New technologies vital to sustainable intensification

By Erin White - 05 September 2016

New findings emerging from the Sustainable Intensification Research Platform (SIP) are providing insights into the support that farmers and their advisers need if they are to meet the challenge of simultaneously improving the economic, environmental and social outcomes from farming. This is to be discussed in a NIAB and Agri-Tech East workshop ‘Innovations for Sustainable Intensification’ on 14 September 2016 in Histon near Cambridge.

Stuart KnightStuart Knight (pictured right) is Deputy Director of NIAB and Leader of SIP Project 1, an ongoing research programme funded by Defra and the Welsh Government.

He explains that the aim is to provide practical advice for farmers by bringing together a multi-disciplinary community spanning academia, industry, environment and policy to look at the issues from many angles: “We have been evaluating a range of farm management practices, which could be adopted more widely. For arable, this includes over-winter cover crops, less intensive cultivation systems and using organic wastes as fertilisers. For livestock we have been evaluating reseeding of permanent pasture with high sugar grasses, improving grassland soils and grazing systems.

“Improving soil fertility through selection of the most appropriate cultivation technique is a good example of how yields can be improved, environmental impacts reduced and resilience to climate change increased. We are looking for these win-win scenarios and are capturing the knowledge effectively.

“The project has developed new approaches to measuring the environmental as well as the economic performance of farms, without requiring large amounts of new data to be collected. Work on the different study farms is ongoing, and has already demonstrated the potential for changed farming practices to help deliver SI. The results should provide growers and advisers with additional information and tools to help meet the challenges and make the most of the opportunities of sustainable intensification.”

Dr David Rose of the Department of Geography, at University of Cambridge is leading the team looking at the tools.  Almost half of farmers surveyed for the SIP (Sustainable Intensification Platform) Project 1 programme had used some type of decision support tool, but the review team discovered that of the hundreds of tools found, the vast majority were not widely implemented or known about. He says:

“We have evaluated paper-based, software-based, and app-based tools and found that although farmers and their advisors are prepared to use these tools, few seem to have been designed with knowledge of the end user and their requirements. 

“We are developing a checklist to help designers to improve their value. This includes for example ensuring that the benefit of using the tool outweighs the cost of implementation and it is compatible with existing equipment or software; providing a strong evidence-base to support usage; offering the ability to customise the tool to meet the requirements and practices of a particular farm and allowing ‘what if’ analysis to compare different management options. All of which would significantly improve the value of these tools.”

Wetlands farmer, Louis Baugh, is a member of the Broads Authority. He comments that the freshwater of the Norfolk and Suffolk Broads provides a socio-economic benefit both to farming and the local economy, and that technology and research that can optimise the level and timing of crop inputs will promote sustainable intensification in this vulnerable environment.

He says: “Accurate and early detection of crop pathogens will assist the timely control of  disease and minimise the use of inputs.  A good example of this is work by the Earlham Institute to develop infield micro computers for the detection and identification of yellow rust in wheat which gives an insight into how this disease can be controlled in future.”

“Another interesting technology is the use of GPS and drone technology for the production of soil and yield maps.  The Broadlands Catchment Partnership has used LiDAR data within a geographic information system to map field slopes and watercourses and this has created a useful web-based tool for farmers. It helps them to identify high risk sites that are likely to contribute diffuse pollution.  This information can be used to inform management practices in that part of the field.

Belinda ClarkeDr Belinda Clarke (pictured left), Director of Agri-Tech East says: “Sustainable intensification provides a significant market opportunity for technology developers, but the tools must be appropriate for use in a complex environment. Through this workshop we are aiming to provide an overview of the challenges, the technology that is currently available and the requirements for new tools. Farmers and growers will also benefit from early sight of findings coming out of the trial farms.  By bringing all parties together we aim to accelerate developments in this crucial area.

Stuart Knight, David Rose and Louis Baugh will be speaking at the Sophi Taylor Building at NIAB’s Park Farm in Cambridge on 14 September. For more information visit


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