Wednesday, 25 March 2015

CROPROTECT: web-based knowledge exchange for crop protection

CROPROTECT is an ambitious new project which plans to revolutionise knowledge exchange for crop protection by making use of 21st century web-based technologies which mean that practical information about crop protection can be shared and exchanged very easily. It is developing and providing a two-way web-based free knowledge exchange resource through which farmers and agronomists can get specific information relevant to their needs. In this blog Toby Bruce from Rothamsted Research, who is the contact for the project, explains what it aims to achieve and how it will develop.


Farmers face a continuous battle against pests, weeds and diseases. To ensure efficient production, pest management solutions are required for crop protection. These challenges have been managed primarily with pesticides for the last few decades but now alternative solutions need to be delivered. Crop protection is getting more difficult, not only because pesticides are being restricted by legislation but also because the remaining ones which are still available are less effective as pests, weeds and diseases evolve resistance to them.

Farmers are caught in a difficult situation because of dependency on pesticide. Their crops have been bred in a pesticide treated background and without the pesticides crop losses to pests, weeds and diseases mean that both yield and quality can be seriously compromised. Currently pesticides are being lost at a much faster rate than they are being replaced with alternatives. As well as novel control solutions, farmers need better information about what can be done.

Alternative approaches are often more complicated relying on a combination of resistant cultivars, biocontrol, agronomic practices and rationalised, better targeted pesticide use. Information about integrated pest, weed and disease management is scattered in disparate places which are hard for busy farmers to track down for every pest, weed and disease threat they face.

The capacity to share information via the internet is tremendous and access is increasingly via mobile devices. These have the potential to reach a wide audience in the farming community, to provide rapid updates and to interact more with the users. In the internet age, availability of information is not the main constraint, there is more of an issue of accessing relevant information.  CROPROTECT hopes to provide content which is relevant to the users by interacting with them, asking what their priorities are and encouraging feedback. Because electronic documents are living documents and can be adjusted unlike printed documents, there is an opportunity to continuously refine the information provided as the system evolves. The project is funded by the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Innovation Club (SARIC) which is  a joint BBSRC and NERC initiative to support innovative projects that will provide solutions to key challenges affecting the efficiency, productivity and sustainability of the UK crop and livestock sectors.

We are very keen to develop CROPROTECT in partnership with farmers and agronomists and are working with the Association of Independent Crop Consultants (AICC), Hutchinsons, Agrii and the NFU to ensure the system is appropriate for them. We are also very pleased to have AgriChatUK, a leading online forum for agricultural discussions, supporting the project. Indeed, part of the inspiration for the project is from the vibrant community of farmers using twitter. When I wrote the proposal, I was thinking of reaching the thousands of farmers and agronomists and other stakeholders who are active on twitter as followers of @AgriChatUK or members of #clubhectare and who interact this way. The levy boards HGCA and HDC (under the AHDB umbrella) are collaborating with us in developing CROPROTECT.

We started the project in November 2014 and the second version of the website is now live. This is starting to give information about management recommendations for pest, weed and disease targets (the first version was for user registration only). The targets being prioritised are as specified as being of concern by the pioneer users of the system. Registration is free and quick but we do ask users to specify what their main pest, weed and disease targets are so that we can unsure the system meets their requirements.

CROPROTECT accounts are free and we encourage farmers and agronomists to join and try it out! It is designed to work on smartphone browsers and will also open on a desktop screen. The system is evolving and it is early days in the project so there is more to come. To make login easier users can now login via twitter and we are planning to make the system available as a smartphone App in the near future.