Innovation Horizon Part 3: Food Chain Innovation

The third instalment of Dr Caroline Elston-Giroud’s quick reference guides explaining three significant innovation trends covered at InnovateUK 2016.

What are the grand challenges and innovations to help drive us toward 2030 and beyond? Big questions in relatively uncertain times but, having just spent two days at Innovate2016, I’m certain we have much to be positive about. Over my next three articles I want to explain and demystify three significant trends on the horizon which could be about to change our everyday lives for the better.  Part 3 covers innovation in the food chain. Stay tuned to find out more on big data & industry 4.0 and next generation healthcare.

Innovation in the food chain

What is it?

Our planet’s resources are stretched to breaking point, yet we constantly want more out of it – more raw materials, more electricity to run our connected gadgets, more meat to eat, more transport to distribute it, more fuel and so on…

Essentially, ‘innovation in the food chain’ is tackling the issue of how on Earth we go about feeding 9.7 billion people in 2050, that’s 2 billion more than today but with diminishing resources.

How will it impact us day-to-day?

Well this one is a no-brainer! This is an everyday issue for every one of us, and it goes right through the chain from farm, to fork, to business, to consumers, to regions, to policy, to governments and back again, in every single country around the world.

How do we even start to tackle this one?

Luckily for us, science and technology stakeholders in the agri-food sector have already started working on it. Everything from new methods of farming with less chemical input, to advanced breeding to make sure plants and animals are robust and healthy, to things like turning waste in to a valuable commodity.

So there are lots of opportunities then?

Well, yes, and here’s just one of many examples of what’s happening right now:

Aeroponic farms where agricultural entrepreneurs are using disused industrial buildings in towns and cities, and putting 15+ layers of vegetables in vertical rows. Twenty micronutrients are sprayed in a mist at root level to cultivate the crops, whilst also using low energy, often tuneable, LED lighting to maximise growth and nutritional content.

If you’re already impressed, then clock this – these aeroponic crops require zero pesticides. Furthermore, distribution is local, thus reducing their carbon footprint even more.

When you know that up to 30% of potentially edible substances end up as waste across the whole food chain (from agriculture to processing and distribution, and then consumers), it is clear that food waste is a huge problem in all developed countries. Tackling this issue is becoming a hot priority, as the agri-food sector, business and governments decide together to do something about it.

Progress is coming from all angles: prevention, social awareness, recycling, resource efficiency, product sustainability and waste as a commodity. As an example, waste as a commodity could be collecting food waste and turning it in to energy, by anaerobic digestion for instance. The next phase of this is already approaching – the waste hierarchy. The waste hierarchy is getting as much value as you can from a waste resource by further separating out the fractions. So in the future, high value molecules could be obtained and reused in other products.

Any progress comes hand-in-hand with challenges, so what are the challenges here?

As always, it’s about communicating with people and bringing them along at the same time. Innovation and progress only happen if people are willing to accept new ways of doing things and using new products.

With notions of waste as a commodity, for example, come notions of what the market and consumers are ready to accept. Of course, this also evolves with time, as people get used to the new, and ‘new’ becomes ‘normal’. For instance, it is currently more acceptable to use a ‘waste’ as an energy source, than to extract a high value molecule from it and use it in, say, a shampoo. Communication is key to evolving opinions and opening up new market pathways. Discussions are happening. Let’s talk about it again in 5 years’ time, and see what’s changed.

What’s next?

In the UK there’s a lot to celebrate already and a solid platform to build upon to tackle these future grand challenges.

We have a strong Research & Development base in all areas of science and technology, from our excellent universities, strong and active SMEs, through to l larger corporations, all of whom are investing in R&D right here in the UK.

As a country, we are also putting in place structures to help translate fundamental or applied research in to higher TRL (Technology Readiness Level) prototypes and ultimately, commercial products. There are 11 Catapult Centres around the country who bridge between academia and business, and also the AIRTO Association of mid-size R&D and technology centres who help to turn good ideas in to new products and services.

As I hope you can see, there is much to be positive and confident about when looking to the future and big trends, such as food chain innovation, big data and Industry 4.0 and next generation healthcare, will ultimately involve every single one of us.

Onwards and upwards. I’m ready, are you?

About the author

Dr Caroline Elston-Giroud, European Grants Manager, is based in the Ayming London office and heads up the UK Grants team. She has a PhD in Biology-Biochemistry and over 10 years’ experience managing collaborative scientific projects. Caroline has been involved with over 100 projects across the FP6, FP7 and H2020 funding programmes.

Want to pick Caroline’s brains? Get in touch!

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