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Modelling plants provides virtual approach to crop optimisation

Combining computer science, biochemistry and horticulture in the EUREKA E! 2544 E PLANTS project has resulted in a much faster and more exact model to speed the investigation and monitoring of plant behaviour and growing conditions.

Farmers can make better use of resources, resulting in cheaper and better quality food for all and learn more effective crop management as they can visualise precisely and clearly what is happening in their fields.

Currently, it is necessary for commercial nurseries and farmers to grow crops in real time so they can experiment and optimise plant care in terms of irrigation, spraying, temperature and nutrients. “We wanted to model how plants grow to let farmers see what is happening in a more user-friendly and advantageous way,” explains Janneke Hadders of Dutch partner Dacom Plant-Service. “Our approach made it possible for the first time to integrate the behaviour and three-dimensional form on a plant component level,” adds Dr Lubo Jankovic of project leader InteSys.

The project started when the two UK partners – InteSys and Chembiotech Laboratories – approached Plant Research International (PRI) of Wageningen University in the Netherlands, which has extensive experience in plant modelling. PRI suggested involving Dacom as the specialist in presenting such information to the end user. “EUREKA labelling played a key role in enabling us to find the financial support required,” adds Hadders. “Without EUREKA, the project would not have been possible.”

“Plants use simple principles of component behaviour and they interact by competing for internal and external resources,” says Dr Jankovic. The project involved developing an analogue computer model calibrated using data from the growth of real plants. Work was carried out on chrysanthemums. “This flower is an easy plant to grow in greenhouses, where farmers can control the conditions,” says Hadders. Two parameters were selected for study: temperature and radiation. “We ended up with a three-dimensional model of the virtual plant growing where we can enter parameters and see the effect.” The resulting model allows simulation on a PC so that the farmer can observe the effect, for example of a certain temperature over a number of days.

This is very much an intermediate step. The next stage would be to apply the same approach to ‘open-air’ crops – particularly potatoes and sugar beet. “We are already working on this with PRI and expect to have results within one or two years,” says Hadders.

Sally Horspool | alfa
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