Open Innovation: The answer to global farming challenges?

Global and British farmers face significant challenges in the years ahead, but a new approach to providing innovative solutions could be just the answer the industry needs.

By bringing together key players from across the supply chain; from muddy boots farmers to cutting-edge scientists and manufacturers, the Rothamsted Open Innovation Forum aims to speed up practical answers to the big questions. And unlike other conferences, it will follow the ideas through, working with a range of research partners to put the solutions in place to the benefit of the whole industry.

“Open Innovation has many proven successes in other sectors, and we want to bring this approach to the field of food and farming,” says Chris Dunkley, chief executive of the Rothamsted Centre for Research and Enterprise. “Rather than innovation within a single organisation, it allows us to bring in collaborative partners at an early stage, accelerating the progression we’re able to bring about.”

Mr Dunkley is encouraging everyone in the industry to join the ROIF’s Online Blackboard, to share their most pressing concerns ahead of the three-day conference. Held from 18-20 January 2017, the conference will discuss the challenges identified, and partners will then form workshops to take potential solutions forward on the ground. There will also be a White Paper to record existing best practice and areas of collaboration, with ongoing research projects feeding into the 2018 annual event.

So what kind of challenges is the forum likely to address? “While we have no set agenda, themes will include soil health, new techniques and connected technology,” says Professor Achim Dobermann, CEO and director of Rothamsted Research. “Soil health is a major issue globally, and something that one of our partners – the BM Gates Foundation – is taking forward in Africa.”

Saskia Heijnen, portfolio lead on Our Planet, Our Health at the Wellcome Trust, which is partnering the event, says the key is finding a sustainable balance between global food systems and environmental health. Natural systems that we rely on – from clean air to fresh water, biodiversity to a stable climate – are under threat,” she says. “As researchers discover more links between our health and the environment, we become better equipped to come up with ways to reduce these threats. There are already opportunities for change, but more research and action is needed.”

New techniques and technologies are emerging all the time; many from farmers themselves. “It is paramount to stimulate the uptake of new approaches in the agricultural world,” says Dr Adrian Percy, head of R&D at Bayer. “The Open Innovation Forum involves all the aspects of the food chain and will lead to concrete multi-partner projects aimed at speeding up the innovation uptake by the entire agricultural community.”

Improved wireless broadband and phone connectivity also offers tremendous opportunities, says Prof Dobermann. “Farmers are generating so much data now, but getting it off the farm and compiling it in an accessible format to influence decision-making is the vital next step.”

With only three months left to go before this cutting edge conference, farmers and others throughout the industry should get online and help to shape the future of their sector, he adds. “We already have some extremely strong partners working towards a sustainable and healthy agri-food sector; now we want to hear from those on the ground so we can put some practical resolutions in place.”

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