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From Guitar Hero to agrobotics - technology is writing farming's future

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What have Guitar Hero World Tour, Hot Wheels Battle Force 5 and Clash of Ninja Revolution got to do with agriculture?

More than you might think.

For the technology that has made possible the development of Wii video games, which respond to the physical actions of players, has applications in farming too, for instance in tracking the movements of dairy cattle, and promoting milk productivity.

Game theory

"The hand-held Wii, there is a gyroscope in there," says Calum Murray, ‎head of agriculture and food at Innovate UK, a UK government agency which works with the likes of universities and companies to promote technological progress.

Attach a similar gizmo to a dairy cow, and it will "help understand the behaviour" of the animal.

"If an animal is in heat or sick, you are going know, because it is behaving differently than it would normally.

"Using a gyroscope to monitor that behaviour, and telemetry to send it back to the farm, you will realise she needs attention."


And this is only one example of the kind of technological advances which could be applied to agriculture, with developments in robotics, for instance, raising the potential for "greater use of robots in the field" for arable farmers, Mr Murray says.

This apart from the likes of the precision agriculture breakthroughs promising better-targeted use of crop inputs such as fertilizers and herbicides – to the benefit of the environment as well as farm costs.

For livestock farmers, Mr Murray highlights the potential for advances in breeding technology to accelerate genetic improvement "to benefit health, welfare and productivity".

Lost years

If such possibilities are whetting farmers' appetites, well, maybe they should.

"These are exciting times to be involved," says Mr Murray, who is speaking at Agrimoney LIVE next month.

Indeed, they contrast somewhat with the conditions which marked UK farming entering the 21st century when, amid a period of continued weakness in commodity prices, the drive for innovation was running in a low gear.

"In the 25 years to 2010 or so, we just saw a level of underinvestment in the sector, in terms of the support for technology.

"We went through a period when agriculture seem to be about filling intervention stores."

And highlighting too the privatisation of the ag advisory agency, ADAS, in 1997, Mr Murray says that the "need for an state-funded extension service was perhaps not perceived as necessary".

'Coming out the other side'

But this backdrop was transformed late in the last decade, as food prices soared.

This at a time when researchers, led in the UK by chief scientist John Beddington, raised warnings of a "perfect storm" of growing demand for food spurred by growth in global population, wealth and urbanisation while climate change was threatening crop production potential.

"We now are coming out the other side," Mr Murray tells, flagging the widespread acceptance of the importance that "we need to increase agricultural productivity.

We need to make a step change in productive potential, to rebuild capability and capacity that has been lost in the 25 years leading up to 2010."

'Not a philanthropic venture'

Which is where Innovate UK comes in.

Agricultural research is in many countries is enjoying a raised profile and funding, aimed at providing the technology to avoid a food supply squeeze.

Innovate UK aimed to put the UK at the forefront of that drive, to put the limelight on promising work at universities and research institutes and link them to industrial partners, providing financial incentives to help projects fulfil their potential.

"We have invested in 350 projects so far," Mr Murray says, listing £250m invested by government in supporting the food and agriculture sectors through direct funding, and establishing four new innovation centres .

And this while being a benefit to the taxpayer too, with the expectation that every £1 spent will see a return of £7-8 "in terms of gross value add to the UK economy" as projects meet their commercial potential.

"We are not a philanthropic venture."

Global potential

Meeting that potential can take some time, with Mr Murray saying that "it might take 10 years to identify a project and take it to fruition", particularly where it has a lengthy issue such as plant or animal breeding cycles to take account of.

"In areas like precision agriculture, the outcome can come around a bit quicker."

But the stakes are high, given that the food sector overall makes "a huge contribution to the UK economy.

"There is a £100bn-110bn value add across the UK food supply chain, and agriculture underpins that supply chain," and this is before getting to the potential for taking our agricultural innovations worldwide.

"What we need to do is turn all the fantastic research around into products that can be exploited locally by our farming community, and globally too."

Calum Murray will be speaking on Agrimoney LIVE's Agri-tech Investment day. Fore more information please click here.

By Mike Verdin

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