Agrisciences visit to Rothamsted Research

3 Aug 2015

A good turn-out of Agrisciences Group and other SCI members enjoyed an afternoon visit in mid-July to Rothamsted Research in Harpenden.  The world’s oldest agricultural research station is clearly adapting to meet future challenges facing farmers.  Prof John Pickett welcomed us with a robust account of possible reasons why the encouraging laboratory results with GM wheat expressing an aphid alarm pheromone were not translated to the field and outlined ongoing research directed towards overcoming the problems.

The programme also provided an opportunity for our chairman, Alan Baylis, to describe to some 25 Rothamsted staff the various activities of the Agrisciences Group and SCI in general.  Hopefully, the interest expressed through a variety of questions will result in some new members.

Our host, Dr Bianca Forte, gave an update on Rothamsted’s five year science strategy, which focuses largely on fundamental areas of research.  These include increasing UK potential wheat yield to 20 tonnes per hectare, optimising carbon capture by crops, improving nutrition and crop health, and modelling sustainable agricultural systems that increase productivity whilst minimising environmental impact.  A new strategy from 2017 is likely to signal a change to more applied projects related to problems faced by growers.  Indeed, this is already happening through a renewed emphasis on weed biology and black grass control.

We then moved outside with an hour long visit to two field experiments.  We learnt how the long-term Broadbalk wheat experiment, begun 150 years ago, kept in-line with current practice through variety changes, split nitrogen applications and herbicide use.  The effects of different nitrogen fertilizer rates on Broadbalk plots are very obvious in the image.  Certainly more up to date, was the current trial with Camelina, genetically engineered to express in its seeds omega-3-fatty acids.  Camelina fits well into UK cropping systems and will provide a much needed source of these fatty acids, especially for the farmed fish industry.  There was a potent reminder of the undesirable consequence of this work through the 3m high fencing around the 2 hectare site, and the presence of a security guard and dogs.

The Lawes Innovation Hub provides laboratory and office space for small companies to take advantage of facilities at Rothamsted.   Dr David Evans (an Agrisciences committee member), described Plant Impact, a company dedicated to enhancing crop performance.  A second much smaller start-up company, ApresLabs, run by Dr Graham Moores, is involved with the biochemistry behind synergists used to combat insecticide resistance.

Two new buildings dominate part of the Rothamsted campus.  A greatly enlarged conference centre aims to attract International Agri-Tech conferences, whilst The Centre for Research and Enterprise (RoCRE) building reflects a new concept in encouraging on-site collaboration and innovation involving both Rothamsted and Agri-tech companies. The CEO, Dr Chris Dunkle, gave us a preview of the building which was to be opened two days later, and which contains state of the art laboratory, offices and IT facilities.

The visit ended with a tour of the glasshouse and growth room facilities so essential for fundamental plant science and crop production research.

Derek Hollomon,
Agrisciences Group

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