AgriTech’s ‘big data’ centre goes live

Two years on from the launch of the coalition government’s £160 million AgriTech Strategy, the first of the promised Centres for Agricultural Innovation has opened.

Agrimetrics, billed as the world’s first Big Data Centre of Excellence for the whole food system, was launched at Rothamsted Research in Hertfordshire this week. The founding partners in the independent joint venture company are Rothamsted Research; the University of Reading; NIAB and Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC), who have been awarded £11.8m of funding through the AgriTech Strategy and government agency Innovate UK to establish the Centre. It is intended to become self-sustaining, so that it can continue to operate once the government grant runs out.

The Centre is based at Rothamsted’s Lawes Open Innovation Hub, with Reading University to host the data science infrastructure, and NIAB and SRUC to provide the knowledge exchange and outreach services to the wider agricultural community at the national level.

The partners say that the Centre has been designed in consultation with more than 50 industry and academic organisations, and has more than 190 companies engaged in the initiative.

Professor John Crawford, scientific director of the sustainable systems programme at Rothamsted, is the interim chief executive of Agrimetrics, supported by Reading University’s Professor Richard Tiffin as chief scientific officer. Professor Mario Caccamo, head of crop bioinformatics at NIAB and Professor Alistair Stott, head of the future farming systems group at SRUC are also members of the Agrimetrics executive team. The officers are currently engaged in business development and say they have identified a number of opportunities for Agricentre’s initial portfolio.

The big data science platform at the core of Agrimetrics includes the software tools needed to allow users to integrate the data according to their needs. Datasets from around the world will be used for this purpose.

“The Centre will work with all business and universities, and will engage with partners throughout the food system to enable detailed and collective understanding of the needs of farmers, food manufacturers, food retailers, consumers and the environment through the use of big data and analytical tools,” noted Prof Crawford at the opening ceremony. “By working with and up-skilling the industry on data and data analyses, Agrimetrics will be helping to de-risk the investment required by the supply-chain.”

   Caption: Professor Mario Caccamo, Professor John Crawford, George Freeman MP, George Eustice MP, Professor Richard Tiffin and Professor Alistair Stott

Caption: Professor Mario Caccamo, Professor John Crawford, George Freeman MP, George Eustice MP, Professor Richard Tiffin and Professor Alistair Stott

Prof Tiffin added: “The food and farming industries face unprecedented challenges. For example, farmers throughout the world have to make decisions for effective management of costs, ensuring returns and safeguarding the sustainable use of land. These decisions are taken in an uncertain economic environment whilst dealing with inherently difficult-to-predict conditions such as weather due to climate change. Agrimetrics will enable the gathering, processing and availability of big data in a way that will support decision making processes for the realisation of new opportunities and better use of scarce resources."

Parliamentary under secretary of state for life sciences George Freeman MP, performing the opening ceremony, stated: “We are investing in the use of data in agriculture to transform the way crops and livestock are grown and bred. Using data we can identify new genetic traits; spray only those crops with disease and use less water and energy for modern lower input farming. The expertise we’re supporting at Agrimetrics will position the UK as a world leader in this fast emerging field and improve agricultural sustainability and productivity.”

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