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“As a plant breeder, what will agriculture look like in the next 50 years?”

This month we posed the question to Dr Phil Howell, Head of Breeding at NIAB.

Since joining NIAB from the commercial sector in 2007, Phil has worked on breeding and pre-breeding projects, including NIAB's flagship wheat resynthesis programme, the multi-partner WISP and DFW wheat pre-breeding initiatives, and the development of wheat MAGIC populations.

Phil is now leading and managing NIAB’s portfolio of breeding and pre-breeding work across a range of broad-acre arable crops, including cereals, legumes, speciality oilseeds and others. This is often collaborative work with industry partners from breeding companies, end-users and other parts of the supply chain. Phil’s input forms a significant part of NIAB’s work to raise the profile of domestic plant protein production through legume crops and other protein sources.

Phil believes that UK farming will see significant changes in the next 50 years, seeing "a shift from chemistry to genetics" using "new technologies such as CRISPR CAS 9". CRISPR CAS 9 edits genes by precisely cutting DNA from plants and letting natural DNA repair processes to take over, which can improve traits such as crop yield. Phil added that there could even be "redesigned crops" that are "better at photosynthesis". Currently, most conventional farms will plant one mono-crop in one area for one year. However, Phil believes there could be more "consideration of mixtures, populations and multi-cropping" in the future. With new developments coming through over the next 50 years, Phil thinks this could lead to "healthier produce" from crops that have "increased nutrient density, biofortification and higher fibre".

With the growing adoption of regenerative agricultural methods, Phil expects that UK agriculture could see "more mixed farming (livestock and arable) for better soils". More farms are adopting this method of farming compared to conventional practices, partnered with "sophisticated rotations including a greater range of crops and cultivations". This would lead to utilising "the best land for food production" and having "shortened supply chains and increased vertical integration". He believes this could be accompanied with an increase in "urban vertical farms growing high-value fresh produce", such as Barn4 member, Zero Carbon Farms, located beneath the streets of Clapham in London.

Over the past ten years, we have experienced tremendous changes in our climate, with this only predicted to become more extreme. As a result, Phil predicts there could be a "shift in the crops planted, to ensure better climate resilience" such as farmers planting "less wheat and more triticale, grain maize and durum. Less oilseed rape and faba bean and more sunflower and soybean". Furthermore, there needs to be "much less reliance on artificial fertiliser and a switch to greener manufacturing processes" which could include "using solar power to power the Haber Process {how fertiliser is currently made} and fix atmospheric nitrogen to form ammonia, instead of using fossil fuels". And lastly, not forgetting the benefits that "greater automation, robotics and precision approaches" will provide when integrated within agriculture over the coming 50 years.

Thank you, Dr Phil Howell, for your insights into what you think agriculture will look like in the next 50 years.

Key takeaways:

Takeaway #1: New crop breeding tools to assist with developing new and improved crop traits, such as drought tolerance.

Takeaway #2: Increased uptake of alternative farming methods such as regenerative agriculture, mixed farming and a move away from conventional methods.

Takeaway #3: Changes in cropping plans for better climate resilience.

If you have any thoughts about this topic or a new question, drop Barn4 an email.

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