New technologies are disrupting every step of our food supply chains, from the foods we produce, to how we harvest, store, prepare and shop for it. How will these exciting trends shape perhaps the most ‘traditional’ meal – the Christmas Dinner – by 2050? Caroline Wood asked champions and members of the STFC Food Network+ (SFN) for their thoughts…
For many of us, Christmas immediately conjures up pictures of a family roast dinner: turkey, goose, beef or ham. But increasing concerns about climate change and the environmental impacts of industrial animal farming (including pollution and deforestation to produce animal feed) are driving a growing trend towards alternative proteins, such as lab-grown meat. “There are really exciting things around the corner in lab-grown and fermented protein research that in 50 years may be able to produce a lab-grown turkey that tastes better than anything we have today” says Sean Peters, CEO at DryGro. But with so many hurdles to overcome, including scale-up, regulatory approval and consumer acceptance, he admits that this is likely to be some time yet. “In the short run, for many people Christmas dinner may look very similar, but instead of the ubiquitous soybean, the animals that supply their Christmas turkey or ham may be fed from more sustainable ingredients, sourced much closer to where the animals were raised.” These may include animal feeds based on insects or Lemna: a protein-rich aquatic plant. Dry Gro is currently working to develop enclosed growing units that will enable industrial-scale production of Lemna in arid regions where soybean cultivation is not possible.
Even if our ingredients will still be sourced from farms for now, vastly accelerated plant and animal breeding – driven no doubt by gene-editing technologies such as CRISPR-Cas9- may already have started to alter the taste, texture and nutritional profile of our Christmas foodstuffs. “It’s likely that future plant and animal breeders will not just focus on yield but also consider nutrition, storage, and gastronomic potential” says Christian Reynolds (City, University of London). “This could see us enjoying sweeter-tasting sprouts, nutritionally-enriched spuds or even strawberries designed to grow during the UK autumn.” He also points out that the impacts of climate change will almost certainly see new food ingredients on our plates from more resilient plants. A report from Knorr and the WWF in 2019 profiled 50 ‘Foods for the Future’ that collectively have high nutrition, low environmental impacts and climate resilience. So perhaps our Christmas Meal will include climate resilient delicacies such as cacti, lotus root, sprouted chickpeas, pumpkin flowers and algae?
Whatever we put on our plates, getting hold of the ingredients for our Christmas meals might become a lot easier, thanks to big data analytical tools that may help supermarkets more accurately forecast the stock levels required, leading to less empty shelves. Laura Wilkinson (Swansea University) is currently involved with a SFN project to develop models which can predict consumer behaviour through social media discussions. “The ability to capture external information and the sentiment of individual consumers via data analytics and social media may allow for more precisely estimating consumer demand, even during the hectic Christmas run-up” she and the project team say. “This could help stores to keep stock costs low, target promotions and reduce overall waste. We hope these tools could also help direct unsold produce to communities that are in need of them, for instance via charities.”
But it may be that we don’t shop in advance for our Christmas Dinner – in fact, we might not even decide what to have until Christmas morning itself. The increasing sophistication of wearable health trackers and our ability to mine biomimetic information may lead to all our meals being individually optimised on the day to our needs. “Based on the current use and generation of data by apps and devices, I think the next step will be that we use this information to inform our decisions about food and overall lifestyles” says Ximena Schmidt, STFC Food Network Champion and a life cycle sustainability expert (Brunel University). “So, based on both health information (such as weight and blood pressure) and data gathered about our lifestyle (for instance food preferences, favourite recipes, geolocation), these devices will propose the most suitable Christmas Dinner for each of us.” Perhaps it could even be nutritionally optimised to reduce any alcohol-fuelled damage from Christmas Eve parties the night before?
John Vandore, STFC Food Network and Business Development at Harwell Campus, agrees although he believes these devices will eventually progress to an implant. By that time, the stress of preparing the Christmas meal may well be a thing of the past. “For urban populations, I suspect there will be turbocharged online ordering and delivery, no doubt with drone deliveries playing a part. In high rise residential housing, this may be augmented with vertical farms making fresh vegetables available at the push of a button on each floor” he says.
Once we’ve assembled our ingredients, we may well cook our Christmas meals using different methods to now. A study led by Christian Reynolds found that depending on the food product, the greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions from cooking can be decreased by up to 16-fold by using more efficient methods. “Ovens are the least sustainable common cooking appliance, since they typically require long cooking times and high energy demands” he says. Electric grills are a better option since these only consume half the energy, but this may be a hard sell for those particularly attached to the memories and aromas associated with ‘a proper roast dinner’. Nevertheless, as smart energy-readers make us acutely aware of our energy consumption around the home, it’s likely we’ll move away from boiling and steaming foods on the stovetop: a highly-inefficient method due to energy losses and the long time required to reach the cooking temperature. “In contract, microwaving can reduce GHG emissions by 41-78%” says Christian. Electronic pressure cookers may also come in vogue: since these substantially shorten the cooking time, these are a highly efficient way to cook meat, pulses, potatoes and vegetables.
By 2050, Christmas Dinner may not just be eaten on Earth: will human colonists on the moon (and maybe even Mars) also be tucking into a special meal on the 25 December? Stephen Ringler, CEO & Founder of the Space Store and Spacetime Development is optimistic: “There are promising experiments being conducted to see if we can turn Martian and lunar surface material into soil safe to grow food. Another alternative would be to us hydroponics, growing plants using nutrient-rich solutions without soil.” As for the non-plant components of the meal, he is hopeful that space travel will have advanced enough by then to allow regular shipments from Earth.
Wishing you all a very peaceful Christmas and New Year from the STFC Food Network+ !
The STFC Food Network+ (SFN) has helped launch a visionary project which aims to use systems analysis, digital platforms and space technologies to revolutionise agri-food supply chains in India.
The moment a crop is harvested, it begins to spoil. This isn’t too much of a problem in modern systems where they are quickly whisked to consumers, arriving fresh and intact. But in developing nations lacking such infrastructure, huge quantities of perishable food are lost between farmers and consumers. For these regions, simply producing more food won’t help solve food insecurity unless these supply chain issues are fixed.
Food loss occurs for a variety of reasons, including lack of cold storage, poor road networks and challenging climates. Developing communities are also typically made up of isolated pockets of farmers that are poorly connected to the rest of the supply chain, making it difficult to match supply with demand. With so many interconnected factors and problems, it is challenging to identify where effective interventions can be introduced.
This is the aim of TRAnsforming Cold Food Chains in INdia through Space ScIence and TechNologies (TRANSSITioN). Using a systems-wide approach, this will identify relevant cutting-edge and indigenous technologies for digitising agriculture production, connecting farmers to supply chains, reducing food loss and managing food surplus. The project is a collaboration involving the University of Sheffield, the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) and a range of partners from industry, NGOs, logistics providers and farming organisations.
The SFN played a crucial role in the project’s launch by funding the pilot phase through a Scoping Grant. This involved a stakeholder workshop in India which brought together farmers, producers, distributors and retailers to discuss the key problems affecting their industries. Based on these discussions, the team successfully secured funding for a full-scale project proposal from the UK Government’s Global Challenge Research Fund and the STFC.
The different work packages include:
Identifying key leverage points for change: Using food systems concepts and methods, this will determine the obstacles, risks and opportunities for supply chain transformation in India. This will be coupled with life cycle analysis (LCA) to understand the wider impacts of possible interventions, including energy, carbon emissions, water and toxins.
Digitising agriculture and connecting farmers: This will investigate the most effective digital platforms to connect farmers to supply chains. In addition, it will explore how Internet of Things (IoT) technologies and remote sensors can link farmers to data (such as soil health, local weather and crop diseases) that can help them increase productivity, farm more sustainably and be more climate resilient.
Reducing losses and maximising value: Drawing on expertise from STFC’s RAL Space facility, this will investigate how existing, indigenous methods can be integrated with advanced capabilities (including space technologies such as cryogenics and thermal modelling) to increase the shelf life of fresh produce. It will also investigate new materials and methods for improving thermal insulation on farm, during transportation and storage.
New business models and policies to support rural livelihoods: This will engage stakeholders and communities to co-design new public-private partnerships and funding models, including microfinance.
The need for a holistic approach
“There is a clear opportunity to have a big impact on reducing agri-food loss throughout supply chains in India. But any changes have to work in the context of the existing system, be economically feasible and not harm farmers or the environment. That’s why we are using a holistic approach, rather than looking at things in isolation” says Seyed M. Ebrahimi (University of Sheffield).
With a diverse background covering supply chain management, LCA, finance, banking, and computer software, Seyed seems aptly qualified for such a multidisciplinary challenge. So far, he has been involved with helping to map different end-to-end supply chain configurations for tomato and mint, which has involved visiting around 50 different farms across southern India. He is now combining this with data from the pilot workshop into a complete LCA and socio-economic evaluation of proposed interventions.
Such extensive mapping work is crucial to avoid unintended consequences, and can also lead to counterintuitive findings as Seyed explains. “A key contributor to tomato spoilage is fluctuations in temperature. Our preliminary data suggest that if tomato crops are only put in cold storage at the end of the chain at the retailer, it may actually be worse than not using cold storage at all.” Ultimately, TRANSSITioN aims to introduce economically feasible technologies that enable cold storage throughout the chain, whilst meeting social and environmental priorities. Yet this work has identified other changes that could be made more quickly, such as on-farm grading technologies that reduce handling at downstream distribution centres, prolonging product life.
The power of partnerships
Linking up small scale farmers – many of whom still rely on handwritten notes – with the latest technologies won’t be easy, but TRANSSITioN is giving itself the best chance of success by partnering with government bodies, the Centre for Sustainable Agriculture, the Society for Elimination of Rural Poverty and retail giants such as Amazon India.
Being part of the SFN is also proving instrumental in helping the team access expertise in advanced technologies being developed at the following STFC facilities: RAL Space, Cryox, ASTeC, and IBM Research at Hartree Centre.
“This is a very exciting project – the more you delve into it, the more you realise how challenging it is to introduce changes that will really work in these systems. A lot of these capabilities – such as cryogenics and thermal engineering – have only been proven in aviation and formula one facing; they have never been tested in the agri-food sector. That is why it is so important to work in partnership” Seyed concludes.
Shellfish are a highly nutritious and a sustainable protein source, and provide livelihoods for people in
numerous rural regions all across the globe. The UK alone imports over £700 million of shrimp each
year. Yet shrimp farming is currently highly inefficient: globally, nearly 40% of shrimp are lost due to
reasons that include extreme weather, disease and supply chain issues. Such wastage results in
reduced profits for farmers, increased prices for consumers and greater environmental impacts. A
project launched by the STFC Food Network+ (SFN) is working to make the Indonesian shrimp farming
industry more efficient and sustainable, using digital technology and new business models.
Mapping the challenges
“There are many new technologies that could really benefit small scale shrimp farmers in Indonesia” says Miying Yang (University of Exeter). “But to work out the best changes to introduce, we first needed to understand the different stakeholder needs and the realities of the industry that these interventions would have to work in.”
To explore the challenges facing the shrimp farming industry and the potential for digital solutions, Miying and her colleagues* conducted a feasibility study, funded by an SFN Scoping Project award. The team travelled to Indonesia in July 2019 to host a workshop which brought together stakeholders from across the entire shrimp value chain. This included shrimp farmers, distributors, farming associations, retailers and government officials. The format of the event was structured on a framework Miying developed during her PhD research on developing methods to analyse and assess sustainability metrics from life cycle and multi-stakeholder perspectives.
“The atmosphere was outstanding – much better than I expected it would be. We even ended up being featured in the local newspaper!” says Miying. Thanks to support from interpreters from a local university, the research team could involve all the participants, including those who spoke no English, and present the aims of the project before the discussions began.
Seventy different industry challenges were identified, which the team grouped into twelve themes. The stakeholders were then asked to rank these themes according to their importance and how feasible they felt it would be to tackle them. “The final results indicated that the most impactful issues to target included fluctuating water conditions, disease and cannibalism, where the shrimp feed off each other” Miying says.
This information allowed the team to develop a proposal and secure a £50,000 grant from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council’s Internet of Food Things Network+ to launch a full-scale project to tackle these issues.
Predictive assistance in aquaculture management
Drawing on the key challenges identified by the pilot project, Miying and her colleagues are focusing on an internet of things (IoT)-enabled system to automatically monitor different qualities of the water in shrimp farms. The team are working on a prototype model where off-the-shelf water sensors collect real-time data on parameters such as dissolved oxygen, salinity and water temperatures. The data is then automatically sent to an IoT Cloud database. These datasets will allow big data analytics to develop predictive algorithms for how conditions may change in the future. The ultimate aim is to integrate this with a web-based platform or smartphone app that can send alerts directly to individual farmers.
“This predictive assistance will allow farmers to make decisions on a scientific basis, rather than relying on their instincts” says Miying. “For instance, such an app could send notifications about when to feed the shrimp since this needs to be finely balanced. If they are fed too much, this wastes feed, but if they are fed too little, they start to eat each other.” Besides helping farmers to take preventative action to reduce death and disease, this could also help them to minimise their environmental impacts through reducing inputs of feed and chemicals.
Digitally-enabled business models and transparent supply chains
Meanwhile, the team are also considering how to tackle the inefficiencies within the shrimp supply chain that reduce the overall quality and add to the cost of the product for the consumer. “Farmers, distributors and retailers across the Indonesian shrimp supply chain are not working collaboratively or sharing data. But there would be real benefits to all if they could be linked in a fully safe, traceable system using digital technologies” says Miying.
Fully digitalised supply chains could allow demands to be communicated to suppliers and distributors more quickly, reducing the time shrimp are kept in storage. Greater transparency could also reduce the cost of assessing shrimp to check it meets food standards requirements – which can be an expensive burden for small-scale farmers.
According to Miying, introducing such a system is not limited by technology, but by more fundamental barriers including governance, data trust, and stakeholders’ willingness to participate. “People need to see the tangible benefits of sharing their data for this to work. We are looking for funding opportunities to work on building a technological prototype for a fully traceable supply chain.”
Having worked mainly in manufacturing in the past, the project has immersed Miying into a totally new world for her in the food sector. “It has been really exciting for me to apply my skills to solve different problems and find innovations that help industries to be more sustainable and circular” she says. But having grown up in Zhejiang, the coast of South East China, she has always had a love of seafood: “Especially fried rice with shrimp!”
You can learn more about the project through a short video at https://vimeo.com/368769846
*The project team includes Dr Miying Yang (University of Exeter), Dr Martino Luis (University of Exeter), Dr Jens Jensen (STFC), Professor Peter Ball (University of York) and Rakesh Nayak (LeanSig Ltd; STFC Food Network+ Liaison)
The world has a protein problem – and one that will only get worse. Our over-reliance on soybean for animal feed is unsustainable and threatened by climate change. A project supported by the STFC Food Network+ (SFN) could have the solution: an unremarkable-looking plant you have probably never even heard of.
The growing problem
Whether we are vegans, vegetarians or carnivores, we all need protein. An astonishingly high proportion of our protein ultimately originates from a single crop – soybean. A key component of global livestock feeds, soybean is also used for many meat- and dairy-alternative products (such as plant-based burgers and soya milk). But this dependence is starting to cause serious problems as Sean Peters, CEO of start-up DryGro, explains: “Global meat consumption is expected to grow significantly in the years ahead, which puts pressure on soybean expansion in Brazil and Argentina. Climate change could also damage the productivity of agricultural land, causing yields to reduce.” Currently, 80% of soybean is grown in just three countries – the USA, Argentina and Brazil. This means it is far removed from communities in developing countries who then rely on expensive imports. “What we urgently need is a climate-proof protein source that can be grown in arid regions, closer to animal production communities” Sean says.
Could a small, unremarkable-looking water plant be the answer? Meet Lemna; a genus of floating aquatic plants that resemble tiny lily pads. Also known as ‘water lentil’, Lemna has a protein content remarkably similar to soybean. It also grows astonishingly fast, forming thick, green blankets on the surface of water. Farmers across Asia and Africa have harvested these for hundreds of years to use as a protein ingredient. But scaling this up for industrial levels of production is hindered by Lemna’s aquatic nature. DryGro has taken on this challenge by developing enclosed growing units designed to be set up in many places around the world. These units maintain optimal growing conditions through an environmental management system, and build on recent advances in vertical farming techniques. But can this tiny duckweed really take on the monopoly of soybean?
Sean certainly believes it can: “Per hectare, Lemna can produce eight times as much protein as soybean” he says. “This means that at industrial scale, DryGro’s growing facilities would be much more land efficient than soybean production.” And since this can be harvested every few days, Lemna offers a significantly more stable supply than the soybean industry, which only has two major harvests each year: once for the southern hemisphere and once for the northern hemisphere. Ultimately, Lemna-based animal feeds could act as an alternative to all soybean feeds for livestock, including chickens, pigs and certain farmed fish. Researchers from the Wrocław University of Technology, Poland, even found that feeding Lemna to chickens improves the quality of their eggs, with the authors concluding that Lemna could serve as a cheaper alternative to inorganic dietary additives [A].
Opening up new markets
Lemna may be grown on ponds, but overall it uses 98% less water per tonne of product than soybean, because the water is recycled within the growing units. This makes Lemna production particularly suitable for arid regions, including land not currently used for agriculture. Lemna could therefore open up industrial-scale protein production in the eastern hemisphere, including Europe, Africa and Asia, and help avoid deforestation. This would be a particular benefit for countries such as Kenya, where practically all the soybean used in animal feed is imported due to a lack of local production. “Because the soybean value chain in Kenya is very long, farmers end up paying a higher price for a product that is typically inferior, as it can be tampered with along the way” says Sean. “This keeps the farmers in a constant poverty trap. But if we can produce animal feed locally, this could completely restructure the value chain.”
The power of partnerships
But before Lemna can go mainstream, it needs to be a reliable, consistent product. Thanks to a scoping award from SFN, DryGro has partnered with the Open University on a project to characterise the quality of Lemna grown under different temperatures and fertiliser concentrations. This will use the Open University’s spectroscopic equipment, which characterises the biochemical properties of samples based on how they interact with light. “The network has been incredibly supportive in fostering our collaboration with partners that have expertise in these techniques. As a start-up, this really lowered the barriers for us to access such high-spec laboratory equipment” Sean says. He adds that the SFN offered a much nimbler approach for them to access funding than many other avenues: “It was so refreshing not to have to undergo a typical, behemoth grant application process that eats up your soul. Instead, we were able to work out our proposal with just a few meetings and get it submitted within a week.”
Whilst excited about DryGro’s potential, Sean clearly sees their work as part of a much wider movement towards more sustainable food systems, one that depends upon the multi-disciplinary work that SFN helps to facilitate. “It’s evident that what got us through the last century won’t get us through the next – the only solution is to research tomorrow’s technologies today. Groups such as the Knowledge Transfer Network and SFN make that happen. Advancements in research only benefit the rest of humanity if they become products, services or techniques that people can actually use. It’s through collaborative work like this that we can make it happen” Sean concludes.
[A] Witkowska, Z., Saeid, A., Chojnacka, K., Dobrzanski, Z., Górecki, H., Michalak, I., Korczynski, M. and Opalinski, S., 2012. New biological dietary feed supplement for laying hens with microelements based on duckweed (Lemna minor). American Journal of Agricultural and Biological Sciences, 7(4), pp.482-493.
Whether drizzled over porridge or used to treat a sore throat, honey is one of our most cherished food products. In the UK, honey consumption is steadily rising but competition from cheaper imports and barriers to entering the ‘premium’ honey market could stop UK producers from benefitting. A project funded by the STFC Food Network+ (SFN) is helping to address this by applying a pioneering spectroscopic technique for a new use in the honey industry
Honey samples collected by Maria and her team for the study (Image credit: Maria Anastasiadi).
The UK consumes over 40,000 tonnes of honey per year, however most of the honey we see on supermarket shelves is imported from abroad where it is cheaper to produce. But a growing interest in ‘monofloral honeys’ – where the bees collect pollen from a single type of flower – could open up a new market for UK beekeepers. These honeys have characteristic flavours and textures, besides enhanced health benefits including high concentrations of antioxidant compounds. Consequently, monofloral honeys can command premium prices. Heather honey, for instance, can retail for up to £14 for a 340g jar.
But it is currently difficult for beekeepers to enter this lucrative market since there is no quick and easy way for them to prove that their honey is genuinely monofloral. “The only option is to send samples to a dedicated laboratory to analyse the pollen content, which is time consuming and expensive” says bioinformatician Dr Maria Anastasiadi (Cranfield University, UK). Recently, Maria’s work has focused on exploring how spectroscopic technologies (where matter interacts with electromagnetic radiation) can be used within the food industry. “I realised that the honey industry really needs an easy-to-use diagnostic tool that can instantly tell whether a honey is monofloral or multifloral in origin. Through the grant from the SFN, we tested three candidate techniques to do this” she says.
The power of spectroscopy
Maria was particularly interested in Spatially Offset Raman Spectroscopy (SORS), a recently developed technique that shows great promise for a wide range of analytical applications. Raman spectroscopy analyses the composition of a sample by measuring the degree by which monochromatic light is scattered by the sample’s constituent molecules.
Representative photonics spectra for different types of honey: heather (left), borage (middle), multifloral rapeseed (right) (Image credit: Maria Anastasiadi).
In SORS, the light source is offset, allowing it to penetrate deeper without being obscured by the overlying surface material. So far, SORS has been demonstrated capable of detecting explosive materials inside containers and impure pharmaceuticals within sealed blister packs; it is also being investigated for a tool in breast cancer diagnosis. Food industry applications of SORS have so far been limited, and it until now it had never been tested on honey products. During the 2019 SFN Sandpit event, Maria met Professor Pavel Matousek, one of the inventors of the SORS technique at the Science and Technology Facilities Council’s Rutherford Appleton Laboratory. “We were really lucky to meet Pavel, as he is an established leader in this field and agreed to become a co-investigator on this proposal” she says.
To start with, Maria and Pavel collected over fifty different honey samples, including monofloral heather and borage honeys from across the UK and multifloral honeys. Alongside SORS, the group also tested two more established spectroscopic techniques; Attenuated Total Reflection Fourier Transform Infrared and fluorescence spectroscopy. The spectroscopic profiles produced by the different samples were then fed into a machine learning algorithm to train a model to automatically classify the floral origin of unknown samples. “When we introduced samples that the model had not encountered before, we found that both SORS and fluorescence could predict the floral type with over 90% accuracy” says Maria. “What is particularly exciting is that this is a non-invasive technique that doesn’t even need the sample container to be opened.”
Protecting the farmers
With this success, the team wondered whether spectroscopy could help solve another problem – an ongoing battle against adulterated products. Typically, this occurs when pure honey is diluted with cheap high-fructose corn syrup or other sugars and occurs mostly outside the UK. Easy-cost efficient tools to establish authenticity could help British bee farmers safeguard the quality of their product and increase its value.
Maria and her team diluted pure heather honey with known amounts of corn syrup and again used the spectroscopic profiles in a machine learning model. “The prediction models developed using fluorescence and SORS were able to identify adulterated samples with over 80% accuracy” says Maria. “If the model was expanded to include more samples, we believe that this could be enhanced to distinguish adulteration even at very small scales.”
The end goal
With the positive results from this project, Maria is now looking to develop these techniques into a simple diagnostic device for the honey industry. Potentially, this could both help honey producers to authenticate their premium monofloral honeys and give customs officials and honey suppliers a tool to spot fraudulent products in transit. “It is really important that the end-product is something that is easy to use and can instantly give the user an answer they understand. We are now working closely with stakeholders in the UK honey industry and recently organised a webinar to discuss how we can develop a platform for honey testing based on portable sensors.”
The benefits of a network
“I am at an early stage in my academic career, so this has been a valuable opportunity to develop a project of my own. The SFN has been extremely helpful throughout in addressing my questions and offering constant support” Maria says. She is also grateful to the Bee Farmers’ Association who put them in touch with beekeepers across the UK to help them source honey samples. Maria hopes that, in time, the fruits of this project will bring long-term benefits to their industry: “One of the things that really inspired me to do this project was my worry about the decline of honey bees and other pollinators. I hope that the results of this project can help promote British-produced honey and generate more interest in amateur beekeeping” she concludes.
Curious to know more about SORS? Check out our previous blog post ‘Caught in the act’ about an SFN-project that explored whether SORS could help detect adulterated fruit juices.
In our last blog post, we told the story of how the STFC Food Network+ (SFN) didn’t let a global pandemic stop the most recent Sandpit from going ahead by transitioning the whole event online for the first time. Although this gave a very different experience to the usual, in-person format, this clearly didn’t impact the quality of the proposals which resulted from the discussions. Here we feature the winning projects for each theme, which were decided by democratic vote to receive £10K each in funding.
Theme 1: Sustainable production at uncertain times – smart beehive monitoring
Bees and other pollinators play a crucial role in agriculture: approximately 70% of our food crops depend on them. Yet pollinators are suffering from a perfect storm of challenges, including diseases, climate change, air pollution and toxic insecticides. For the SFN Sandpit’s winning theme 1 project, Paulette Elliott (Huduma) and her colleagues will be developing a prototype sensor to monitor honey bee hives in real time. “There are already various sensors on the market, for instance to monitor the hive’s humidity or to count the bees as they enter and leave the hive” Paulette says. “Our aim is to use machine learning and artificial intelligence to analyse the data from these existing sensors to see where there are repeated anomalies or trends that can identify specific problems.” This knowledge will then be applied to build a proof-of-concept sensor for a particular issue. In contrast to existing sensors that currently use Wi-Fi or mobile data technologies, the new sensor will be linked with satellite technology, extending its capabilities further. For instance, earth observation remote sensing information could help beekeepers understand if their hives are in the optimum location, either to avoid air pollution hotspots or to access the bee’s preferred source of pollen.
Besides involving experts across a broad range of fields, the project is also committed to engaging with end-users. As Managing Director of Huduma, Paulette brings significant experience of working with start-ups and SMEs to develop successful business models for emerging technologies, particularly those based on Internet of Things and autonomous systems. Her colleagues and Co-Investigators include high-performance computing specialists, experts in mathematical modelling from STFC Hartree, University of Warwick, The Open University, UKRI-STFC and the company OPTIfarm, which currently provides real-time monitoring systems for poultry farms. “We intend to collaborate with beekeepers’ networks across the country, including both hobbyists and commercial” says Paulette. “Rather than assuming what the most important issues are, we want to work in partnership with them to identify the most critical factors for bee colony health.”
Theme 2: Resilient food supply chains at uncertain times – Better indicators to spot food fraud
Ever since food began being traded as a commodity, fraudsters have tried to make a quick profit at the customer’s expense. Fraud costs the UK food economy approximately £11 billion each year, but this may be only the tip of the iceberg since fraud is frequently underreported. Besides the financial repercussions, this can have serious health consequences, for example by exposing consumers unknowingly to allergens. The Sandpit’s Theme 2 winning project aims to combat this by equipping authorities with more powerful tools to identify cases of food fraud as they happen.
“It’s currently a huge challenge to detect food fraud. Often, agencies only become aware if it causes ill health or if they are alerted by an insider” says project leader Edward Smart (University of Portsmouth). To identify potential indicators of food fraud, the project will bring together a broad range of food-related databases, including import/export databases, global temperature data and commodity prices. This will be combined with a historical database of known incidences of food fraud. Data science experts at the STFC will then use powerful computational methods to hunt for patterns and trends that could have predicted these events. “As an example, if the price of a foodstuff such as oats suddenly decreases in value, this could be a sign that the market is becoming flooded with a poor quality or fraudulent product” says Edward. The ability to link such indicators to fraudulent activities, particularly during shock events such as the coronavirus lockdown, could help policy makers develop strategies to reduce the flow of fraudulent goods, such as more targeted border checks.
“The Sandpit came at an opportune time since my colleague Lisa Jack and I had just completed a project on calculating the true cost of food fraud” says Edward. “At the Sandpit we were introduced to food researchers from the University of Central Lancashire, Brunel University and Fera Science Ltd. Food fraud was a common interest for all parties and as we started talking, it became clear that data science techniques could be a powerful tool in finding more effective indicators of food fraud.
Theme 3: Nutritional security & consumer behaviour at uncertain times - Intelligent Data Analytics to Understand Food Consumer Practice during Food Shocks
“COVID-19 and the associated lockdowns clearly demonstrated how consumer behaviour can ‘shock’ food systems, resulting in essential items becoming scarce” says Laura Wilkinson (Swansea University). “For food systems to be resilient against future shocks- for instance, as a result of further lockdowns, Brexit or climate change – it is vital that decision makers can anticipate how consumers will react.” In their winning project, Laura and her colleagues will look for trends in consumer behaviour using the huge volume of online commentary that the pandemic has generated, which can act as a ‘window’ into why people behaved as they did.
To convert this heterogenous mix of images, videos and text into meaningful information, Laura and her colleagues will use an approach that combines citizen science and intelligent data analytics. “Our first step will be to categorise the data and describe the sentiment of posts: is the person laughing about the shortage of a particular food, or are they genuinely panicked about it?” The project will explore data from various sources, including Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Instagram and Deliveroo reviews. “Using a citizen science platform (Zooniverse), we will invite members of the public to help us categorise images and text to form a ‘training dataset’. Then we will apply deep learning techniques to this dataset to teach a computer to perform the process automatically” says Laura. The end result will be a preliminary model that will be able to forecast specific events (such as flour running out of stock) on the basis of the text and images that individuals post online (e.g. comments about flour).
Similar to the other winning proposals, the project brings together a diverse range of disciplines, involving psychologists, nutritionists, economists, computer scientists and data analysts. “We also benefit from being able to access STFC’s high-performance computing facilities and experience in running citizen science projects” Laura says. If successful, she hopes that the group will be able to access additional funding to both scale-up the model and engage retailers, so that they can additional information, such as sales data, to better understand the relationship between consumer sentiment and their buying behaviours.
Look out for our future blog posts which will give updates on the progress of the projects funded in our previous Sandpit events and funding calls
Even the most interactive events based on networking and group discussion can be successfully run online – as the recent STFC Food Network+ (SFN) virtual Sandpit demonstrated.
An opportunity within a challenge
The SFN believes that innovation comes when thinkers from different disciplines are supported and encouraged to try new ideas, even if they have no guarantee of success. The SFN’s Sandpit events play an instrumental role in this, by facilitating informal networking followed by focused brainstorming to develop proposals for collaborative projects that explore a new approach to solve a problem. These proposals are pitched to the assembled participants with the winning entries for each theme decided by democratic vote to receive immediate funding. Face to face interaction is integral to these events; hence with coronavirus-related social distancing restrictions in place, it was clear that the Sandpit scheduled for July 2020 couldn’t be run in the usual format. Like so many events across the globe – from international scientific meetings to cultural festivals – the easiest action would have been to cancel the entire Sandpit. But as SFN technical lead Rakesh Nayak explains, the team felt that the situation actually made it more important than ever to run the Sandpit. “We saw an opportunity to fund some really innovative projects addressing the unprecedented situation the food industry is currently in” he says. “Working within uncertainty is such a focus right now, and learning lessons from this situation could help us address future challenges.” This was reflected in the three themes chosen for the event: Sustainable production at uncertain times; Resilient food supply chains at uncertain times; and Nutritional security & consumer behaviour at uncertain times.
Recreating the experience
Having decided to proceed, the team then spent two months exploring a range of different platforms to work out how to best recreate the experience online. “We were really keen to somehow retain the sensation that participants were actually present at an event happening in real time” Rakesh says. For this reason, LearnBrite was trialled to host the introductory seminar since it allowed the organisers to create a virtual 3D environment, with each participant represented by a personal avatar. “This really did help to recreate the experience of being in a physical auditorium, listening to different presenters - the delegates could even ‘walk’ in to the virtual environment and choose the seat they sat in” says Rakesh. For the following discussions however, Zoom was chosen since it had a greater capacity to manage a high volume of interactions and came with the option of organising groups into separate breakout rooms.
Networking in virtual space
Recognising that an online format would make informal networking harder, the SFN team decided to organise participants into groups with shared interests ahead of the event. “The discussions were held on different days for each theme, so that delegates could work on project proposals for as many themes as they wanted to” says Network Coordinator Gareth Crockett. “But for each theme we assigned participants to subgroups to help us focus the discussions.” These groups were based on the areas of interest that delegates had selected on the registration form. “The aim was to focus the discussion, not to restrict ideas” says Rakesh. “Everyone had the option at any point to change to a different subgroup if they felt it would suit them better.” Judging by feedback comments from delegates, it was generally felt that this approach helped to save time, increase efficiency and reduce social awkwardness in approaching potential new collaborators. “The process was very effective in bringing people together with similar passions and concerns, since we could state our interests on the application form. You need some common ground to start a focussed discussion” says participant Laura Wilkinson (Swansea University). The discussions also sparked new collaborations between industry and academia. “During the Sandpit I made new commercial and academic contacts which I consequently introduced to an existing commercial partner" says Geraint Morgan (The Open University). "This partner later told me that one of these contacts was working in an area they envisaged as being critical to their work, potentially saving them thousands in research. It has led to a very exciting new collaboration to extract high value nutrients from what is currently waste vegetable material.”
The real proof of success, however, came the following week when the participants reconvened to pitch their proposals. Stephen Serjeant (the Open University), who acted as an observer, noted that the online format certainly hadn’t compromised the ambition within the proposals: “I felt the pitches themselves were a step up in quality from previous events" he says. "The online format worked well and nearly early every presentation was skilfully timed to fit their slot." Audience feedback also indicated that the process was much more efficient than usual with many appreciating the anonymity of the voting system. Look out for our next blog post, where we will feature the winning projects for each theme.
“The success of this online Sandpit could set a trend where our future physical events are supplemented by online options to increase our reach and allow us to be more responsive to new challenges” says Rakesh. With the pitches demonstrating that online formats don’t necessarily mean a compromise in quality, Rakesh is keen to capitalise on the wider benefits, such as increased access. As Laura notes, “Having the Sandpit as an online event gave an opportunity for people to attend who may not usually be able to, for instance due to caring responsibilities or lack of funding.” Notably, this was the first Sandpit to have a prominent international dimension, including many participants from Asia and Africa. Online events are also considerably more sustainable, since they have reduced carbon footprints and no catering waste.
"It's never been so important to give people the chance to do high-risk, high-return work as the SFN does. The last Sandpit showed that they come up with some wonderfully imaginative approaches, and I expect at least some of these to pay off handsomely." Stephen summarises. Ultimately, we look forward to the day when the SFN can celebrate the achievements of its membership in person. But the current times have shown that it will take more than a global pandemic to stop our work.
A new approach to measure fruit ripening could help increase quality and reduce waste for apple growers
The apple has long been one of the most popular fruits eaten in Britain, with the UK market worth more than £220 million each year. But few people realise that the juicy, ‘fresh’ apple they buy at the supermarket may have been in cold storage for nearly a year. Timing the apple harvest to ensure long-lasting, delicious fruits is a real challenge for farmers – but one that could soon become easier thanks to research supported by the STFC Food Network+.
"Two examples of Braeburn apple samples where multispectral imaging has been tested to see if it can distinguish parts containing starch (stained dark by iodine) from areas where starch had broken down into simple sugars (no staining). As the technology is still in development, the multispectral results are not yet clear for all samples. Photo credit: Deborah Rees and Melina Zempila."
“Most apples are harvested in autumn, but the demand for them lasts all year round” says Deborah Rees, who describes herself as a ‘post-harvest’ biologist at the Natural Resources Institute (University of Greenwich). “This means we have to find a way to slow down the deterioration process and keep them in good quality”. Typically, this involves storing them at a low temperature (between 0.5 and 3°C depending on the variety), in a modified atmosphere with low oxygen levels. But even under these conditions, apples continue to ripen. “The longer you want to store apples, the earlier you have to pick them, so the window for harvesting is very narrow” says Deborah. “Growers currently have very little advance notice of this, so it can be a nightmare to recruit enough labour”. This can ultimately lead to waste if fruit cannot be picked at the right time. To address this, Deborah is researching a new approach to capturing the ripening process as it happens.
As fruits ripen, complex starch molecules are converted into simpler sugars, developing the sweet taste we enjoy. This can be measured using potassium iodide dye (iodine), which turns blue-black in the presence of starch. “Many people remember doing iodine staining at school, for instance staining leaves to look at starch production during photosynthesis or to compare the starch levels in different vegetables” Deborah says. “Apple growers use exactly the same process, typically in the boot of a car, right in the middle of the orchard. It’s messy, time consuming and not particularly safe considering that iodine is a hazardous substance”. Deborah hopes this could be replaced with a method based on multispectral or hyperspectral imaging. These methods use wavelengths beyond the visible light spectrum, including ultra-violet and infra-red light. In the case of hyperspectral imaging, hundreds or even thousands of narrow bands (10-20 nm) can be analysed. “The resulting image depends on what wavelengths are absorbed by the sample, which is affected by the chemical composition” says Deborah. “What we wanted to find out was if we could find a signal signature that depended on the concentration of starch.”
To investigate this, Deborah and her colleagues collaborated with an apple grower in Kent during the harvest season. “We took cut slices from apples at different maturities and compared the iodine-stained slices with images taken using two hyperspectral cameras to identify promising wavelengths” she says. Once the apple harvest was over, they continued to refine the signal processing method using bananas, since these also ripen when starch molecules convert to sugars. “These were a good substitute model for apples since most bananas are imported immature and then artificially ripened using the plant hormone ethylene” says Deborah.
The initial results indicate that hyperspectral imaging shows promise for measuring apple ripening, particularly for wavelengths in the range 460 – 630 nm, 630 – 920 nm. “A particular advantage is that the data give a quantitative readout, whereas iodide staining can only indicate presence or absence of starch” says Deborah. “This could provide a more informative and earlier measurement of starch breakdown.” She uses the analogy of an emptying bathtub, where iodine staining would only tell you when the tub was completely empty. “A quantitative method, on the other hand, can tell you when the tub is half-empty” she says. The next challenge will be to develop a portable multispectral (or hyperspectral if necessary) instrument that could be used directly by farmers on the orchards, without complex training. According to Deborah, some of the UK’s major apple growers have already shown interest. Nigel Kitney of the agricultural and horticultural advice company Hutchinsons says “this is an exciting development which will remove the subjectivity of the starch iodine test enabling growers to harvest the apples at the correct time, improving the product’s consistency for the consumer”.
Besides providing funding, the STFC Food Network+ enabled Deborah to connect with researchers at RAL Space who were experts in spectroscopic methods and data analysis, including planetary scientist Hugh Mortimer and a research scientist, Melina Zempila. “Normally they would work on processing satellite data, so it was an opportunity for them to apply their skills to a very different sector”. In addition, her attendance and presentation about the project at the Network’s annual meeting opened up a discussion about a whole range of other potential technologies and fruits to consider.
Having worked with apples for over 10 years, it is perhaps not surprising that Deborah enjoys eating them too. “My favourite has to be the Russet apple, although the Bramley is of course the best for a good apple crumble” she says. “I seem to be surrounded by apples all the time at the moment. Even when I go out cycling, it’s usually through the Kent apple orchards!”
Satellite technology could help us start to reverse the perilous condition of our soils…
© Photo by Lizzie Sagoo, ADAS
There is a growing crisis underfoot. Our soils – vital to both our ecosystems and agriculture – are degrading at an unprecedented rate, due to factors that include intensive farming, deforestation and pollution. Degraded soils directly affect food security, availability of clean water, global warming mitigation efforts and biodiversity. But it is difficult to know where to begin to address the issue whilst we lack the technology to accurately monitor soil health on a large scale. Thanks to this ambitious new project from the STFC Food Network+, we could soon be using technology from the space sector to shine a light on the state of our soils.
“There is currently a real gap in our knowledge when it comes to monitoring soils on a large scale” says soil scientist Marcelo Galdos (University of Leeds). “Currently, soil analysis typically involves taking a sample at a discrete location and sending it to a laboratory. At a large scale, this would be expensive and highly labour intensive”. Working with collaborators through the STFC Food Network+, Marcelo is developing a proposal for a completely new approach, using remote satellite imaging and biogeochemical modelling. “For this project, we are focusing on estimating soil organic carbon, as this is a proxy for overall soil health” he says. “It indicates the rate at which the soil is being degraded and its ability to produce food or provide ecosystem services, such as purifying water and removing CO2 from the atmosphere”. Consequently, determining soil organic carbon by integrating satellite data, modelling and field measurements could provide an instant map of UK soil health, complementing ‘on the ground’ surveys.
To begin, Marcelo and his colleagues are scoping all the possible ways that satellite data could potentially be used, to produce a shortlist of the most promising approaches. These include using remote sensing to estimate soil temperature, soil moisture levels, land use and land cover, and aboveground biomass. Combining these quantitative measurements with field-scale data could demonstrate how different land uses or crop types affect soil health. “This could even be extended to compare the impact of different soil management systems, such as no-till techniques, cover crops and crop rotations” says Marcelo. If data was collected over a time series, this could even show how the timings between tilling, planting and harvest affect soil quality.
All of this valuable data could ultimately feed into policies to support the UK Government’s 25-year Environment Plan, which aims to incentivise farmers to improve vital ecosystem services, including soils. It could also prove crucial in our ongoing battle against climate change. “Achieving net-zero will only be possible if we both reduce emissions and remove carbon from the atmosphere” Marcelo says. An accurate map of UK soil condition would enable high-carbon areas, such as peatland, to be preserved and also identify regions where soil carbon could be improved through better management techniques.
Clearly, the potential benefits of this project are significant, but it can only succeed with input from a wide range of disciplines – from soil scientists and agronomists, to satellite experts and climate modellers. Indeed, Marcelo had first thought about using satellites to monitor soils several years ago, but the catalyst for the project came when he attended the STFC Food Network+ Sandpit Event ‘Adapting to climate change: climate-smart agriculture’ in March 2019. It was here he met his future collaborators, Lizzie Sagoo (ADAS, an environmental consultancy), Daniel Morton (UK Centre for Ecology and Hydrology) and Martin Hardcastle (University of Hertfordshire). Since then, the network has grown exponentially, resulting in a workshop in September 2019 attended by experts in a wide range of fields. “This had a truly multidisciplinary and even international reach, including participants from Brazil, the US and Norway, besides start-up companies that use satellite data, such as SatSense” says Marcelo. “Talking with so many different people really helped to formulate our ideas”.
Once these techniques have been refined, they could potentially be applied to sensors on drones, opening links to precision agriculture, where inputs (e.g. fertilisers and pesticides) are only applied where and when needed. Ultimately, Marcelo believes major benefits could be realised by this combination of modelling and remote sensing in developing countries, or in his home country of Brazil. “During my early research years, I spent time in Africa researching sustainable agricultural techniques, and I am currently involved in a large project on climate-smart agriculture there. I would really like to apply this approach to support climate change adaptation and mitigation strategies globally” he says.
In the meantime, the challenge of mapping the UK’s soils is enough. And when he’s not at work, Marcelo turns his attention to the soils around his home. “As a soil scientist, perhaps it is not surprising that I am a keen gardener!” he jokes.
For millions of people across the globe, rice is the foundation of their diet. But this particular crop can contain unsafe levels of arsenic: a poisonous mineral that can cause death. One project funded by the STFC Food Network+ is seeking to understand how exactly arsenic accumulates in rice, which could ultimately inform safer production and cooking practices.
Arsenic naturally occurs in underlying rock, particularly in the regions that border the Himalayan mountain range such as India and Bangladesh. This means that arsenic can easily contaminate groundwater in these regions. “Most people in these regions are aware that they shouldn’t drink water contaminated with arsenic” says Manoj Menon, a lecturer of environmental soil science at the University of Sheffield. “But there is a wider issue of arsenic accumulating in the food chain. Rice is especially problematic because it is a very thirsty plant that takes up a lot of water”. Indeed, for typical paddy-field style irrigation systems, it takes an estimated 2,500 litres of water to produce a single kilogram of unmilled rice. Furthermore, for many countries in south Asia, the average daily rice consumption can be as high as 500g-700g per day (pre-cooked weight), compared with just 15g for Europe. Clearly, this issue needs a holistic approach where crop breeding, irrigation schemes and cooking methods are all optimised to reduce arsenic contamination in rice. But before this can start, many fundamental gaps in our understanding need to be answered.
Manoj began this task by asking how arsenic is distributed within the rice grains themselves – does it concentrate in particular regions or is it present throughout? To answer this, he turned to the UK’s national synchrotron Diamond Light Source, based at the Science and Technology Facilities Council’s Rutherford Appleton Laboratory. Diamond works like a giant microscope, but is 10,000 times more powerful than traditional models. It harnesses the power of electrons by accelerating them to near-light speeds, so that they give off light a billion times brighter than the sun. The light is directed into laboratories known as ‘beamlines’, where it is used to study anything from viruses and vaccines to ancient scrolls and jet engines.
“Our samples were longitudinal sections of individual white rice grains, less than a millimetre thick” says Manoj. Using the X-ray beamline, Manoj produced a high-resolution map comparing the distribution of arsenic with other compounds. Crucially, arsenic was mostly concentrated around the outer layers of the grains. The essential nutrient zinc, on the other hand, was present around the embryonic part of the seed. “This fits previous works and also suggests that arsenic levels could be reduced without affecting the abundance of important micronutrients. This could be through refining the polishing process that removes the outer bran layer, or through alternative cooking methods”.
Following this, Manoj investigated how arsenic levels varied across different rice cultivars and genotypes. His range of samples covered 55 different varieties, including both wild rice and supermarket brands. “We looked at brown rice, white rice, long grain, short grain, medium grain, organically produced and non-organically produced” says Manoj. Since it took between eight and nine hours to produce each high-resolution map using the Diamond Light Source, Manoj used classic analytical techniques to allow a faster comparison: Liquid Chromatography and Mass Spectrometry. Reassuringly, the results showed that for most of the samples, the levels of arsenic fell well below the European safety threshold for adults of less than 0.25 milligrams per kilogram. However, many of the samples exceeded the threshold for children, who have a much lower safety limit of 0.1 milligrams per kilogram. “In particular the highest arsenic levels were seen in organic rice samples” says Manoj. The results also confirmed previous studies which found that brown rice has higher arsenic levels than white. But Manoj cautions against avoiding brown rice on this principle: “Brown rice has health benefits not found in white rice, including higher levels of fibre, vitamins and minerals”.
Since these initial results, the project has taken on a momentum of its own. “After this work with the STFC Food Network+, we have secured additional funding from the Global Challenges Research Fund, which allowed us to set up an Arsenic in Rice Research Network (ARRNet)” Manoj says. He is currently using this to investigate how different cooking methods may affect the distribution of arsenic, besides conducting surveys to understand how aware people in India and Bangladesh are of arsenic contamination in rice. A rice field experiment has been planned in India in 2020-21 to optimise irrigation practices. “Our long-term goal is to apply this knowledge in these regions to help people live with arsenic in the environment” Manoj says.
“This initial small grant from the STFC Food Network+ acted as a spark that has really changed my life a lot” he adds. “It is a brilliant initiative to have small pots of money available that are easier for researchers to access than big grants with more competitive and lengthy application processes. This helps to get projects started”. Despite his work, he still enjoys a good plate of rice, and advises that Europeans shouldn’t be too worried about arsenic contamination. “Our message is that it is the total amount of rice you eat that is the main risk factor” he says. “For the average consumption rate of Europeans, arsenic contamination shouldn’t be a problem, although it is perhaps best to restrict how much rice children are given”.
Manoj and his team have had two papers published on this project:
Menon et al (2020) Do Arsenic levels in rice pose a health risk to the UK population? Ecotoxicology and Environmental Safety
Menon et al (2020) Improved rice cooking approach to maximise arsenic removal while preserving nutrient elements
January 2022 - Caroline Wood, Freelance Science Writer