Sunday, 5 July 2009

e-Agri: A new research initiative within the University of Manchester


  • Sustainable agriculture
  • Over-population and shifting urbanisation of nations
  • Climate change
  • Water shortage for agriculture versus usage for cities and industry
  • Shift in developing nations to high protein diets
  • Reduction in carbon footprint from "farm-to-fork", including sequestration
  • Energy usage for farming, esp. for synthetic fertilisers
  • Limited land bank for food versus demands for renewable biofuels
  • Increasing crop pest and pathogen resistance to treatment
  • Demand for improved food quality and enhanced safety assurance
Integrating sensors, electronics, control and ICT engineering into agriculture is a key enabler for delivering improved food supply and sustainable energy production without increased burden on the limited fertile land-bank. This exploitation of non-traditional technologies to improve global farming is extremely timely given the projected growth in the world population from 6.5bn, in 2006, to 8bn by 2025 and 9.3bn in 2050 (US Census Bureau estimates). In parallel by 2020 numerous governments, including the UK and US, intend to derive substantial volumes of fuel from a new generation of farm crops. As a consequence yields from existing arable land need to increase by 50%. Population trends, with large increases in Asia, also show that global trade in agricultural produce must intensify further as Latin America will no longer be capable of providing the shortfall in food for Asia. In the UK the need for research into sustainable food chains has been recognised and reinforced recently through the £24M investment by RC-UK in the "Rural Economy and Land Use Programme" (

These food and feed supply challenges must be delivered in a sustainable manner which protects scarce fresh water resources and maintains soil fertility against a backdrop of global climate and demographic changes. There are many precedents for exploiting ICT in farming, perhaps the most common exemplar being remote imaging for yield mapping, precision application of farm inputs and verification of subsidy payments. Historically these have been developed opportunistically using technologies originally intended for other sectors. To meet the challenges ahead requires coherent strategic thinking which is specifically tailored to the changing agricultural produce supply issues. This view is supported by the UK Chief Government Scientist, who has eluded to the e-Agri area in recent interviews and visited the UoM earlier this year on the strength of these convictions (Beddington J, 2008, “Opinion”, Food Science & Technology, 22(3), p12).

Delivering an International Research Cluster for Global Food & Energy Security

The University of Manchester ( in the UK is planning on launching e-Agri (“smart agriculture”) as a new research initiative. The e-Agri research cluster will integrate advanced research in ICT, sensing, electronics, control and power systems in such a manner as to enable a new future for global food supply and energy security. Adoption of this themed strategy will position the University to attract a new branch of longer term funding and multi-party collaborations with industries and academics from across the Agri-Food sector. The initiative will be founded upon current industrially supported research at Manchester, notably in the Syngenta sponsored Sensors UIC ( and the Tesco supported Sustainable Consumption Institute (

To achieve ownership and rapid delivery it is proposed that the initiative be hosted by the School of Electrical & Electronic Engineering (, as its 6 core research groups incorporate a significant number of the essential academic skills. The introduction of e-Agri technologies into Agri-Food research, products and services will require new academic partnerships to be fostered across the University and elsewhere. In parallel, to achieve commercial uptake of these disruptive technologies, it will be essential to develop complementary inter faculty research partnerships, notably with the Business School. The activity will be managed by a cross disciplinary, industry and academic, Steering Team which will also be tasked with delivering the longer term e-Agri strategy.

Further details on the current portfolio of research platforms will be posted on this blog on regular basis, so as to elicit a dialogue from potential research partners and beneficiaries. This initial post is to start a dialogue on the strategy and help identify potential industrial and academic partners.