Engineering innovation is a must for modern life – and the same goes for sustainable intensification, says Bill Day.

Bill Day

For agriculture, biological innovation will be of fundamental importance, but does not deliver in isolation. In the gap between Gregor Mendel and the frozen pea, many engineering advances have contributed to the realisation of a staple, high quality food.

So, escaping from damp and dismal England to the sunny climes of Valencia for the Agricultural Engineering International Conference gave every opportunity to feel warm about the future.

The message was clear: that new science and innovation are providing the tools for a new revolution in agriculture.

The 1,100 delegates came from all over the world, from big industry to small technology businesses, developing countries and every developed nation. And of course they were as hard working as everyone in agriculture – no lounging around on the beaches while there was good science to be heard and discussed.

It was not about big machines, but rather how optimal use of tools and systems, including automation but also minimal intervention, could be better for productivity or the environment … or both! For example, how can we harvest fruit with a robotic system that senses directly which fruits are optimally ripe? Can mobile telephony provide shortcuts to new information systems in developing countries? Could fluid dynamics models help improve productivity and animal welfare in livestock housing? And how can we maximise the efficiency of biomass systems and get the best energy replacement for fossil fuels?

Force for good

The Foresight report on ‘The Future of Food and Farming (PDF)’ identified the importance of cross- disciplinary research in food production if we are to increase outputs in conjunction with improving sustainability and maintaining ecosystem services.

The term ‘sustainable intensification’ may be open to a variety of interpretations (discussed and commented upon in this post), but it does sum up the problems the world faces in addressing supply and demand when the whole system is constrained. There is little new land; farming systems can damage soils; climate change makes these risks greater; and intensification of agriculture can reduce biodiversity, and affect the wider environment. Unless we work together to optimise processes and address sustainability, food production and the environment will be in further conflict.

In the UK, engineering has always been a major scientific strength – even if our manufacturing eminence has dimmed recently. The professional society for engineers in agriculture and environment areas, IAgrE, has published a report (PDF) highlighting how the UK’s strategy for global food security needs to take positive steps to engage with engineering.

The opportunity comes not just from agricultural engineering itself, dealing with real time, real world problems, but also from other engineering disciplines whose innovations and new insights can be translated to the advantage of food production and environmental conservation.

The IAgrE report emphasises the need for a cross community response. Engineers need to work together and communicate the value of their science for food production. Key stakeholders must be informed about the importance of education and training. The engineering research community should be able to access funds for novel projects through an appropriate competitive route. And translation into practice should be a positive part of the response, exposing innovation in science to entrepreneurs and businesses.

As the editor of an international research journal in this area, I can see the dynamic changes in the subject and the new opportunities for strong science. I hear that the Global Food Security programme has recognised the potential for engineering to play a role in sustainable intensification, and will be hosting a workshop in the autumn.

Let’s see the UK engineering community grasping this opportunity to identify and promote the potential solutions to global food security challenges that physical science research can offer.

About Bill Day

Bill Day is a consultant in agricultural engineering research and is Editor-in-Chief of the international journal Biosystems Engineering. He recently helped IAgrE draft their report ‘Agricultural Engineering: a key discipline enabling agriculture to deliver global food security’ referred to above. He worked at Rothamsted Research and Silsoe on agricultural research from 1974 to 2006.

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