Fifteen years from now clever crops and robots will fill fields that were once home to mad cows and angry Greens. Steve Farrar peers into the future
Early morning at Tomlin's Farm in Suffolk. Bill Spall sits in his office and looks out over fields his family has farmed for centuries. He makes a good living here, though it has not always been easy. Tomlin's farm survived the many traumas that UK agriculture has overcome in recent years, not least the great slump of the late 1990s.
Then a younger and angrier Spall stood up and bellowed his frustrations during National Farmers' Union meetings. Today he is both happier and wealthier. It is 2015 and the face of UK agriculture has been transformed.
Spall's day begins in his office. He logs on to his computer and is confronted by an array of information. The latest agricultural market figures and regulatory news jumps onto the screen, fed to him via the internet alongside bulletins and emails from his customers, including supermarkets, pharmaceutical companies and chemical firms. Spall has become expert in understanding the foibles of this vibrant market and is sure he is on top of things with his business plan.
To the real job of farming: he starts by downloading weather forecasts. No matter how sophisticated his farm gets, the wrong weather at the wrong moment can wreck everything, and it is vital to be forewarned if trouble is on its way. He then switches his attentions to what is growing in his fields and to the various indicators he has to reveal how his different crops are faring. There is the sugar beet. Genetically modified to make it herbicide-tolerant, pest and disease-resistant, it is a more vibrant crop than it was in the pre-GM days. And the latest varieties have been altered to make the non-fattening sugars demanded by the health-conscious modern consumer. Then there is the wheat. Gone, too, are the days when British wheat was fit only for biscuits and animal-feed. To compete in the world market, high-quality varieties, tailor-made through advanced breeding techniques, are grown for specialist foods. Spall is also considering hosting a trial of a new vegetable crop that produces cholesterol-lowering oil.
Colin Merrit, Monsanto biotechnology development manager: "You are going to see only the first wave of GM-crops such as sugar beet coming through by 2015 and there may also be improved quality wheats. UK farmers will also start to look at specialist crops that have a high value to the consumer."
Industrial crops are an important part of Spall's portfolio. The bright yellow fields of rape familiar for many years are still here, but there are several varieties in these fields, each designed to produce a specific oil needed by industry. Spall is also growing a crop genetically modified to carry a gene found in mussels, allowing the plant to produce a key protein used to make a waterproof glue for surgeons, doctors and dentists to bond living tissue, bones and teeth.
Dianna Bowles, professor of biochemistry, University of York: "By 2015, we will see industrial non-food crops grown widely in the UK. Plants offer a cheap and sustainable system of manufacturing important products."
Spall also receives a state subsidy to preserve the small, hedgerow-bound fields at the north end of his land, and he now lets wild flowers flourish in other areas on the edges of certain plots, which as a result harbour a wide diversity of life. He has become used to the public walking through these parts of his land - it is all part and parcel of being a modern farmer, getting paid to protect the natural environment. His cousin, who farms in Herefordshire, is content to live off the aesthetic value of his land.
As productivity levels have risen, farms have divided into two camps, with large-scale operations like Spall's using an array of technology to gain the maximum profit from huge fields, but also many small outfits where part-timers grow organic crops and other niche-market products.
Despite the size of Spall's farm, however, even he has to maintain a variety of different high-value crops. Such diversity is vital - consumers demand a broad range of products. Anxieties over GM-products have evaporated as the much anticipated health scares failed to materialise, people are increasingly fussy about what they eat. This includes scrutinising the levels of pesticide residues on a food crop and the additives subsequently used in the product.
John McInerney, professor of the agriculture economics unit, Exeter University: "Agricultural production is entering a very new world. In the UK, we have become an entirely food-secure society. While in the past, agriculture has been driven by new technology and agricultural policy, now consumer demands will shape what happens. Improvements in productivity mean that by 2015, we will need one-sixth less resources to produce the food we produce today."
To keep costs to a minimum, Spall has to be sure he is getting the best yield and is a strong advocate of precision farming.
His fields are constantly monitored. Remote viewing satellites watch the colour of his fields, picking up any unhealthy changes and pinpointing possible problems. Buried sensors keep an eye on water and nutrient levels in the soil. In several of his fields, Spall is trying out sentinel plants, which have been genetically modified to raise the alarm if they become stressed through lack of nutrients, disease or pests well before such problems become manifest in the crops' appearance. Ultraviolet light has to be shone onto the leaves of these plants with a handheld scanner and the colour of the light they emit corresponds to a specific problem faced by the whole crop.
One of Spall's friends is trialling a more advanced version of the technology being developed by an agricultural laboratory, which periodically monitors the fluorescence with devices embedded in the sentinel's leaves and then signals the farmer's computer if there are any difficulties.
Tony Trewavas, professor of applied biochemistry at the University of Edinburgh: "It's one thing to monitor the soil, but the best information will come if you can 'ask' the plant what it is feeling. For example, potatoes are very dependent on having large amounts of water, but if you water them all the time, a lot of that is wasted. Having a sentinel plant that can alert you when it is beginning to need more water will allow you to water only at the right time."
All this information gets fed back to Spall's office, where he can decide what action to take. The rape in the north end of his most easterly field is indicating it is nitrate deficient, though he is wondering if the sensor is too sensitive - he has already instructed the field robot to make sure that area gets the required nutrient. A patch of wheat is showing signs of aphid infestation. Spall scans through a database of pest data and then keys in his solution.
Despite the crop's heightened resistance to such pests, another robot is dispatched to the infected area, guided by the Global Positioning System, with a precise quantity of the appropriate pesticide to deal with the problem before it causes any damage. Spall decides to check on that too, just to be doubly sure. Tackling problems in this precise way, while costing more in detection and robot technology, saves a fortune in indiscriminate and frequent spraying of pesticides and herbicides. Not only is it cheaper, it also protects the environment and keeps Spall from falling foul of the strict "green" legislation.
John Stafford, of Silsoe Solutions and formerly of the Silsoe Research Institute:
"The concept of precision agriculture must come in by 2015 because the farmer will need to do things in a much more precise way. He will have much better information from satellites and field sensors on how his crops are growing, down to variation within a single field, so he can take corrective action."
Soon it will be time for Spall to start harvesting, a complex task on a diverse farm. Variability within a field will mean the crop in some areas will be more advanced or of better quality than in others. The harvester has to sense this and sort the produce automatically into different holding tanks to meet distinct market requirements.
While the lightweight field robots can be allowed to range over the land, harvesters are simply too large to be left to their own devices. Human operators are needed to control such dangerous pieces of machinery.
But while the capital investment in such technology is high, they give Spall's business an edge in a very competitive market. He ends his day checking the market once more. Staring at the computer screen as he prepares for bed, he wonders how people managed to keep a farm running smoothly without access to all the information and technology he enjoys.