Pioneering projects to improve agriculture and food production at home and overseas, have been funded to the tune of £17.8 million, under the latest round of the Government’s Agri-Tech Catalyst.
Projects include one assessing the potential to commercialise the farming of lobsters, a proposal to cultivate scallops on ropes and a way of continuing to make whisky with UK wheat, by using a novel variety.
The technologies are among 21 successful bids that have won a competition run by the UK’s innovation agency, Innovate UK, to target commercially promising new technologies to provide an economic boost to the UK agriculture sector.
Speaking at the opening of Agrimetrics, the UK’s first big data centre of excellence for the whole food system, at Rothamsted Research, in Harpenden, Hertfordshire, Life Sciences Minister George Freeman MP said:
By harnessing science to reduce water and pesticide usage, and to pioneer greener modern farming, the UK is leading the way in boosting agricultural productivity.
Investing in pioneering agri-tech projects like these is win-win for the UK as these technologies will improve food production and create businesses and jobs up and down the country.
British solutions for agricultural challenges
Ian Meikle, head of agriculture and food, at Innovate UK, said:
By supporting these project partnerships – many of which include small businesses – Innovate UK is backing British solutions for agricultural challenges. These schemes are helping to create new jobs and will open up new markets and drive productivity.
Professor Jackie Hunter, BBSRC chief executive, said:
Investing in advances in agriculture is vital, not only for our future food supply but also to help build the UK bio-economy. These new research projects highlight how UK bioscience is at the forefront of innovative approaches for modern farming.
The Agri-Tech Catalyst offers funding for collaborative projects, taking innovative ideas from any sector or discipline with the potential to provide an economic boost to the UK agri-tech industry, by tackling challenges in agriculture.
The scheme will help to take innovations all the way from concept to commercialisation, awarding grants for early-stage pre-industrial research feasibility studies, industrial research, and late-stage pre-experimental and experimental feasibility studies. Any UK business or academic researcher can apply.
The Agri-Tech Catalyst will fund proposals relating to:
primary crop and livestock production, including aquaculture
non-food uses of crops including ornamentals (for example, for biomass)
food security and nutrition challenges in international development
challenges in downstream food processing, provided the solution lies in primary production.
Full summaries of funded projects:
Agri-Tech Catalyst Round 4 – Late Stage
Project 1: VerticalVale: Viability of the Saturn Grower in commercial farming
Saturn Bioponics are working on a collaborative project with leading fresh produce growers ValeFresco, to prove and showcase the benefits that the Saturn Grower vertical growing system offers in a commercial growing environment.
The project will demonstrate the 2.5-3.5% yield increase and reduced costs of production the system delivers on leafy crops, with particular focus on pak choi.
Results have wider application across the fresh produce industry, in particular for leafy salads, herbs and soft fruit. The project enables a step change in the economics of high-value crop production.
Project 2: Improving hydroponic production using new online nitrate sensor
Many crops, including tomatoes, lettuce, herbs, strawberries, raspberries and ornamental flowers are often grown using hydroponics, where fertiliser for the growing plants is supplied in the irrigation water. Hydroponic farming produces excellent quality crops with good efficiency but there is an opportunity to improve the method by continuously monitoring and controlling the fertiliser components in the irrigation water.
This project aims to enable better control over the use of nitrate, which is an important component of the fertiliser. A new sensor, which can be used to continuously measure the nitrate concentration in irrigation water will be deployed at commercial hydroponic farms, allowing continuous nitrate monitoring for the first time.
We will evaluate the potential for expected benefits including reductions in fertiliser use and expense and smaller discharge of fertiliser into natural waters, helping to meet environmental legislation.The technology is relevant to UK and global farming.
Project 3: Real-time information systems for precision pig production
This project unusually involves a consortium of prime producers and technology suppliers. It is farmers who will actually deliver on sustainable intensification and that is why this project involves them directly as full partners.
Entitled real-time information systems for precision pig production, the project will commercially pilot a recently developed system - Guardian Action - as a precursor to full UK industry roll-out. The information system provides real-time remote data recovery from pig production units and allows browser access to the processed and analysed data designed to create knowledge at a farm level.
In addition, anonymous data will be pooled and analysed to add further value for end users. Crucially, the pilot will include the setting up of a customer support resource to ensure that end users can turn the knowledge into profit. Uniquely, veterinary and nutritional expertise will complement the data analysis and interpretation. The system will be supplied and supported on a subscription fee basis.
Without cocoa there is no chocolate and without the next farming generation, there is no cocoa. A vibrant cocoa supply chain is essential for the future of chocolate and - through the Mondelez Cocoa Life sustainability programme - we are leading its transformation.
As part of the programme, Mondelez UK R&D Limited is leading a project to transform the way cocoa is grown and dramatically boost farm yields and farmer incomes. By implementing this project in Ghana we are seeking to directly improve farming practices and technologies for the benefit of many thousands of Ghanaian cocoa producers and to ensure that high-quality Ghana cocoa continues to be the foundation ingredient in some of the UK’s best loved chocolates, like Cadbury Dairy Milk.
Project 2: Third generation polyethylene greenhouse cladding materials
This project will develop a range of novel, third-generation, greenhouse film cladding materials. The films will be spectrally modified to drive completely passive benefits to primary greenhouse growers worldwide.
We will modify materials to change their UV transmission, the scattering of photosynthetically active radiation and to reflect near infra red heat. The benefits targeted will include yield and quality gains, the reduction of solar heat load and potential reductions in pest incidence.
For primary producers the technology is low cost, and small production gains will justify investment in the technology. In terms of film manufacturers the global market for specific greenhouse film is worth c. £1.4 billion. However, it has a low level of product differentiation. Thus, innovations within this project have real potential to secure significant sales and export opportunities.
The UK needs to reduce CO2 emissions in order to mitigate climate change, and green technologies will also stimulate economic activity. Bioenergy crops provide an alternative to fossil fuels, where wood, straw and other biomass is burnt in power stations, in order to generate electricity. 75% of the biomass we burn is imported.
Miscanthus is a plant with a straw-like stem that grows 2-3 metres high in a year, is harvested in spring and grows back from the roots to produce a crop each year. The harvested crop is burnt in power stations. It grows well on land that is not suitable for food crops.
The current method for planting miscanthus is from sections of root dug up from other miscanthus plants, but this limits how much we can plant each year. Planting miscanthus seed would allow us to speed up deployment. This project aims to understand how to produce miscanthus seed, plant and look after it successfully, and harvest it effectively, so we can grow more of the crop in the UK and create a new industry.
Project 4: BirdEase: An integrated diagnostic system for bacterial detection in poultry farms
There is increasing pressure within the poultry industry to improve biosecurity measures & cleanliness in primary production; advanced diagnostics for early disease detection are high on the agenda. In response to this specific industry need, this project will develop an integrated on-farm early-warning bacterial sensing system for intensive poultry production systems, targeting key food-borne disease pathogens prevalent in poultry meat: campylobacter, E.coli & salmonella.
The proposed innovation integrating sample collection, chemical-free enrichment, acousto-optic detection & seamless user presentation, is enabled only by the inter-disciplinary convergence of leading agri-scientists & engineers with poultry producers & industry informers. The overarching objective is to enable earlier decision making by producers to instigate preventative control measures that minimise downstream cross-contamination, thereby decreasing foodborne disease incidence within the supply chain.
Project 5: Aquaculture of the great scallop: Field tests for rope-growing techniques
The project focuses on UK field testing of rope growing methods for the great scallop in the UK.
The project will test variables affecting productivity of rope-growing techniques in order to (i) prove that it is a viable mode of production for large-scale commercial application; (ii) demonstrate the advantages of rope growing over current scallop aquaculture practices; and (iii) to optimise methodology for the implementation of the technique.
The output of the project is intended to be data and know-how which will form the basis of a model to generate funding for commercial exploitation of such methods.
Project 6: Novel low-viscosity wheats for distilling
A new collaboration between industry and academics has been funded which aims to utilise a novel non-GM approach to improve a major UK crop. The project, which involves Rothamsted Research and two industrial partners, The Scotch Whisky Research Institute and Limagrain UK, will run from 2015-2018. A successful outcome will demonstrate the potential to greatly accelerate development of novel varieties of crops for different end uses.
Project 7: Lobster Grower 2 - Assessing the technical, economic and environmental potential for a novel candidate aquaculture species
Support from the Agri-tech Catalyst has been secured for a 36-month project, addressing fundamental food security challenges by examining novel angles to expand aquaculture; to include a species not currently exploited, the European lobster. This species commands the highest value (by volume) of any species landed in the UK and exhibits a significant supply deficit. Sea-based culture, in containers (SBCC) exhibits the potential for a low-carbon form of rearing with no feed costs.
The project will use containers specifically designed for the species, developed in an early stage project, to assess performance and develop holistic application of SBCC systems. The project will run a pilot scale lobster farm to gather practical, operational, environmental, biological, engineering, economic and social data that can be used to develop an essential tool to encourage and inform future investment. The consortium will be led by the National Lobster Hatchery and consists of two SMEs, two HEIs and a government agency.
Project 8: Innovative plant breeding & phenotyping technologies to reduce nutrient requirement of forages and improve livestock production efficiency
A major challenge facing the UK livestock centre is the need to fulfil the increasing demand for meat and milk products whilst reducing the environmental impact of production. This project will apply innovative plant genetics and breeding approaches to the development of improved varieties of perennial ryegrass and white clover with increased nutrient use efficiency (NUE) and deliver environmental and economic benefits to primary producers and wider society.
It will also deliver commercial return to the seed company Germinal Holdings Ltd., who will market the improved varieties. The project will use the National Plant Phenotyping Centre in Aberystwyth as a bridge between studies in flowing solution culture and in the field and to develop high throughput technologies for the effective screening of new plant varieties with improved NUE in the glasshouse and in the field.
Project 9: Improving female fertility and calf survival in the UK beef industry
Fertile suckler beef cows and low calf mortality are essential for profitable beef production systems. To improve cow fertility and calf survival, national data will be used to develop genomic breeding values for fertility and survival.
Genomic selection is a novel breeding tool, which increases the rate of genetic improvement for traits that have traditionally been difficult to improve, such as fertility and survival. As a result, the overall efficiency of the UK beef industry can be improved as cows will be more fertile and produce more calves in their lifetime and more calves will survive.
This will increase production, but just as important do it in a sustainable way that ultimately will reduce the greenhouse gas emissions per kg beef produced. This project is innovative as beef genomics is still in its infancy and there are currently no breeding tools available for the genetic improvement of survival.
Across the world we face growing issues of food security and nutrition. Agri-science is one of the eight great technologies where the UK can link research strength to practical application to farming practices and the food industry.
This project focuses on improving outcomes in primary production, and hence food security, by using advanced technologies to facilitate efficiency benchmarking for both productivity and environmental performance. The hypothesis we will investigate is that historic data patterns can be used to support farmers’ decision making, a positive impact on global food security in a sustainable way.
High resolution data measurements will be evaluated in large scale and smallholder agriculture at locations in Zambia and the UK. Syngenta, AGCO, the University of Aberystwyth and the University of Southampton are working with other academic and international development organisations to deliver the project.
Project 11: Building genomic breeding pyramids for Indian cattle
The objective of this project is to increase the incomes of resource-poor, including landless, dairy farmers in India by establishing a process of continuing genetic gain. This will be achieved by developing a breeding pyramid to offer routinely to farmers first-cross heifers between Holstein and Sahiwal.
This will be achieved through two innovations: the first, to establish specialist producers of heifer calves produced following embryo transfer; the second, to use DNA technology to establish reciprocal recurrent genomic selection (RRGS) for both Holstein and Sahiwal parents to maximize the productivity of the crossbred.
This will capture in a sustainable structure the hybrid vigor in productivity of the crossbred in both yield and fitness for the production environment. The direct benefits will be obtained by the women of the household as they are typically responsible for the dairying activity and receive the income from it. In addition the scheme will diversify the sector and secure the indigenous breed resources.
Agri-Tech Catalyst Round 4 – Early Stage
Project 1: Feasibility study to develop technology for predicting wheat yield
The collaborative project between Selex ES and SOYL will test the feasibility of developing new technology for predicting wheat yield using a wide range of data including remotely sensed information describing the crop and soil. The project is highly innovative as it seeks to produce the first commercially viable yield prediction service that not only predicts yield, but also identifies the key factors expected to limit yields.
New applications for remote sensing technologies will be developed and innovative techniques for integrating a wide range of data types will be employed. The ultimate goal of this initiative is to produce a decision support tool that enables more efficient operating practices for a wide range of clients within the wheat industry.
Project 2: Development and validation of a system for automatic detection of lameness in sheep
This project seeks to address the challenge of sheep lameness, a predominant cause of both poor productive and reproductive performance on sheep farms costing industry around £80 million a year. Lameness control relies on early detection and treatment of lame sheep yet there are no suitable/optimal tools for lameness detection. The project proposes to develop and test validity of a system for automatic lameness detection in sheep.
Project 3: Vaccine diluent improvement for ECF-ITM
This project represents a unique opportunity to translate British technology and expertise from the human health sector into livestock disease control in the developing world context. The project focuses on East Coast Fever (ECF), a major constraint on small-holder cattle production in East, Central and Southern Africa.
An effective vaccine, ECF-ITM, currently exists for the disease but it has a number of important drawbacks that affect its use in the field. This project will trial the use of novel formulations as a replacement for the ECF-ITM vaccine diluent. Success in the project will deliver important ECF-ITM vaccine product enhancements, notably vaccine stability.
This will afford far greater mobility and flexibility to ECF vaccinators resulting in an estimated 300,000 additional cattle being effectively immunised per year. This will be a notable development in the sustainable intensification of small-holder cattle production in the region.
Project 4: Aphid-resistant wheat for the smallholder farmer in Africa
Seed-Co are the largest seed company in Africa, operating in 13 countries in Eastern, Central, Western and Southern Africa and have developed varieties suitable for different environmental conditions as well as for the smallholder farmer, therefore any pest resistance traits will benefit farmers in Africa and further afield.
Smallholder farmers face difficult challenges in protecting their crops against pests and diseases in these countries. Aphid pests can cause severe damage and yield losses to wheat. This project will identify wheat lines which show resistance to aphids, which can be bred into wheat varieties suitable to be grown in rain-fed, low-potential environments, thereby safeguarding the yield of smallholder farmers and reducing the reliance on expensive and environmentally unfriendly pesticides. By doing this we hope to contribute to the food and income security of the African smallholder farmer.
Project 5: Application of general repellents against agricultural pests
General semiochemical repellents are widely used for protecting humans and livestock from attacks by arthropod pests in developing and developed countries, but they have been little explored or used for crop protection. The aim of this project is to prove the concept that volatile, repellent chemicals can be used to reduce the damage caused to agricultural crops by a range of insect pests.
This could provide a widely-applicable new approach to management of crop pests that reduces the use of conventional pesticides and is compatible with integrated pest management and sustainable agricultural intensification. The approach is applicable in both developed and developing countries.
The project will be a collaboration between a UK SME, Russell IPM, two UK research institutes, East Malling Research and the Natural Resources Institute, and an SME, Russell IPM Bangladesh, and university, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman Agricultural University, in Bangladesh
Project 6: Pan-specific vaccine to control Streptococcus agalactiae disease in tilapia aquaculture
As the world population grows and becomes more affluent, an increasing number of people include protein in their diet. Aquaculture is the fastest growing source of animal protein and a major source of income in Asia, South America and Africa.
Tilapia is a popular fish, both with farmers and consumers, but disease can cause massive losses on tilapia farms. Streptococcus agalactiae, which can affect tilapia as well as people, is a major cause of such losses. Currently, antibiotics are commonly used to combat this problem. This is not sustainable because of the risk of antimicrobial resistance.
As an alternative, we propose to develop a vaccine that would protect fish from all types of S. agalactiae that affect them. This project brings together scientific expertise in the area of fish disease and vaccine development and commercial expertise in vaccine production and distribution. Jointly, the partners aim to provide the global aquaculture industry with effective and affordable tools for sustainable disease control.
Project 7: Early attractants for the major new fruit pest, Drosophila suzukii; a ‘super lure‘
The UK fruit industry is under continual pressure from the introductions of non-native pests and diseases. This project will aim to better monitor and time pesticide application against a highly damaging soft and stone fruit pest, Drosophila suzukii. It will achieve this by developing a more species specific attractant for future use in monitoring traps and, eventually, control technologies.