Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Harnessing the algorithm

This column appeared in the Llanelli Herald on 25th November 2016

Farming is not a subject that traditionally excites people much. But work being done by Coleg Sir Gar in Carmarthenshire could have far-reaching results that benefit us all.

I drew on the work being done by the college in a debate I arranged in the Assembly this week.

The college are at the forefront of what’s known as ‘Precision Agriculture’. At their farm at Gelli Aur near Llandeilo they are using satellite imagery to increase milk production.

By measuring the weekly growth in grass on their farm they calculate exactly how much feed the cattle need and decide which fields to put the cows in via a smartphone app.

It is a rapidly developing area where farmers gather a wealth of real-time information -  water and nitrogen levels, air quality, disease - data which isn’t just specific to each farm or acre, but to each square inch of our farmland.

At a time when we’re facing a future of food and water shortages across the world, and a changing climate, this approach to food production and land cultivation can dramatically improve productivity (and farmers income) as well as reducing harm to the environment.

But we haven't begun to scratch the surface of the potential of precision agriculture for Wales.

At my recent public workshop in Llanelli on developing a jobs blueprint for my constituency there was a consensus that we need greater ambition for the area if we are to withstand impending economic storms. And precision agriculture presents us with a prime opportunity for us to demonstrate this ambition.

One of the industries that will likely bear the brunt of Brexit is our food production and manufacturing industries - the removal of the CAP, and the likely imposition of export tariffs will hit our farmers hard. We need to prepare for this, and to find new, imaginative, innovative means to drive growth in this critical sector.

This week I helped secure cross-party support in the Assembly for the Welsh Government to develop a strategy that will put Wales at the forefront of the development of precision agriculture.

And students in this part of Wales can play a big part in this.

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