Some of the other pioneering initiatives to receive backing as well involve the application of big data, artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics to UK farming, with the aim of establishing a more efficient food production system that cuts costs and reduces greenhouse gas emissions.
The funding forms part of the Transforming Food Production (TFP) challenge aimed at setting food production systems on the trajectory to net zero emissions by 2040. The challenge is run under the auspices of the agency, UK Research & Innovation (UKRI), which works in partnership with universities, research organisations, businesses, charities, and government to create the best possible environment for research and innovation to flourish.
Commenting on the £24m award scheme, UK science minister, Amanda Solloway, said it would help turn creative ideas into pioneering sustainability focused projects, as well as boost jobs and drive forward the UK’s economic recovery.
A publication earlier this month revealed the UK government’s R&D roadmap to make the UK a science superpower.
Lowering carbon footprint
Nottingham-based consortium, REACT-FIRST, which is officially launched today, will receive over £2m to generate a protein meal, branded as Proton, for use in fish and poultry feed, a process that is claimed to have a low carbon footprint.
Led by Deep Branch Biotechnology, the project will use technology to turn carbon dioxide from Drax Power’s Selby power station into feed with minimal water usage and without the need for arable farmland.
Peter Rowe, CEO of that startup, said while the technology has huge transformative potential, commercialization is not possible without cooperation from key stakeholders across the value chain.
The project will work with UK retailer Sainsbury’s as well as the Scottish Aquaculture Innovation Centre to integrate into the fish and poultry supply chain, and in this way the company can ensure that industry demand is met.
"Being part of the REACT-FIRST consortium is an outstanding opportunity to produce feeds for our farmed fish and chicken, with 65-75% smaller carbon footprints than existing feeds, no requirements for arable land and minimal water usage,” said Judith Batchelar, director, Sainsbury's Brand.
Valerie Schuster, strategy director, AB Agri, another partner in the consortium, said that by growing single-cell protein using CO₂ emissions from industry, REACT-FIRST will create a new, scalable and circular protein.
Fish feed manufacturer, BioMar, is also involved: “Aquaculture is expected to double production by 2050. However, to achieve this we need feeds with minimal environmental impact. At BioMar we are constantly seeking innovative raw materials that don’t compete with human food production and nutrients from by-products that minimize waste. We are excited to be part of this project to see how Proton will perform in aquaculture feed,” said Paddy Campbell, VP Salmon, BioMar Group.
The Synthetic Biology Research Centre at the University of Nottingham, Nottingham Trent University and the University of Stirling are the academic research partners in the project.
Full list of entities awarded funding
Beyond REACT-FIRST, the other projects that received the financial backing include:
Autonomous Growing System (London), led by Optimal Labs, will receive over £2m to provide autonomous technology that controls climate, irrigation and lighting, enabling any crop variety to be grown in any location. This will significantly increase production levels and resource-efficiency in existing UK greenhouses, helping to protect the UK’s food system against climate change and population growth.
Robot Highways (Lincoln), led by Saga Robotics, will receive nearly £2.5m to perform the largest known global demonstration of robotics and autonomous technologies on a farm. The robots will assist farmers by carrying out essential, energy intensive physical farm processes such as picking and packing fruit and treating crops to reduce critical pests and diseases.
Production at the Point of Consumption (Maidstone), led by Evogro, will receive about £850,000 to research and develop the next generation of autonomous growing systems, to ensure they are affordable for new consumer markets, and to make it an economic method to produce mainstream crops.
InFarm2.x (London), led by vertical farming business InFarm, will receive over £3m to develop a farming system that can grow a wider variety of fruit and vegetables than is currently possible by growing their crops in vertically stacked levels, rather than on a single level surface, such as a field. It will also use technology including gas sensors and monitoring cameras to observe the growth patterns of their crops, helping to identify the optimal growing conditions, increasing productivity.
AGRI-SATT (London), led by Feed Algae, will receive over £4m for its project that is based around an algae growing system that exploits natural seawater to produce food in deserts. This project aims to combine data from the growing system with satellite data to automate production and increase the nutritional quality of the food produced.
GelPonic (Manchester), led by AEH Innovative Hydrogel, has developed a new growth material that will improve crop yields on farms worldwide. It will receive over £1m to develop a material that conserves water and protects plants by filtering pathogens and includes a new graphene-based IoT device that allows remote-monitoring of conditions in vertical farms.
REMEDY (Bath), led by Quality Milk Management Services, will receive over £1.7m to provide precision technologies to dairy farmers enabling them to access real time data to ensure their farm is as productive, efficient and environmentally friendly as possible. This includes technology such as wearable devices for cows that tracks their behavior and nutrition, ensuring farmers can make more informed decisions when managing their farm.
TUBERSCAN-DEMO (Lincoln), led by B-hive, will receive nearly £2m to develop and test an innovative demonstrator system to measure average potato sizes and yield throughout potato fields, providing insights that will enable selective harvesting to take place, optimizing crop yield and resource use. It is anticipated that this technology could generate an estimated 5-10% increase in UK marketable potato production.