creating a carbon market with the US Department of Agriculture, with potential for investment from private American investors. “It’s about building that market mechanism and space for trading the carbon stored in soils,” says Shamal. 

Japan G20 Workshop November 2019 Japan Shamal Mohammed

The final day of the trip involved visits to three Japanese farms of varying size and layout, Shamal explains: “It was good to see how they managed their land and cropping and what they are doing to increase productivity and store carbon.” Japanese farmers are using labelling to persuade consumers that their products are more sustainable, shifting attitudes and purchasing behaviour. 

The conference – which followed the G20 meeting in September – offered Agri-EPI the opportunity to meet and set up communication lines with individuals and organisations across the globe with similar aims. In addition, it helped to build relationships and share the SmartFarm concept – something Japan and other countries may now also be interested in establishing. 

Next year, Saudi Arabia is hosting the G20 Ministry of Agriculture Chief Scientists (MACS) meeting. Agri-EPI is looking into the possibility of getting a slot at the MACS next year.

Chinese trip opens new opportunities

Agri-EPI is making great steps in opening up new collaborations for UK businesses following a successful trip to China last month.  

Dave Ross and Lisa Williams visited Beijing and Chengdu province to explore the opportunities for developing the SmartFarm test facility and to engage with international scientists at the Global Forum of Leaders for Agricultural Science and Technology (GLAST). 

The China-UK SmartFarm Initiative in Beijing supported by Innovate UK and NERCITA – the National Engineering Research Centre for Information Technology in Agriculture – gathered its first wheat harvest this year. The aim of the project is to show how new technology and data can reduce yield variation and increase productivity throughout the supply chain, with UK agri-tech businesses well placed to deliver for Chinese producers 

Next year, Agri-EPI hopes to move the farm to a more commercial environment covering a wider commodity base, to test and trial UK technology. To help facilitate this, Dave and Lisa met with the Tianjin Municipal Commission of Agricultural and Rural Affairs and Tianjin Food Group, which has links to livestock and arable production and works across the supply chain.  

“We are hosting the Tianjin Food Group here in the UK in December to progress relationships for taking UK technology to China,” says Dave. 

Agri-EPI Centre in China Nov 2019

Further to this, they visited the China Academy of Agricultural Sciences Dairy Facility near Beijing, with a view to establishing networks and consider future projects. Watch this space. 

Another UK-China collaboration came in the form of a meeting with the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Affairs to explore the establishment of eco farms in both countries. 

Finishing the trip at GLAST, Dave represented Agri-EPI on the session ‘IT bases and smart agriculture, alongside organisations from all over the world. There were some truly thought-provoking sessions. 

Agriculture, technology and the future of farming

The challenges of a growing population

The world’s population is expected to more than double by 2050, which will consequently result in a higher demand for food.

It has therefore fallen on the agriculture sector to develop new ways of meeting this demand, without compromising on the health of livestock and crops and, essentially, the quality of food produced. But the key question here is, How do we do this?

The answer: new technology.Partnership banner Future Farm Expo Farmers Weekly

Future Farm Technology expo

Events such as the Future Farm Technology expo (FFT), in association with Farmers Weekly, are held throughout the year to highlight the advanced technology being developed for tacking these issues head on. Key industry players and SMEs that operate within the industry attend and are invited to exhibit their game changing technologies.

Soil health 

It is now known that the use of more traditional and heavy machinery, as well as intense agriculture has had a knock on effect on the health of soil and its ability to support harvests in future farming. As a result of these finding companies, such as Lettus Grow and MycoNourish have developed new ways of harvesting crops, without the need for soil.

Both companies exhibited at this year’s Future Farm Technology expo (FFT) in November – as did Agri-Tech Centres CIEL, CHAP and Agrimetrics – and showcased their innovative ‘soil free’ systems.  Lettus Grow shared their next level solution to soil-free growing: aeroponics. Aeroponics sees the plant roots suspended in air and sprayed with a fine mist of nutrient solution, which significantly reduces the amount of fertiliser and water needed and increases the growth rate of a plant due to the high gaseous exchange around the roots.

UK AgriTech Centres banner

MycoNourish take a slightly different approach that tackles those plants that do not benefit or thrive from Lettus Grow’s aeroponic approach. MycoNourish uses knowledge to produce bespoke formulations, tailored to individual plant species. They compare their research to a ‘dating agency’, which essentially pairs plants up with their ‘perfect match’, i.e. fungal partners. Why do they do this? The theory is that strong fungal networks surrounding plant roots will help mitigate against challenging environmental conditions that will essentially result in more stable yields.

Agri-EPI at the FFT

With higher demand comes higher responsibility, and with that comes precision farming – well, at least in the case of farmers it does.

Precision farming is the method in which farmers optimise inputs, such as water and fertiliser, to enhance the productivity, quality and yield of their crops. But this method is not only limited to soil and can be extended to other areas of farming, such as dairy, as Agri-EPI’s Head of Dairy Duncan Forbes explains:

“Sensor technology is being used to gather data to enable us to maximise precision in many aspects of feeding, production, health and welfare across the farm: indoors and outdoors, by satellite, and on and inside the cows. The automation of many processes within the dairy releases skilled staff to devote more of their time to cow health and welfare,”

Duncan shared his views at the FFT expo and spoke about the Agri EPI’s fully automated, 180-cow facility, the South West Dairy Development Centre (SWDDC) in Somerset. The SWDDC looks to offer a fresh vision for the UK dairy industry by providing a truly innovative environment that provides a platform to test and demonstrate new and emerging technologies that will help support future farming.

For more on the FFT expo and the other companies that attended, please visit: www.fstjournal.org.

Future Farm Expo 2019 impression

 

Boosting the uptake of Precision Agriculture in Serbia

The limited adoption of precision agriculture is causing a lag in productivity in the sector – something which Agri-EPI is trying to alter through its involvement with the DRAGON project in Serbia. 

The three-year project aims to increase the adoption of precision agriculture technologies, practices and strategies by upskilling and educating young researchers in both hard and soft skills. Funded by H2020, it’s a consortium of four partnersBioSense, a Serbian University that cross-fertilizes two most promising sectors in Serbia: ICT and agriculture, recognising that ICT today plays a pivotal role in ensuring sustainable, smart and inclusive growth of agriculture. The other partners in the project are Agri-EPI Centre, Strathclyde University and Wageningen University in The Netherlands. 

At the end of November, Agri-EPI’s CTO, Shamal Mohammed, attended a four-day training school at the BioSense Institute in Serbia, to sit on the B2B panel. He was joined by Jim Wilson at SoilEssentials, who delivered a talk on online precision farming platform KORE, and Ben Scott-Robinson at the Small Robot Company, who spoke about AI driven robotic services for farming. 

The training school has presented students with technical information about innovation in agriculture, agri-tech and applied science solutions on farm, while also demonstrating how to present and profile research. 

Through further organised trips to the Netherlands and the UK over the course of the project, it is expected that skills and expertise will be transferred to BioSense researchers. The longterm outcome of the project will help them improve their capability to communicate practical big data knowledge across the supply chain and to the non-scientific community.  

For more information about DRAGON, please visit the website: www.datadragon.eu/.