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Support for innovation

Helen Munday and John Whittall, Lead Technologists in the Sustainable Agriculture and Food Team at Innovate UK, explain how innovation can make our food healthier and more sustainable by balancing environmental impact with consumer needs to create a win-win situation.

The UK agriculture and food supply chain contributes £103 billion to the UK economy annually and employs 3.8 million people. Food and drink manufacturing contributes £26.5 billion and is the single largest manufacturing sector in the UK; it has been identified by government as a target sector for export growth. Thirty percent of the global economy is thought to be food related. 

Global food demand is expected to grow by 60% by 2050, driven by population increases and the changing diets of the growing middle classes. These changing dietary preferences can also impact negatively on health, with concerns including obesity, high blood pressure and raised cholesterol. In the UK the health profession has specifically targeted the need to reduce salt, sugar and saturated fat in food and drink. In the context of preventing cancer, there are also concerns about a lack of dietary fibre. Globally the market for products positioned in the natural/ healthy food & drink category, which could address such issues, is thought to be around £250bn.

At the same time the need to preserve our precious natural resources, to drive supply chain efficiency throughout the AgriFood chain and to waste as little as possible (including in the consumer’s home) has never been greater. In addition, there is an estimated global market for improving agricultural productivity of around £300bn, with the categories of precision agriculture and bio-pesticides both growing rapidly at around 15% per annum.

"Indeed, innovation that sees an alignment of the public health and environmental sustainability agendas, may offer a true win-win situation."

Indeed, innovation that sees an alignment of the public health and environmental sustainability agendas, may offer a true win-win situation. Thus looking at this intersection of two very important drivers could offer great potential and Innovate UK has a goal to facilitate this aim.

Moreover, multiple interlocutors from a diversity of perspectives could interact synergistically to amplify this win-win situation. Thus, researchers, NGOs, governmental departments and indeed policy developers could play a significant role in raising consumer awareness. This could drive consumer behaviour to seek out food products that meet health needs. Obviously it would be to the benefit of the food industry if products fitting this brief are available with a positioning that would appeal to the anticipated uplift in consumer demand. For example, with the global demand for protein increasing and with concurrent concerns over the environmental impact of some forms of meat production rising, it would be timely to develop an understanding of consumer responses to foods that offer genuine potential as meat replacers.

Supporting the UK AgriFood chain

The UK has a leading global position in health and sustainability, which are the key targets for Innovate UK’s investment programme. Innovate UK has a significant role in the delivery of support to the sector via the UK Government’s Agricultural Technologies Strategy.[1] Working closely with the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), it is delivering the Agri-Tech Catalyst and setting up a network of Innovation Centres, which will address key challenges in this sector.

"The role of R&D is therefore critical in making food and drink fit into a healthy eating lifestyle as well as meeting the needs of those consumers looking for foods with ‘clean labels’ and wholesome ‘kitchen cupboard’ ingredients."

The overall objective of this work is to support UK companies to: develop innovative solutions to improve the productivity of UK agriculture, reduce environmental impacts, improve security in the food supply chain and enhance food quality and attributes. Once these problems can be cracked at home, UK firms will have solutions to sell in global markets that are also experiencing similar challenges. Success against the objectives should benefit both businesses and society.

Healthier food and drink

Businesses recognise the need to proactively offer consumers foods that are more nutritionally balanced and, at the same time, appealing to modern tastes. The food and drink industry is developing innovative products to meet evolving consumer preferences and helping the UK build on its reputation for safe and sustainable food production of the highest standard.

The market opportunity is broad, from niche health products to mass markets, such as bread. Consumers fall into different demographic groups influenced by a wide range of factors. When purchasing foods, consumers will have a hierarchy of needs, and for many, this list is topped by taste, affordability and convenience, with both health and sustainability coming lower down the list of drivers of purchase intent. But for some consumers sustainability and ethics, and the ability of food to both maintain and even increase health, can be significant drivers when making purchasing decisions. Therefore, for greatest economic and societal impact, supporting a breadth of projects spanning a variety of food types is important. This includes on the one hand improving heavily consumed, comparatively unhealthy foods, as well as developing new, ‘healthier’ foods.

For some time the food industry has recognised the health driver. However in many cases the ingredients and technology are limited to those that have been available for many years. The role of R&D is therefore critical in making food and drink fit into a healthy eating lifestyle as well as meeting the needs of those consumers looking for foods with ‘clean labels’ and wholesome ‘kitchen cupboard’ ingredients.

One such example of a project funded by Innovate UK, that has clear benefits for health conscious consumers and also fits the sustainability agenda, is illustrated in Case Study 1 provided by Warburtons. In this example the interests of the health conscious purchaser are front and centre, but sustainability outcomes are also achieved at the same time.

Case Study 1 – Innovating in bread manufacture by the simplification of the ingredient base whilst increasing efficiency and reducing waste – Warburtons and collaborators

Warburtons Ltd is a family run bakery company based in the North West of England but with a national bakery supply base. Warburtons is the biggest branded bakery business in the UK and is run by the fifth generation of the Warburton family.

In April 2013 Warburtons started a collaborative project with matched funding from Innovate UK with the objective of simplifying the ingredient base used in industrial baking and reducing the cost of waste. Warburtons was the lead partner and interface with Innovate UK; other partners were AB Mauri and Briggs from Burton.

The key workstreams were to:

1) Create unique process steps which added functionality to the baking process and reduced/removed the reliance on additives.

2) Increase the functionality of the key ingredients to allow the removal of minor ingredients and simplify the recipe.

The funding supported the design and build of pilot scale equipment, trials (both in a pilot facility and on an industrial scale) and product assessment by both chemical and sensory analysis at Campden BRI.

On completion of the project in March 2015, Warburtons had designed and built a pilot scale process (patent applied for) to deliver the required functionality to the product, to improve the quality of the finished baked product and to simplify the ingredient list. The company has now commenced work to scale up from the pilot plant to full industrial scale. The Warburtons team is running extensive trials across its product range to ensure the product quality is met on a consistent basis as well as working with partners on the industrial design.

Without the funding from Innovate UK it is unlikely that this project, with uncertainty about the likelihood of success, would have proceeded. Other less risky projects competing for internal financial resources would have been given priority. Tackling this project has created a major advance in the company’s knowledge base and has brought breakthrough thinking and new products into the food industry.

Another benefit of the project has been the collaboration between different companies, which has brought new perspectives to the challenge.

Sustainability goals

Sustainability goals are now well embedded in AgriFood businesses as illustrated by WRAP’s recently updated Courtauld Commitment and the Food and Drink Federation’s Five-Fold Ambition. However there are many who believe that the ‘low hanging fruit’ has now been picked and that future progress will be slower unless ambitious technological approaches are taken.

Innovate UK has supported a number of R&D programmes that address innovative approaches to meeting sustainability goals. Case study 2 describes several projects carried out by Marlow Foods, a company which has clear sustainability drivers and products which align with the health and wellness category.

Some of the most exciting developments on the horizon may well benefit sustainability goals. With ever increasing pressure on margins throughout the food supply chain, the drive is to deliver inputs only at the point where they are required and at the minimum level to achieve sustainably produced and nutritional food. This is especially true in the primary agriculture food chain, where farmers can play a role in avoiding waste and minimising the wider environmental impacts, such as discharge to watercourses. Therefore, precision agriculture is coming to the fore with developments including Smart Tractors navigating with GPS, Agribots tending to crops, microdotting application of fertilisers and survey drones providing farmers with the necessary information to understand the needs of their land, crops and livestock. Sensors and telemetry are becoming more and more sophisticated, with farmers able to remotely detect oestrous in cows and perform health tracking of a wide range of livestock.

"Another challenging area that could reap benefits is that of ‘big data’."

Another challenging area that could reap benefits is that of ‘big data’. Harnessing the data constantly being generated by all kinds of sensing and measuring devices offers new opportunities for analysis and interpretation. Whether that data is on the farm or up-stream in the supply chain (for example through the distribution network or on-line within a food factory), the ambition is to use the millions of data points available to give the big picture to help improve resource utilisation and logistics and increase food safety and shelf life. Recent calls by the Food Standards Agency in England for expressions of interest in research topics have included ‘next generation sequencing ‘big data’’, demonstrating that this is not only of interest to individual commercial operations but also to public bodies and funders, which take a broader view across businesses. Within the Agricultural Technologies Strategy the newly launched AgriMetrics Centre, one of the Agricultural Centres of Innovation, is also looking to leverage the effective use of such data.

Case Study 2 – Marlow Foods and collaborators                                                  

Quorn is the brand name for mycoprotein products made by Marlow Foods through a large-scale continuous fermentation process using Fusarium venenatum. Mycoprotein is at the heart of all Quorn foods and is both high in protein and fibre whilst low in saturated fat and sodium. Other potential health benefits indicated in various research publications include an association with reduction in LDL cholesterol levels and greater satiating power than other foods with a similar fibre content.

Intuitively a plant-derived protein should be more sustainable than an animal-based protein. Quantitative research, in some cases working with recognised third party advocates, such as the Carbon Trust, has provided an evidence base to substantiate this claim as well as helping identify hotspots for future improvement. This has included work with Sheffield Hallam University on the Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) of the Quorn manufacturing process, which identified steps to reduce costs by over £1 million annually. Ongoing work at Marlow Foods is looking at the product’s water footprint including potential impacts on water stress. Through process and supply chain improvements, the company has been able to reduce the carbon footprint and water usage (both per tonne of production) respectively by 17% and 15% against a 2012 baseline.

The manufacturing process is a key step in terms of both energy and water consumption and also leads to a significant waste stream from the fermentation broth. Process intensification is of great interest both as a means to reduce environmental impacts and to increase productivity. One approach is the use of direct heating methods and a collaboration with Edinburgh-based Advanced Microwave Technologies is looking at continuous microwave volumetric heating with a range of viscous food materials.

The waste stream has been investigated in a project with Northumbria University to identify not only suitable waste recovery and water recycling technologies but also added value, natural ingredients. A collaboration with Heriot-Watt University has identified mycoproteins that could be used to replace existing proteins in food and biomedical applications, with the benefits of improved sustainability and/ or non-animal origin. Food applications potentially include fat replacers and foaming and emulsifying or gelling agents. Work has recently started on a follow on project to assess the feasibility of producing and extracting these proteins on a large scale.

As well as these technology-based innovations, it is important to understand the drivers for consumer behaviour in order to develop markets for alternatives to conventional forms of protein. A collaboration with Leeds Beckett University is developing a nutritional behavioural change capability intended to help broaden the consumer base from the ‘worried well’, focusing in the first instance on consumers looking to achieve weight loss through diet modification. Another project with Nottingham University is researching the psychology of consumers’ food choices, supporting the development of new products in a hybrid meat / non meat category meeting consumer expectations for taste and mouth feel to support long-term behavioural change.

Looking through the sustainability lens means thinking on a longer timeframe, over 20 years or even longer. Longer term research interests at Marlow Foods include widening the range of raw materials for the Quorn process (this is the focus of a current project with East Malling Research) to a more fundamental understanding of the Fusarium venenatum organism itself. The drive for sustainable innovation inevitably requires the company to access new areas of research expertise and requires an inherently collaborative approach.

When it comes to sustainability goals, packaging is still a hot area for innovation in a highly competitive market. Whilst for consumers a good package is the one they do not notice (or does not provide problems, such as difficulty of opening), for manufacturers it is a key way to protect products and provide functionality but is also a route to offering product uniqueness and brand identification.

Whilst packaging has many benefits it can also add significantly to costs and therefore it has become a key focus for sustainable manufacture. As an example, whilst glass has been a mainstay of the packaging world for generations, the use of PET has greatly increased since its introduction some 40 years ago. The last great glass markets are those for wine and beer bottles and PET offerings are now looking possible for these applications too. Another area for innovation is light weighting and the application of bio-based rather than petroleumbased plastics. It is unlikely there will be a single solution in this area and increasingly companies will need to use quantitative tools, such as Life Cycle Analysis, to choose between different options of both materials and infrastructures (the merits of re-use and recycling versus biodegradability) as material resources are used more efficiently in what is termed the ‘circular economy’. At the intersection with health there are opportunities where packaging can ensure the stability of bioactives and help with portion control; maybe edible packaging could even offer nutritional benefits and avoid the need for disposing of packaging at all!

Innovation can be most interesting when technologies intersect in surprising ways, for example the potential for using satellites to benefit the food supply chain. Whilst it is still early days for the application of satellite technology, the opportunities seem wide-ranging. In primary production, applications could include autonomous systems, yield/biomass/soil mapping and monitoring, livestock tracking and whole farm system connectivity. Post-farm gate potential could include traceability and provenance, supply-side management and logistics/ delivery. Whilst the potential clearly includes efficiency and sustainability, the opportunities could go way beyond these areas.

Innovation is key to addressing the challenges of providing a sustainable AgriFood chain for the future but also to ensuring that food enhances the health of its consumers. Whilst many innovations address one or other of these goals, there is considerable value in meeting both drivers simultaneously. Although it is not always easy to identify how such objectives can be partnered together, never mind achieved, it seems clear that innovating in this space should deliver a win-win situation for the future of sustainable and healthy food production. It is therefore critical to adopt an R&D strategy that considers both health and sustainability in delivering nutritious food to consumers. There are some very good examples of where this is happening as a result of Innovate UK’s support to businesses.


Helen Munday and John Whittall are Lead Technologists in the Sustainable Agriculture and Food Team at Innovate UK. Helen Munday is also a Fellow of the IFST and Chair of the Communications Committee. 

Innovate UK, North Star House, North Star Avenue, Swindon SN2 1UE 

Innovate UK is the UK’s innovation agency: it is an executive non-departmental public body, sponsored by the UK Government’s Department of Business, Innovation and Skills. Innovate UK funds support and connects innovative businesses through a unique mix of people and programmes to accelerate sustainable economic growth and create wealth for the UK. The authors would like to thank Colin Kelly of Warburtons and Tim Finnegan of Marlow Foods, for their kind help with the provision of the case studies.

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