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New technology has been the lifeblood of British farming, a steady stream of advances boosting productivity year in, year out.

But will it continue?

Innovation expert Karl Schneider, former executive editor of New Scientist and editor of Computer Weekly, is well positioned to comment.

“Make no mistake, the pace of technical innovation is set to accelerate and farming stands every chance of reaping the full benefits.

Even if it can’t invest so heavily in research, it will reap huge spin-off benefits from work in other sectors.”

The challenge is to guess which innovations will take off.

“We probably haven’t even imagined what half the innovations will be, and among those we can imagine, half probably won’t come to fruition.

And it is anyone’s guess which half those will be.”

Personal computers are a case in point.

“In 1943 IBM said the total world demand for computers would be just five; in 1977 Digital Equipment saw no reason why consumers would want their own PCs.

With almost every family in Britain now owning a PC, it is clear how wrong predictions can be.”

So which technologies catch Mr Schneider’s eye?

“There is no doubt communications will be transformed.

Transistor technology will allow mobile phones to routinely transmit high quality, full colour motion pictures and possibly 3D holograms by 2020.”

That will speed disease diagnosis in livestock and crops alike, with satellite and radio broadband ensuring super-fast, high quality internet use no matter how remote the location.

Access to computers could also be considerably simpler.

“Forget keyboards and monitor screens, gestures and words will be enough to operate a computer and the equipment it controls, just like shepherds instruct their sheepdogs with words and gestures.”

Combined with high quality imaging that could finally make driverless tractors a reality, he forecasts.

Buying and selling could also be transformed.

Why attend an auction when every aspect of an animal or machine could be seen with total clarity without leaving the farm office?

“Farmers might say half the appeal of an auction is keeping in touch with other producers, but on-line communications will allow them to see and talk to each other, with the internet even tracing farmers with similar problems, because they have been looking at similar topics on the internet.”

That could really speed the flow of information and skills within the industry.

Computerised traceability, so consumers can check the supply chain for the food they buy, is already arriving in supermarkets, thanks to radio frequency identification tags.

In future it could apply to every product leaving the farm, helping justify premiums where consumer demands are fully met.

Less certain is the application of nano-technologies.

“Nano-robots, working at the microscopic level, are no longer science fiction.

We know how to make electronic circuits this small and it isn’t such a huge leap to creating the tiny mechanical components to make them function.”

Could that mean farmers spraying capillary-crawling nanobots on to crops and animals to combat disease?

“It’s feasible.

The micro-accelerometers that trigger car air bags already use the sort of technology on which such nanobots could be built.”

And new technologies could provide totally new solutions to age-old problems.

Not convinced?

“How about virtual reality headsets to solve welfare issues in intensive livestock?

It’s not that fanciful.

Virtual reality could provide stimuli so cows think they are having a better time than they are.”

A better understanding of which the parts of the brain control pain and stress could be used to selectively breed or genetically engineer animals that do not get stressed by modern farming techniques.

“Ethical and moral issues need addressing, but the cow that looks forward to its own death is not impossible,” Mr Schneider suggests.

Animals could also be used to produce chemicals, drugs and even spare parts for humans.

“Someone will have to look after all those animals, and UK farming, with its high management standards is very well placed.”

But Mr Schneider gives a health check.

“The trick is to spot which predictions are likely to come to fruition, and economic, social and ethical considerations will all have an impact.

“Think about the pressures and barriers in the industry today.

If technology can help solve those, how good would that be?

If there is a genuine need, then innovation will happen,” he concludes.

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