New technology which makes growing crops easier and more predictable may help stem the tide of farmers leaving the industry, an East Anglian conference heard this week.

REAP 2023 - an agri-tech event which took place at Rowley Mile, Newmarket - brought together farmers, scientists and agricultural experts from across the region to discuss how the industry must adapt to a variety of new realities.

It included a showcase of agri-tech - some of which has been developed in Norfolk - such as Resurrect Bio, which uses plants' natural defences to make them stronger, and PlentySense - a John Innes Centre spinout which monitors nitrogen in soils.

Among the challenges farmers face are volatile weather, climate change - and the need to grow food in a sustainable way using fewer resources. At the same time, farmers need to mitigate any environmental impacts.

David Exwood, vice president of the National Farmers Union (NFU), gave a sense of the kind of stresses that farmers are under in his keynote speech.

Over the last three weeks his own farm had to cope with 220mm of rainfall - a third of his average annual amount.

Eastern Daily Press: "We see it every year now  - these extremes of weather," he said.

Coping with such tough conditions - plus huge market volatility - was "an absolute challenge" and farmers were voting with their feet, he told delegates at the event which was organised by Agri-TechE.

"We are losing farmers. People are looking at these challenges - the risks and volatility - and walking away, " he said. "We can't allow that to happen."

The EU has lost 25% of its farmers in 10 years - or 1m total, he pointed out.

And in the UK there are 7,000 fewer Agricultural Registered Businesses today than there were in 2019 - taking numbers from 149,500 then to 142,500 now, figures provided by the NFU show.

"We see it every year now - these extremes of weather," he said.

However, his 28-year-old son - who farms with him - was using new technology particularly through his mobile phone to help him cope with these challenges.

He himself was also using his phone in order to monitor the farm and its crops and found such advances invaluable, he told the audience.

He hopes that the UK will be the site of a green ammonia plant producing the nutrients farmers need with less environmental impact. "There will be only a few green ammonia plants in Europe and one of them should be here in the UK," he said.

Dr Belinda Clarke, director of event organiser Agri-TechE, echoed Mr Exwood's warning to delegates that farms needed to embrace technology in order to survive.

“Extreme events over recent years have brought the recognition that if you want to stay in business, you need to be open to change," she said.

REAP ran a Start-Up Showcase showcasing companies which are addressing real-world problems for farmers.

Eastern Daily Press: Dr Clarke said it was noticeable this year that farmers are working closely with innovators to co-develop farm-ready technologies.

“The rising cost of labour and inputs based on fossil fuels are driving innovations that will reshape the sector,” she predicted.

This year's joint keynote speaker was Professor Gideon Henderson, Chief Scientific Adviser for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA).

He set out the challenge for farmers of growing more food for a rapidly-growing world population now standing at 8bn people, each needing 2,000 calories a day each.

In the past, feeding a growing population had been achieved by increasing the amount of land farmed - but with half of all habitable land now devoted to food production this was no longer a viable model, he said.

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Now growers were reliant on the production of nutrients to grow more on the same amount of land - and on genetic improvements. Genetic improvements and nutrients would be key to meeting the challenge, he suggested.

Gene editing, which has been embraced by Parliament, would be one of the ways this would be achieved - and could also be harnessed to help tackle the environmental problems caused by farming.

Agriculture was the single biggest cause of biodiversity loss, he pointed out, and there was also the problem of a changing climate.

"We have got this substantive challenge now," he said. "We need to stop emitting greenhouse gases while still producing enough food."

Eastern Daily Press:

While overall the UK was cutting its carbon emissions, agriculture's carbon footprint hadn't gone down at the same rate as other sectors, which meant it was now producing 10% of UK emissions. "That percentage will grow as other sectors reduce," he said.

Tree-planting and restoring peatland would help, as would other measures including growing biomass crops such as miscanthus. There was also a habitat restoration target to create or restore half a million hectares of land to wildlife sites.

"If we are going to grow the same amount of food in this country but have less land to grow on we have to increase productivity," he said.

But he was "tremendously excited" about the possibilities presented by gene editing through the Precision Breeding Act - particularly the environmental benefits, he said.

"It's a major step in unlocking growth," he said. The UK also needed to look at new crop varieties such as seaweed - as well as new means of growing crops such as aeroponics and hydroponics, he suggested.

Eastern Daily Press: "There are 7,000 edible plant varieties and as humans we only consume about 400 of them," he pointed out.

Grants were available to help. One key area would be improved measurement and monitoring to provide the data to drive improvements to soil and plant health, he said

“The second call for the Defra-UKRI Innovation in Environmental Monitoring Programme is planned for this winter and will be a business-led opportunity to support the development of new sensing systems and monitoring capabilities.

“As the science and technologies presented at REAP today have shown, there is a wealth of innovation in agri-tech.

Eastern Daily Press:

"This funding opportunity from DEFRA and Innovate UK, which looks to improve monitoring of biodiversity, greenhouse gas emissions, soil health, and water quality across sectors, will help to catalyse the co-development of the farm-ready solutions that are so urgently needed.”

As regenerative agriculture moves to the fore, REAP featured input from Peter Illman, sustainable agriculture manager for supermarket giant Tesco, Barbara Correia of B-Hive Innovations, and Andy Griffiths, head of sustainable procurement for drinks giant Diageo.

These explained how collaborations in the agri-food sector were driving innovation to enable food production while cutting environmental impacts.

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Mr Exwood said: “We are starting to turn a corner where we are part of the solution.

"For example, precision livestock production will enable us to improve the consistency of the delivered product while reducing waste in the system.

"There is also potential to create a by-product to replace inorganic fertilisers and generate a biofuel.”