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The second in a series of posts from PepsiCo’s Tim Ingmire, exploring ways to unlock STEM potential in the UK

Here in the UK, our scientists and engineers have partnered with the government and premier academics and institutions on a number of initiatives that, we’re learning, can capture the imagination of young people contemplating STEM careers.

For example, we are working with Cranfield University to develop novel storage technologies to help our potatoes stay fresh longer.

We are one of the world’s biggest producers of potato chips.  At any given time, about 50% of our global supply of potatoes are in storage—in buildings which can be the size of football pitches—waiting to be sliced, cooked, bagged and shipped to a supermarket near you.

Alas, potatoes don’t want to be stored in warehouses; they want to grow. 

In fact, in Western Europe, about 1 in 10 potatoes is lost to spoilage.  And the longer they stay in storage, the more likely they are to sprout eyes and ‘hair’ and all kinds of unattractive new features. 

So with co-funding from the UK Government Agri-Tech Catalyst funding managed through the UK’s innovation agency Innovate UK, we will be collaborating with Cranfield University to find innovative, natural spoilage-prevention technologies.   The underlying idea is to modify the storage atmosphere to keep the potatoes ‘fresher’ for longer and thereby improve quality and reduce waste. And once we fully master the science of potato-preservation, we will share it with our potato farmers for free.

We are also leading a project called Opti-Oat, which is supporting future oats production. This is also co-funded through the UK Government Agri-Tech Catalyst programme managed through Innovate UK, and brings together a consortium of leading industry and academic partners.

Here in the UK and abroad, acreage for oats-production is declining because other crops can deliver higher yields and margins for farmers.  Yet oats are good for people and this is reflected in oats used for human food increasing by 20% over 2008 and 2014.  And oats are a great “break crop”, helping to reduce pest and disease build up in the soil.  

If this research is successful, the upside is enormous. The average oats field delivers five to six metric tonnes per hectare.  By understanding in more detail how the oat crop grows and develops to form grain yield, we can then optimize performance in different growing environments by tailoring, for example, fertilizer and agrochemical inputs. This will help to increase yields towards optimal levels of over nine metric tonnes per hectare (a 50% increase from average) which will improve sustainability (more yield per unit area of land).

But it won’t happen without the help of STEM professionals proficient at leveraging digital technology and big data. 

In the old days, a farmer watched his oats crop mature over its ~180-day cycle, with only limited information to help manage the crop.  Looking to the future there will be increasing use of high-resolution visual and hyperspectral cameras mounted on unmanned aerial vehicles and satellites to capture crop growth in detail across whole fields. By using algorithms to convert these images into specific crop metrics it will be possible to build a field map of crop ‘status.’  Then, using tractor GPS systems, farmers can link the data they capture to targeted applications of fertilizers or other inputs which exactly match the needs of a crop in a specific area of a field.     This project will run over four years and all of our learnings will be compiled into a “Growth Guide,” which will be shared—again for free—with farmers to teach them how to increase quality oats yields.  

Of course, our work with governmental and academic partners, while robust, could be even stronger and more successful.  To date, the “open innovation” all parties seek could be opened even further.  Currently it occupies “point-to-point” during a food or beverage product’s journey from seed to shelf.  Ideally, in the years ahead, this process will bloom into a comprehensive ecosystem that includes big parties and small, each contributing ideas in a crowd-sourcing fashion.  Indeed, ownership of I.P. in collaborative models such as these may be one of the most import topics for all parties to align on in the years ahead if we wish to continue unleashing collaborative innovation.