Society has become more critical of the greenhouse horticulture, arable farming and dairy industries and demands change, but the current farming systems can only meet this demand to a limited extent. The way forward will involve a transition to a healthier and more resilient agricultural and horticultural system. In the new AGROS programme, we are investigating how technology can help with this transition.
This month, the AGROS programme was launched with a digital kick-off during which the plans for the coming four years were explained. The programme is developing agrotechnologies to support ecological and biological processes in the greenhouse horticulture, arable farming and dairy industries. The AGROS programme is a collaboration between Wageningen University & Research (WUR) and 26 private partners, with funding provided by two of the government’s ‘Top Sectors’ programmes: Agri & Food and Horticulture & Raw Materials.
‘AGROS’ stands for ‘Evolution to sustainable AGRicultural Operation Systems’. The main goal is to develop tools that can steer production towards more efficiency in the deployment of energy, water, plant protection products and labour. The knowledge learned from the research and experiments and the professional guidance provided will benefit the participating arable and dairy farmers, horticulturalists and technology companies.
Today, there is a continuous demand for fresh and healthy products of constant high quality, regardless of the season. “The greenhouse horticulture industry can deliver this, but we are limited by the availability of sufficiently qualified personnel who have knowledge of all aspects of efficient cultivation. That is why we need to continue the development of automated cultivation systems,” says Anja Dieleman, project leader and researcher at WUR Greenhouse Horticulture. Their vision of the future is an autonomous greenhouse in which the knowledge a grower currently carries around in their head is replaced by artificial intelligence. With new model-based control algorithms, the conditions in the greenhouse can be autonomously adjusted to achieve the cultivation goals.
Intelligent sensors closely monitor the processes in the plants, and the control algorithms can be adjusted based on this information. This makes it possible to adjust the greenhouse for higher temperatures or less light, or to grow more cucumbers per plant, for example. This development towards autonomous greenhouse cultivation is being carried out with the support of the organisations IMEC/One Planet, Gennovation, Nunhems, Delphy, Saint Gobain/ Cultilene, ENGIE, Greenport West Holland, Roullier, Mechatronix, Stichting Kennis in je Kas, Signify, Philips, RidderHortivation and TNO.
Arable businesses are faced with the challenge of converting to an environmentally friendly and circular production system with more biodiversity. “Where the current production methods do not offer sufficient perspective, the technique of intercropping (mixed cultivation) does look more promising,” says Herman Schoorlemmer, project leader and researcher at WUR Field Crops. Using the intercropping method, crops are no longer grown on large fields in monocultures, but instead multiple crops are grown next to each other in alternating rows, which enables more efficient utilisation of light, water and minerals. Together with the latest disease and pest control solutions, this leads to higher yields and less damage to the environment. These mixed cultivation systems are complex to manage and incompatible with the current large-scale mechanisation systems.
The goal of this project is to explore, develop and test new solutions for the complex management of mixed cropping systems. Scenarios will be developed for the mechanisation of the new systems and research will be conducted into robotisation and automated disease and weed detection. To protect flora and fauna in and around the fields, the project will investigate how artificial intelligence can be used to visualise the processes and increase the biodiversity on the farm. The private partners in de Field Crops case study are BO-Akkerbouw, Kubota, AgroIntelli, Spie, Bayer, Orphiction, Cumela, two farm biodiversity partnerships and IMEC.
The dairy farming industry is under close scrutiny due to its impact on the environment and the consumption of natural resources. The key to sustainable dairy farming is to decrease the CO2 footprint of dairy products. One of the elements of this CO2 footprint is the methane emissions of cows, and the Dutch dairy farming sector is faced with the challenge of substantially reducing these emissions. The currently available technologies and solutions are not sufficient to meet the national targets. “By responding more effectively to the needs and the potential of each individual cow, we can significantly decrease the CO2 footprint and increase the efficiency of resource consumption,” says Yvette de Haas, project leader and researcher at Wageningen Livestock Research. This PPS will use fundamental knowledge to develop sensors that can measure the inputs (feed, water) and outputs (methane, urine, manure, milk) of individual cows and provide decision support. The participating private partners are IMEC, Connecterra and Melkveefonds (a dairy industry fund).
The three AGROS sectors conduct their research in interconnected projects and in consultation with each other. Over the next four years, the business community and the government will invest more than €6.5 million in this programme to help achieve a future-proof agricultural sector. This applied research programme is also linked to the fundamental scientific research carried out by NWO’s Synergia programme.