‘Prepare for another farming revolution’

Farms in the 2050s will be completely unrecognisable compared with those of today, undergoing a revolution on a similar scale to that during the 30 to 40 years following the Second World War.

This vision from David Gardner, chief executive officer of RASE, includes the introduction of nitrogen fixation in cereals probably within 20 to 30 years. More efficient photosynthesis in maize and miscanthus allowing more efficient carbohydrate production could be transferred to other crops within 30 to 40 years.

Precision farming techniques used on arable units needed to transfer to livestock production, which was about 15 years behind the arable sector in this respect. Sensors and wireless technology producing information about individual animals and on a whole herd basis, could be used a great deal more, said Mr Gardner.

An example included boluses which take an animal’s temperature constantly, allowing treatment as soon as there is a blip. “Those using these boluses say they are picking up animals sick four or five days earlier.”

Sensors for monitoring eating habits, movement and to pick up lameness could have important and exciting animal welfare benefits. “Can we use these to really understand animal stress? Where are they in the building, are they in particular groups?”

“The next great leap forward will be no cab, where a man will be monitoring the machines but not sitting on one of them.”
David Gardner, RASE chief executive

Increasingly, sophisticated robots would deliver further benefits especially in fruit and vegetable operations, including the development of a prosthetic hand to pick and turn produce. “We will have plug in prosthetic hands that can do many of the tasks that we do ourselves.”

Remotely controlled machinery such as Fendt’s drive connect system allowing one man to operate and monitor two machines, would also bring benefits. While there were insurance, health and safety and public acceptance challenges here, Mr Gardner believed the first commercial units would probably be available in 2014, followed by increasingly sophisticated systems allowing one man to control three or four tractors.

“The next great leap forward will be no cab, where a man will be monitoring the machines but not sitting on one of them.”

After that, the man might be removed altogether leaving the machines to get on with doing the work.

“There will be a good case to revisit gantry systems, with the potential to move to small gantries or three or four metres on rubber tracks.

“The technologies I’ve talked about will deliver sustainable intensification. Your challenge is to take this technology forward. It’s an exciting time to be involved in this sector – I wish I was starting out all over again.”

On the question of acceptance of GM technology, this would come with the promotion of consumer benefits such as the enhancement of the anti-cancer properties of tomatoes, said Mr Gardner.

The government understood well that agriculture’s research pipeline was badly damaged, said Mr Gardner, who was confident that agriculture would get quite a significant chunk of the £600m announced for science in the Autumn Statement and that this would be used in applied science and knowledge transfer.

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