Collaborative research vital to long-term food innovation

Collaborative research vital to long-term food innovation

Produce World's Soil-for-Life project, in collaboration with Cranfield University, is a perfect example of a successful partnership between the commercial world and academia.

"Collaborations with academic institutions, like Cranfield University, that have different skills, knowledge and experience are required – commercial organisations such as Produce World can’t do it all by themselves!."

With any partnership between a commercial organisation and an academic institution, there will always be some healthy conflict between both parties. Produce World’s end-goal from Soil-for-Life is to develop a solution that can be used for commercial purposes, whereas Cranfield University will want to explore interesting avenues and trends during the research that might not be commercially relevant.

Soil-for-Life is about ‘give and take’, with both partners offering different skills, knowledge, insight and experience that the other may be lacking, which is ultimately beneficial to the project. Both Produce World and Cranfield University have shared aims in wanting to understand the problems and issues with soil health, with this leading to an excellent partnership moving forward.

The Soil-for-Life project originated from the simple premise that fresh produce – the food we eat everyday – begins in the field, with the quality of the produce being a direct result of the soil on the land. Soil health is one of the most important, but often overlooked, aspects of food production. Improving the soil not only leads to improved product quality but also leads to a reduction in the environmental impact on the land. This makes it a win-win for UK growers.

There are many opportunities to improve the soil health on farmland but these are hard to identify, as it requires farmers to understand their soil and then change the way that they work with the soil on their land. Soil-for-Life aims to fill this gap, improving understanding and allowing growers to unlock the potential of the soil and reap the benefits of improved crops.

In order to do this, we needed data from across our grower base, right down to individual fields. The quality of soil is incredibly localised with soil on one farm being completely different to its neighbour. There is a need to understand why this is the case and what the different attributes of the soil on each plot of land are, so farmers can look at their own data and understand their soil.

The partnership with Cranfield University was particularly beneficial when looking at this data, as their previous experience and knowledge allowed us to view the data in a far more holistic manner. This holistic interpretation of the data added to the strength of the research and insight that we were able to provide to the farming and food industries.

"Both Produce World and Cranfield University have shared aims in wanting to understand the problems and issues with soil health, with this leading to an excellent partnership."

The partnership with Cranfield University has been so successful that the project has managed to secure further funding under the Government’s Agri-Tech strategy to build on this success. The next stage, known as ‘Soil-for-life Beta’, will test and analyse the soil data collected in the first stage of the project in even more detail, while expanding the research to a core group of our growers.

This is great news but there is still plenty of research to be done across the industry which can make a huge difference. The UK food industry has a huge amount of challenges, with Soil-for-Life looking at one aspect of it. This is why collaborations with academic institutions, like Cranfield University, that have different skills, knowledge and experience are required – commercial organisations such as Produce World can’t do it all by themselves!

The UK is on the edge of another agricultural revolution that will help the industry moving forward, but this will only be achieved through innovation and shared knowledge within the sector. Collaborations between commercial organisations and academic institutions will only help to make this a reality.

Guy Thallon is Group Sustainability and Research Manager at Produce World Group

The NCUB Food Economy Task Force aims to develop a more competitive and sustainable agri-food sector in the UK through collaboration between business, higher education and other research bodies. The Task Force is chaired by former Sainsbury's CEO Justin King and Vice Chancellor of the University of Hertfordshire Quintin McKellar and its members include rings together leaders from across the UK Food Economy.

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