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Four ways tech is helping plant health

Wheat field

It might not be in the news as much as coronavirus, but plant health has the potential to have a much greater impact on people’s lives than most people realise. Throughout history humans have battled with plant diseases and pests to ensure that desirable plants were kept healthy and productive.

The most famous case of plant health failure was arguably in Ireland during the 1840s when a bacterial disease caused successive failures of the Irish potato crop. The ensuing famine resulted hundreds of thousands of deaths and emigration of around 1.5 million people from Ireland to the United States and Canada.

While plant health issues today tend to be less catastrophic then the potato famine, they can still have a significant impact on food production and the environment.

A recent EU study of the plant protection industry estimated that crop yields would be 20 to 40% lower without the current plant protection products that are available to farmers.

Throughout much of the 20th century farmers have been provided with an increasing number of chemical based plant protection solutions to help keep plants healthy and strong. While these solutions have achieved a significant success in the past, increasing development costs and growing concerns about the unintended consequences of some of these products means that there is considerable pressure to identify new ways of keeping plants healthy.

Fortunately, there are multiple areas where new technologies can help farmers reduce or eliminate the volume of traditional plant protection products. Here are four ways new technologies are helping plant health:

Breeding

Humans have long used selective breeding to identify particular plants that were more productive or resistant to a particular virus or insect attack. These traditional breeding methods have been supplemented with technologies such as GMO (genetically modified organism) and more recently technologies such as Crispr cas 9 which allows humans to accelerate the process of selecting desirable traits to make healthier, more productive and disease / pest resistant plants. When global banana production was almost wiped out by ‘Panama disease’ (a fungus infection of banana plants) in the 1960s it was plant breeding that developed a new resistant variety, the Cavendish banana. Today almost all imported bananas are Cavendish.

Surveillance and early detection

As in human health, early detection of disease or other issues in plants can make solving the problem much easier and faster. Around the world, scientists and practitioners are looking to apply new and existing technologies into plant health. These technologies vary from video imaging to artificial intelligence and are used to help them detect problems early so that they can be solved quickly and well before the problem has a chance to spread and cause widespread damage. Many of these systems are linked to smart phones allowing farmers and other experts to make better decisions in the field or on the move rather than waiting to receive results from a laboratory.

Precision agriculture

Making the application of plant health products more accurate and precise is another way technology can assist reduce the amount of chemical products being used. New technologies such as precision hoeing utilising vision systems can also create non-chemical methods to achieve similar or better results.

Novel control agents / biopesticides

There are a whole range of developments based on the use of natural / living agents which are used to control specific plant pathogens and pests. The government recognises the importance of new technology to support the critical task of maintaining plant health while at the same time decreasing the impact of traditional plant protection methods on the environment. The Transforming Food Production (TFP) programme, which is part of the Industrial Strategy Challenge fund, supports projects that look to increase farm efficiency and productivity while decreasing environmental impact and helping producers move towards net zero emissions.

The TFP programme has funded a number of research projects that aim to develop and commercialise new ways of protecting plant health while lowering environmental impact of the protection methods used.

aiScope is one exciting project that seeks to develop effective and low impact methods of controlling Blackgrass in cereal crops. Blackgrass is reported to cost UK farmers over £500 million a year. The aiScope project combines practical farming expertise with big data analysis and artificial intelligence experience from IBM to identify the most effective combinations of methods for controlling blackgrass across the UK. The aim is to deliver tailored management solutions to farmers for their specific farm situation.

Spraysaver is another project that is using cutting edge technology to identify and measure airborne crop disease spores on farm. The product will combine the spore data with prediction / decision support models that will allow farmers to make better decisions about when to spray. This will lead to lower costs for the farmer without impacting yields and results in less spray impact on the environment.

Another project is looking to field test arrange of vison guided weeding systems. These weeding robots use vision guidance to selectively remove weeds from crops without the need for chemical use. The systems can be mounted on tractors for field use, or they can be deployed as autonomous weeding units in glasshouses or polytunnels.

Keeping plants healthy and productive has always been and will remain a key issue for human food security. New technologies have a key role to play in ensuring that the methods we use to keep plants healthy and productive are efficient, have a low impact on the environment and contribute to net zero emissions.

About the author

Andrew Mclay, Innovation Lead – Agriculture & Food: Andrew is Innovate UK’s livestock specialist and a team member of UK Research and Innovation’s Transforming Food Production programme – a £90 million Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund aiming to create a more sustainable and productive UK farming sector. Prior to joining Innovate UK, Andrew worked as a research and strategy consultant for Promar International – the consulting arm of Genus Plc.

Last updated: 3 November 2020

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