A Conversation with...
Dr Alex McCormack, CHAP’s Scientific Support Coordinator, has been invited to present on behalf of CHAP at industry trade show, Cereals. The event offers a range of seminars for visitors to engage with, alongside the exhibition stands, live demonstrations and small-scale plot trials. Alex’s presentation, in the New Era: Markets, Diversification and Innovations Theatre, will showcase CHAP’s work within the arable sector. Here he talks about the importance of engaging with outreach activities.
I’ve worked in the agricultural sector for more than 10 years, blending practical farming experience with scientific research. During my time at Harper Adams University, where I studied for my degree and completed a PhD, I also gained hands-on farming experience working in a variety of roles on farms across the UK to gain valuable insight into applied agriculture.
My PhD looked at using DNA-based molecular tools to investigate soil-borne pathogens in oilseed rape, and examining their effect on crop development and yield. Following this I worked at the University of Warwick on Innovate UK and AHDB-sponsored projects that examined novel disease management in vegetable crops, developing diagnostics tools and looking for new biologicals and other crop protection products. I joined CHAP in September 2020 to continue advancing innovative crop protection technologies and solutions for UK agriculture, albeit during the challenges of COVID-19.
I’m a plant pathologist/nematologist primarily, but have recently found myself specialising in biopesticides and their potential to synergise with precision agriculture tools. This is an exciting area with a lot of potential growth, for example, how can diagnostic technologies improve our use of biopesticides to maximise efficacy and return on investment?
From a cropping perspective, I would say my expertise lies in broad acre crops including oilseed rape, potatoes and field vegetables. Working for CHAP means I can combine all of this knowledge within the field of agri-tech, to develop new solutions for current and future problems faced by the sector.
I think CHAP has a duty almost, to make sure that the wider industry is prepared for future changes, which is what we do and the value that we can offer. It’s about building upon current technology and knowledge to tackle today’s problems and to accelerate new solutions for use now and in the future. This can be quite challenging as agri-tech can seem like science fiction at times. However, the key is identifying where fictitious ideas such as ‘communicators’ or ‘tricorders’ can become real things like a smartphone; and this is what we do.
Alongside this, CHAP functions as an ‘honest broker’, building on an independent knowledge base within the agri-tech sector. We build connections and are a conduit to the sector, for those who might not know where to go to in the next steps of developing an important product or solution. So of course, outreach plays a crucial part in meeting the people needed to build those networks across the whole crop production landscape and beyond.
From another point of view, outreach work is important not only to showcase our provision, but also to receive feedback from those we want to connect with. CHAP is end-user focused and it is important to maintain a continuous feedback loop with stakeholders such as farmers and agronomists. If we can catch this feedback early, we can act on it quickly and speed up an effective innovation pipeline.
As well as providing an introduction to CHAP, I’ll be sharing updates from two current projects. One is looking at developing a biopesticide to control cabbage stem flea beetle in oilseed rape using an entomopathogenic fungus. The project, funded by Innovate UK, is a collaboration with CABI, Russell Bio and H&T Bioseed. The second project, SlugBot, aims to develop innovative technology to autonomously monitor slugs and to use precision application methods to apply a bio-molluscicide treatment as and when required. Again this project is consortium-based with partners The Small Robot Company and AV and N Lee. What is great about these two examples is that so many can relate to them and understand their impact. Whether that’s farmers, SMEs, agronomists or larger corporations, there will be learnings to take home for all.
The areas being explored in the seminars at Cereals are a natural fit for CHAP – a forward-focused view on topics such as sustainability, net zero, making efficiencies and applying innovation.
Together, we can work to break down barriers to improve understanding of agri-tech, and open it up to a wide audience, including the many arable farmers that attend Cereals. We want to show that the research of today is what is influencing the crop production of tomorrow, it is real and it is happening.
Of course, being able to showcase the latest innovations within agri-tech as one of the four UK Agri-Tech Innovation Centres should prove a really powerful message.