Crop diversification can help the agricultural sector become more productive and sustainable

Posted on: 02/08/2021

A panel of experts from research, industry, government and start-ups discuss opportunities and challenges related to crop diversification.

Although many different crops are grown in the UK, arable production is dominated by just three: wheat (32% of total arable crop area), barley (32%), and oilseed rape (9%) (Agriculture in the United Kingdom, 2020). Farmers face mounting challenges on several fronts, from rising input costs to increased pest and disease pressure and restrictions in crop protection products. There is also a growing awareness of issues related to domestic food security and sustainable production. Crop diversification approaches have the potential to address some of these concerns, making them an emerging priority in the sector.

During the May 2021 meeting of the KTN Plant Sector Advisory Board, stakeholders from research, industry, government and start-ups came together to discuss opportunities and challenges related to crop diversification.

Our panel of experts shared initiatives already underway and identified developing trends and opportunities. Here are some of the highlights of our deep dive into crop diversification.

Diverse approaches to diversification

The term ‘crop diversification’ can refer to  a variety of approaches such as use of cover crops, diverse crop rotations, studies of crop wild relatives, herbal leys, intercropping, integrated livestock and crop systems, agroforestry, and novel crops. While some of these approaches are long-standing, particularly in other geographies, tailoring them for the UK context has great potential for innovation and impact. Benefits will depend on which tactics are employed, although they are almost all touted as drivers of improved soil health, biodiversity and resilience to climate change.

When asked which of the above methodologies warranted further investment and/or research activity, members of the KTN Plant Sector Advisory Board indicated that while all of the above were of interest, novel crops offer particularly exciting opportunities for industry (e.g. commercial plant breeders and agricultural seed suppliers), farmers, and academia.

Novel crops – growing quinoa in the UK

Guest speaker Dr Stephen Jones, Founder and Director of The British Quinoa Company, further enlivened the discussion around novel crops. Dr Jones described how he began producing quinoa in the UK and the “back to basics” troubleshooting involved. Even seemingly straightforward agronomy decisions (e.g. seeding rate, drill depth, use of herbicides, variety selection, etc) were a matter of trial and error. It took seven years to get from the first on-farm trials to a commercial crop, as establishing a new production system and fostering relationships with supply chain partners took considerable time and effort.

Several factors make a crop a strong candidate for UK introduction. Suitability to the UK climate is essential. Commercial concerns are also important; PSAB members noted that the possible failure to identify suitable markets or anticipate consumer demand for a new crop are critical barriers to widespread uptake of crop diversification efforts. For quinoa, its high protein content and substantial pre-existing customer demand bolster its potential for import substitution.

In discussing which other crops should be further explored in UK production systems, PSAB members broadly agreed that production of protein crops (particularly soya) is a promising trend, given the fast-growing market demand for plant-based protein in both food and animal feed.

Research perspectives

The gap between domestic protein crop production and growing demand was explored in a presentation from PSAB member Dr Richard Harrison, Director of Cambridge Crop Research at NIAB. He outlined the institute’s comprehensive strategy to address this gap, which in the short term includes enhancing varieties and increasing uptake of established UK protein crops (faba bean, pea) and improving the agronomy of UK soya varieties.

Dr Harrison also described a Defra-funded, NIAB-led project that aims to identify and appraise the potential of underutilised and novel crops that can be incorporated into UK rotations. Stakeholders will aid in developing screening criteria, and potential market opportunities will factor into evaluations. Outputs will include recommendations on which crops to prioritise, how the government can provide support, and knowledge exchange opportunities.

Dr Harrison also emphasized the importance of within-species diversity, describing plant breeding as a balance between purging undesirable characteristics and introducing beneficial traits such as nutrient use efficiency and disease resistance. NIAB’s ‘Superwheat’ research enables the introduction of genetic diversity from crop wild relatives into modern UK wheat varieties via resynthesised wheat, created by crossing durum wheat with wild goatgrass. Lines with desirable traits can then be integrated into breeding programmes.

Related opportunities

With such an inherently broad topic, there was insufficient time to fully explore all related opportunities. However, PSAB members briefly remarked on prospects for robotics and precision agriculture, non-food crops (e.g. for textiles and biocomposites), and links with soil health and carbon sequestration. Several members stressed the importance of alignment across the supply chain as well as the need for coordination between government departments.

Available support

When asked how crop diversification efforts could be boosted, PSAB members agreed that an array of initiatives are needed. Increasing funding for research and knowledge exchange schemes were identified as priority actions, and technology development and direct support for farmers were also championed. An overwhelming majority of PSAB members indicated that they would be keen to apply for grant funding relating to crop diversification. Fortunately, several opportunities are likely to arise in the coming months.

Within the Horizon Europe Work Programme, a number of initiatives within Cluster 6 (Food, Bioeconomy, Natural Resources, Agriculture and Environment) may be of interest to those looking to develop crop diversification projects.

Although details are still forthcoming, Defra’s Innovation Research & Development Scheme is set to get underway in 2022. The recent Farming Innovation Pathways competition, run together with the Transforming Food Production programme, gave some insight into the types of schemes that may be available in the coming years.

If you have an innovative idea relating to crop diversification and are seeking funding or connections, please get in touch with Kaeli Johnson, one of our plant & crop experts within the KTN AgriFood team.

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