I was delighted that once again this year BBSRC supported the Oxford Farming Conference (OFC) – the annual post New Year gathering of leaders from across the agriculture and food sector.

An early start was required on day two, as BBSRC hosted a Breakfast meeting on the potential of precision agriculture for farming in the future – exemplified in this video. This is an area of great opportunity and one that necessitates interdisciplinary working between bioscientists, engineers and technologists to find solutions. During the breakfast we heard from Malcolm Hawkesford (Rothamsted Research) about developments in field-based phenotyping and how it is revolutionising their ability to assess the linkage between genotype and traits in a field-based setting. David Ross, CE of the Agri-EPI Centre, spoke about the progress they’ve made in establishing the centre and the breadth and range of companies engaged – which was truly impressive.

BBSRC supported the ‘Soils Saviours’ session at OFC 2017, soils are, of course, key to agriculture. BBSRC has a very active portfolio of investment in soil science which has increased by 50% over the last five years and includes everything from understanding the microbiome through to whole farm analysis. During the OFC session we heard a diverse range of presentations. Jane Rickson (Cranfield University) talked about the five elements that play a pivotal role in soil health: organic matter, nutrients, water, structure, the biota and research being undertaken to model soil erosion risks. John Geraghty posseted that ‘farmers in the red cannot look after the green’, arguing that conservation agriculture, based on minimal soil disturbance, permanent soil cover and diverse crop rotations, is essential for sustainable agriculture. Wil Armitage as part of his Nuffield Scholarship examined the benefits of livestock on soil regeneration and introduced me to a new concept – that of regenerative agriculture (which appeals given my own research interests in stem cells and regenerative biology). He was passionate about the need to ensure that land management practices support soil health, especially in relation to soil microbiota, which clearly links to BBSRC strategy and research. Given that it can take 1,000 years to generate six centimetres of soil, the importance of taking action now to protect against soil degradation was brought into sharp relief – regenerative agriculture could have a real impact.

On the theme of sustainability, I was very pleased to be able to attend the launch of the latest report from the Global Food Security programme, hosted by Lord Cameron of Dillington. The report ‘Environmental tipping points and food system dynamics’ highlights the complexity of interactions between the environment and sustainable production of food. The case studies within the report – including one on a potential dust bowl in East Anglia – make for salutary reading, further highlighting the critical nature that soil health plays in the resilience of food production.

On a more ‘refreshing’ note, a tangential highlight for me at the Oxford Farming Conference was the presentation from Alison Capper on how she has worked with other British hop growers to revitalise their image. I was interested to learn that the delicate complexity of British hops owes much to monoterpene synthesis – with the ‘terroir’ impacting their levels – and that drinkers of craft beers also enjoy cycling!

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