In the developed world we are fortunate enough to have ample food.

Although this does bring problems. Obesity, heart disease and diabetes are all growing concerns. Then there is waste – part of the bigger picture of how we look after our planet sustainably.

In the developing world the issues are far more immediate. Swathes of starvation across sub-Saharan Africa and parts of Asia. Pressure on food prices from a growing trend towards meat consumption in China.

Enter R&D.

We often think of R&D in terms of a section of a business plan. But what about its role in solving some of these big issues? Let’s take a look at some exciting developments.

Problem 1: Scarcity of resources

One of our age old struggles with the growing environment – aka farms – has been controlling external factors: water, sunlight, pests.

This has prompted the Japanese arm of GE to conduct some very interesting R&D.

The goal is an indoor farm. And technological advances are making it a reality.

Led by physiologist Shigeharu Shimamura, the groundbreaking indoor farm – which is about half the size of a football pitch – can produce 10,000 lettuces. A day.

Development in LED light technology is one of the key drivers of this project. It enables the farm to not only control, but optimise light, heat and humidity; while the water required to grow the crops is a staggering 1% of what would be required in an outdoor field.

What’s more, the internal environment provides the perfect barrier against pests.

This example of thinking ‘inside’ the box could solve a lot of problems. Although sadly it may still be difficult to set up such an operation in the areas that most need it – like parts of Africa – because of the infrastructure required.

Problem 2: The environmental impact of fertilisers

50% of current global food production relies on the use of NH3 (ammonia) based fertilisers. And Ammonia and Urea will be a key part of increasing agricultural yields. An increase that has got to happen to feed the growing global population.

But what about the environmental impact? Production of these fertilisers is a heavily industrialised process. For instance 5% of all global natural gas consumption goes into producing Ammonia. And then Ammonia and Carbon Dioxide are combined to produce nitrogen-rich Urea.

English based ITM Power is leading a consortium of stakeholders including the Waitrose Farm to substantial decarbonise production. Their cutting edge solution involves electrolysis of water using renewable energy.

Research and development in this area could lead to significant environmental benefits for the UK and the whole world as increasing pressure is put on resources. Both GE and Philips are investing considerably in the technology due to their expertise in LED lighting solutions. 

Hydroponic lettuce farms in Japan

Problem 3: Distribution in the developing world

Globally, it is said that we do not have a food shortage problem, but a distribution problem. That the world actually produces three times the required calories to feed everyone! The problem is getting the food to the right people and at affordable prices.

According to the Swedish Institute for Food and Biotechnology, developing countries lose 630 million tonnes of food every year.

Reducing this food loss is going to be a big part of the solution to global food security. It is such a big area to address encompassing, for instance: packaging, storage and transportation. The work of the Transport Research Library is underpinned by the desire to deliver evidence-based transport research solutions that are efficient, accessible, clean and safe.

The Global Food Security strategic plan identifies the key research themes as:

  • Resilience – securing a better understanding of how poor environmental and economic resilience leads to hunger, poverty and environmental degradation across the globe and how this might be addressed
  • Sustainable production and supply – including water, energy, nutrients and other inputs; land use and soils, with a particular focus on the sustainable use of resources; improving efficiency and reducing waste; farming systems; food production from crops and animals (including fish); food processing, quality, manufacture and distribution
  • Nutrition, health and wellbeing – including food safety and quality throughout the supply chain, nutrition, healthy and sustainable diets, consumer behaviour, food choice and accessibility

The Strategic plan goes into detail around a number of example research areas which would likely contain qualifying R&D projects.

Problem 4: Reducing Energy Consumption

Devon based refrigeration specialists Frigesco may have developed one of the most disruptive and innovative technologies to impact the global refrigeration sector for a generation. Their patented, flash defrost system has been developed in response to the fact that 30% of the UK’s refrigeration power consumption comes from Retail Display Cabinets within supermarkets, widespread adoption of the Frigesco system in supermarkets across the UK would result in CO2 savings of over 230,000 tonnes annually. The innovative defrost system is practically energy free, utilising a small thermal store to store waste heat, which is then used to defrost the system utilising a thermal syphon. Lab tests have demonstrated that 40% savings in energy consumption are achievable. The technology has amassed a fleet of industry awards, collecting the best in show award at the Cleantech Innovate 2014 event, best environmental technology development at CleanEquity Monaco 2014 and the award for best refrigeration innovation of the year at The RAC Cooling Industry Awards.

US based Promethean Power Systems teamed up with a company in India called Iceling to tackle food distribution problems in developing countries head on with technology. They have been developing solar-panel and thermal battery powered refrigeration to aid the transport of fresh milk from farm to market.

They are working towards expanding the time window to do this from four hours to two days. An apt solution to food distribution in the developing world in which countries often have an abundance of baking hot sunshine. The potential impact is so significant it even attracted the praise of Hilary Clinton.

Barriers to entry within the commercial refrigeration industry have made the widespread implementation of vastly more efficient systems difficult. Equipment is frequently provided free of charge by a bottler or vending machine operator, with little incentive to consider high efficiency equipment, as they’re not responsible for the energy bill.  Within the US the DOE are most actively driving energy efficiency standards, with the development of new energy efficiency standards, as well as supporting advanced R&D programmes for these emergent technologies.  The DECC and the EU are leading the charge on the other side of the Atlantic, and the DECC are currently offering vast swathes of innovation funding for low carbon technologies and for those companies looking for innovative ways of overcoming institutional barriers.  For supermarkets, energy costs form a significant portion of their operating costs, and as a result they have been vital in driving adoption of emergent technologies.

Research and development to reduce energy consumption

 

Problem 5: What to do with food waste in the developed world?

Again according to the Swedish Institute for Food and Biotechnology, developed countries waste 670 million tonnes of food every year. Comparable in quantity to the amount lost by the developing world. The key words are ‘wasted’ and ‘lost.’ Because while in the developing world food spoils before it reaches the consumer, in the developed world most of the waste happens post-retail – either unsold stock or excess purchase.

There are big questions for the retail industry and society to answer here that are not in the realms of R&D. Marketing buy-one-get-one-free offers spring to mind, as well as a lack of appetite for misshapen produce (like knobbly carrots!) and general attitudes towards waste.

They are debates for another forum. We are interested in R&D and one interesting issue to do with food wasted is ‘What to do with it?’

The UK government has a target of a zero waste economy. That is not NO waste, but that all waste is seen as a resource that is valued: either monetarily or environmentally. Things are only truly thrown away as a last resort.

As well as R&D tax credits being on offer for innovative solutions, grants are available such as the Innovation in Waste Prevention fund from DEFRA. This £800,000 scheme covers a range of potential projects that includes product design that result in less waste.

An interesting innovation publicised in September 2014 is that from 23 year old Brunel University student Solveiga Pakštaitė. She has just won the James Dyson Scholarship with Bump Mark:  a bio-reactive food label that goes from smooth to bumpy at the same rate as the food it is labelling deteriorates. Originally designed as a way to help visually impaired people with food expiry dates it has the potential to give a far more accurate indication of when food has gone off to the rest of us – replacing the arbitrary printed date with something that is in sync with the food. Could this be one of the answers to food waste in the developed world?

food packaging

R&D: A compelling force for good

By looking at R&D through this prism of global food problems, it shows how valuable the efforts of commercial and academic research and development is to us all. And why the UK government (amongst others) is so keen to incentivise it with R&D tax credits. If you have a new product in development that could help the world grow more – or waste less – food, speak to us today to make sure you are maximising your use of R&D tax credits.

Read our piece on AgriTech and R&D for more on this subject.

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