6 innovations that transformed arable farming

Britain’s arable farmers have embraced many changes over the last 40 years resulting in big increases in crop productivity, especially in the 1970s which saw numerous ground-breaking innovations in crop protection.

These developments range from the routine adoption of tramlines in fields, the launch of ground-breaking pesticides like glyphosate as well as the first commercially available self-propelled sprayer.

All these innovations, plus many more, have been covered over the years by Farmer Weekly. Here are our six key picks from the arable sector.

1975 – Self-propelled sprayers

Early self-propelled sprayer

Early self-propelled sprayer

The world’s first self-propelled sprayer was invented back in 1947 by US farmer Ray Hagie.

But it wasn’t until the 1970s that self-propelled models were commercially available here in the UK, offering high-capacity spraying.

See also: Machinery milestones that changed farming

Sands Agricultural Machinery was the first to launch a self-propelled forward control crop sprayer in 1975.

Based on a David Brown tractor, the sprayer had a 2,000-litre tank capacity and 18m booms.

1976 – Triazole fungicides

fungicide spraying

© Tim Scrivener

Triazole fungicides form the backbone of wheat fungicide programmes on many farms today due to their broad spectrum of disease control against septoria, rusts and fusarium.

They are also invaluable in managing costly diseases in other crops and have become the largest class of fungicides, accounting for about 30% of global fungicide sales.

It started back in 1976, when Bayer launched Bayleton (triadimefon). Good on mildew, rusts and septoria, the fungicide led to large yield increases and was the start of routine fungicide programmes.

In the years since, many azoles followed and BASF is to launch a new azole in 2019.

2001 – Voluntary Initiative

voluntary initiative

© Tim Scrivener

The most scrutinised part of arable farming is pesticide use and arguably has been since the publication of Silent Spring in 1962, which lifted the lid on the impact of DDT in wildlife.

Since then the spotlight on chemical use has rarely wavered and decade-by-decade the number of chemicals has declined and legislation increased.

However, when in the late 1990s the Blair government proposed a pesticide tax, the industry (including support from Farmers Weekly), rallied round to put together a set of proposals to beef up self-regulation.

This resulted in the creation of the Voluntary Initiative, which continues to exist to this day, funded by both farmers and the chemical industry.

It plays an important role in maintaining the professional status of sprayer operators by ensuring that they are kept up to date with rule changes and their sprayers are regularly tested.

1996 – GM crops

GM crops

© Ray Tang/ Rex/ Shutterstock

Despite only coming into existence in 1996, genetically modified (GM) cropping covered 185m hectares of the world’s farmland in 2017.

The four main crops grown are maize, oilseed rape, soya and cotton, but although GM produce can be imported into the UK, no crops are allowed to be grown here due to widespread public opposition.

However, a Populus poll conducted in the UK in 2016 showed that two-thirds of respondents said that they would support GM food so long as it did not harm public health or the environment

1980s – Oilseed rape

oilseed rape

© Tim Scrivener

Oilseed rape became a major break crop in the UK in the 1970s for the first time thanks to Canada.

The toxic level of erucic acid present in rapeseed, which limited its use in the human food industry, became a focus for the country as it started a major push towards greater self-sufficiency after the Second World War.

In 1968 came the first low erucic acid cultivar, reducing the acid content from 40% to 10%. In the 1970s, breeders pushed this further to 5%.

In 1974 Canada introduced the first double low, or double zero cultivar, which was low in both erucic acid and glucosinolates, another toxic component.

As a result of the huge market which sprung up in North America, British farmers – newly part of the European Economic Community as of 1973 – qualified for huge subsidies for growing double zero oilseed rape, turning it into a valuable cash crop.

Unsurprising the crop area soared from just 13,300ha in the 1970s to 91,600ha in the 1980s. By 1990, it had almost quadrupled again to 342,800ha.

1974 – Glyphosate


© Tim Scrivener

When chemist John Franz started work with Dr Phil Hamm, head of Monsanto’s herbicide screening programme in 1970, it is unlikely he was aware that he was about to develop arguably one of the most important tools in modern farming.

The two compounds that were submitted to him from another part of the company were initially studied as water softeners, but from them Mr Franz produced glyphosate.

Glyphosate’s unique selling point of decomposing into natural products — carbon dioxide, phosphoric acid, and ammonia, made it safe for both wildlife and humans and has ultimately led to it becoming the most widely used herbicide in the world.

Despite this, the future of this most important farming tool hangs in the balance, as the battle between politics and science continues over its safety.