As Master of Cripplegate Ward Club I recently led a visit to Rothamsted Research near my home in Harpenden, Herts. Rothamsted Research is the oldest agricultural research station in the world. Our group enjoyed a fascinating and informative talk given by James Clarke, Head of Communications. His illustrated talk opened with a stark warning that in the next 50 years we need to produce as much food as has been consumed over our entire human history. Currently we waste one third of food in the developed world and in the undeveloped world there is a huge problem of food waste through rotting. Never ceasing desire for agricultural land has led to the destruction of much of the environment through deforestation and draining marshes. In the UK, despite this food waste, two thirds of men and six in 10 women are overweight. One third of British farms are no longer commercially viable through pressure on land use, climate change and overuse of farm chemicals. The average age of farmers in UK is now in the 50s as it seems to be an unattractive way of life for the younger generation.
Rothamsted was founded by Sir John Bennett Lawes who made his money from rendering bones. His company, Lawes Chemical Manure Company Ltd was based in the heart of the City at 59 Mark Lane, London. He lived with his mother at Rothamsted Manor where she despaired of him when he turned his bedroom into a laboratory carrying out research into the first patented inorganic fertiliser.
Together with Joseph Henry Gilbert, a chemist, as his scientific collaborator he planted the first of what would become the classical Rothamsted long-term experiments on Broadbalk field. It is the longest continuous agronomic experiment in the world. The field is divided into strips of land which are treated differently with various combinations of inorganic fertilisers and organic manures. A control strip has received no fertiliser or manure since the start in 1843. The station holds samples of soil which can be analysed with a record dating back to 1843 from which one can see the effects of pollution, radiation from nuclear explosions and even world wars, etc. This sample record is unparalleled anywhere in the world. The scientific partnership between Lawes and Gilbert lasted 57 years, and together they laid the foundations of modern scientific agriculture and established the principles of crop nutrition.
Rothamsted is looking at crops, sustainable farm business, data driven agriculture and net zero farming. It is trying to stop people working against nature and instead persuade them to work with nature. Neonicotinoids can affect bees’ ability to signal dance location and particularly affects their memories. Use of them in flowering plants is worrying but their use on non-flowering crops such as wheat and sugar beet (if harvested before it flowers) should not cause a problem. In fact, there have been instances where the use of neonicotinoids has not affected the bees and yet elsewhere it does seem to have a deleterious effect. Hive bees are not “natural” and if the hives are allowed to grow too large their presence can affect local pollinators.
Wheat generally grown today is much shorter than it was in our youth. That means less energy is wasted growing the stem, it is sturdier and less likely to be damaged by the wind and produces high yields.
We also learned about the National Willow Collection that is maintained at Rothamsted. It was originally grown for making baskets which were essential for carrying things before the advent of plastic bags and containers, and, of course, there was some far smaller quantities for cricket bats. We were astounded to learn that there are approximately 100 species of willow. It is now often grown as a biofuel and may in the future be used to create drugs for use in treating cancer.
Without chemical pesticides we would lose 40% of crops, however chemical pesticides are expensive to use. There is now a 3- way approach to this problem
Surveillance. If you can keep a very close “eye” on crops by regularly monitoring through the use of drones you can quickly identify specific areas of concern and treat that specific part of the crop without necessarily spraying/treating the rest of the crop thus saving money and chemicals.
Biological control – push/pull. In this approach plants or preferably pheromones are used to attract beneficial insects and others to deter unwanted pests.
Combating resistance. Following the dreadful aphid problem on sugar beet last year the government allowed the use of neonicotinoids on sugar beet this year but with exhaustive monitoring it was found that aphids were not causing such a problem this year, so neonicotinoids were not needed.
Rothamsted Research ranges over many areas. One project that looks highly promising is the creation of a high-fibre wheat flour for making white bread that will be both tasty and more nutritious.
Research is going on into growing fish oils on land. At present one-third of fish caught is not eaten by humans, but much is used for fertiliser or processed into food for fish farms. Professor Jonathan Napier is looking into a sustainable source of fish oils in genetically modified (GM) plants by using marine micro algae isolating the DNA into GM plants. Despite all the scaremongering by ill-informed newspapers about GM foods we were assured that there have been no indications of any problems anywhere caused by them. For example, Golden rice (a GM product) helps provide Vitamin A in developing countries.
Data are proving more and more important to farming. There are computers that watch the grass grow showing what affects the growth when leaves appear etc and this provides extremely valuable information. There are now computerised solar power weeding devices. In the future there will probably be crops that are planted, weeded and harvested completely by computers and trials are already in progress.
After this fascinating talk we all enjoyed a walk in glorious sunshine around part of the grounds to see the field phenotyping platform (an automated method of measuring crop growth). We saw the beautiful Rothamsted Manor and our host opened the gate specially so that we could go into the garden and see a series of panels introducing some of the PhD students working at Rothamsted. We just had time to view the original Broadbalk experiment before taking a short walk to a very welcome lunch in the Harpenden Arms Hotel.
(I’m indebted to one member of the group, Joan Crichton, whose notes provided much of the content of this blog.)