Horticultural Crop Quality and Food Loss Prevention Network

Lead Research Organisation: Cranfield University
Department Name: School of Water, Energy and Environment

Abstract

Horticultural crops (vegetables, fruit, potatoes, flowers) contribute over £4 Billion to the UK economy per annum, making the sector even more valuable to our national economy than cereal crops such as wheat, barley and oats (worth >£3 Billion; Defra National Statistics 2019). Horticultural crops are major components of a healthy diet, yet the majority of UK citizens fail to consume enough vegetables and fruit. Consumption of a high dietary proportion of vegetables and fruit contributes to the prevention of non-communicable diseases, which themselves cost the NHS substantial amounts of money per annum, lost days at work and poor attendance at school. Potatoes also provide essential dietary nutrients and fibre and are particularly suitable for consumers who do not tolerate gluten. There is therefore a benefit to human health and the economy to developing horticultural crops that have a high concentration of beneficial nutrients, with flavour characteristics enjoyed by consumers and a shelf life that provides more flexibility in meal planning. There are benefits to the environment and the economy from reducing food loss along the supply chain, particularly when standard practices for extending shelf life, such as the use of plastic packaging, are being discouraged and the consumption of UK grown crops is encouraged. These provide their own technical challenges, requiring crops that reach optimal harvest stage over a wider and more predictable seasonal window, that are of consistent and uniform quality, are resilient to bacteria, fungi and biochemical processes that cause spoilage, and which have extended storage life when they reach the consumer.

The sector therefore needs this timely intervention of scientific and technological development to address these challenges and develop more sustainable food systems that have a lower environmental footprint and allow more of the food harvested to reach the table. The Horticulture Quality and Food Loss Network will provide a focal point for industrial and academic practitioners to work together to develop new solutions to improve horticultural crop quality and prevent food loss. The Network will provide small-scale research funding to develop partnerships that can go on to win higher value funding that makes a step change difference to the sector. The Network will facilitate the development of collaborations between business and academia, and of academics from different disciplines. It will have some funding ring-fenced for early career researchers, ensuring that there is a legacy of people developing high quality research in this area, as well as individual projects that will subsequently mature into long term solutions for the sector. The Network will be closely engaged with government policy makers and advisory bodies to ensure that information flow is two way - that researchers and businesses understand the environmental and economic consequences of food loss and quality loss, and also that policy makers understand the benefits of supporting this sector for the economy, environment and public health.

Technical Summary

Horticultural crops (vegetables, fruit, potatoes, flowers) contribute over £4 Billion to the UK economy per annum, and many are major components of a healthy diet. Consumption of at least five portions of vegetables and fruit per day is the minimum UK recommendation, yet the majority of citizens fail to adhere to these guidelines. Consumption of horticultural produce contributes to the prevention of non-communicable diseases, which themselves cost the NHS £billions per annum, plus lost days at work and poor attendance at schools. There is therefore a benefit to human health and the economy to developing horticultural crops that have a high nutritional density, appealing flavour characteristics and an extended shelf life. It is estimated that one third of food produced globally is wasted before it is consumed; for the UK this equates to >15M tonnes of food and drink per year, valued at over £20Bn. Over half of this is wasted before it reaches the consumer home, presenting many opportunities for businesses to seek economic benefits for themselves by developing solutions that prevent food loss and benefits for the environment by developing solutions that enable more sustainable production and food system practices to evolve.

The Network will facilitate collaboration between industrial and academic practitioners, with an emphasis on encouraging early career researchers to work with this sector and for UK world leading scientists to apply their skills to horticultural crops. The Network will provide pump-priming research funding to develop partnerships that will have a legacy of projects that can be transformative for the sector. We will liaise with complementary Networks and policy driving organisations to facilitate multidisciplinary approaches to address strategic priorities. The Network will drive innovation in horticulture and will provide resources to catalyse activity. We request an initial three years of funding to establish the Network.

Planned Impact

The Quality and Food Loss Network will serve as a focal point for the horticulture sector, bringing together businesses and academics interested in the reduction of postharvest food losses and the improvement of fresh produce quality attributes including shelf life, flavour and nutrition. These address BBSRC Strategic Priorities for Agriculture and Food Security, together with Sustainable Development Goal 12.3. The new Network will consolidate and extend the work started by BBSRC HAPI projects, but with a defined post-farm gate focus that addresses the specific need for waste and food loss reduction and improved quality traits in horticultural crops. The Network will encourage new companies and researchers to participate in pump priming projects that will have a requirement to map out plans for project development through subsequent TRLs as part of the application process. Projects funded by the Network will be supported and mentored to further application, with a specific target of increasing responsive mode applications for horticultural projects by 20% from its current baseline. Small grants are supported by Business Interaction Vouchers and Networking Visit Funding to enable the community to develop appropriate partnerships, to allow pilot scale experiments and to focus on areas that will result in step change interventions for both academic and industry partners.

We anticipate impacts that will benefit the economy, environment and society of the UK. The output value (2018) for horticultural crops was £4166Million, making the sector more valuable to the UK economy than cereals (worth £3160Million; Defra National Statistics 2019). The most immediate beneficiaries from the Network will be the small and large businesses that will benefit from the interactions and collaborations with the UK's world leading science base that will be made possible by the Network. We will bring businesses and researchers together around the major challenges defined in the Strategic Priorities and provide funding to develop these new relationships and ideas. We will mandate recipients of Network funds to apply for greater investment and progress their work towards delivering new business opportunities and scientific advances. This will lead to an increased pool of scientific researchers, at all career stages, who are committed to applying their highest quality science towards horticultural problems. This in turn will lead to economic benefits in terms of recapturing the value of food currently lost from the supply chain and an improvement in quality traits. The latter is important since horticultural produce (including potatoes) are a major component of a healthy diet, yet the majority of UK citizens fail to consume enough of it. Consumption of a high dietary proportion of vegetables and fruit contributes to the prevention of non-communicable diseases, which themselves cost the NHS substantial amounts of money per annum, lost days at work and poor attendance at school. Potatoes also provide essential dietary nutrients and fibre and are suitable for consumers who do not tolerate gluten. Provision of horticultural produce that is nutritionally dense when eaten, with flavour characteristics enjoyed by consumers and a postharvest (post-purchase) shelf life that provides more flexibility in meal planning will encourage consumption of horticultural produce and consequent improvement of the nation's health. Reducing food loss along the supply chain is an essential component of sustainability, and currently faces additional challenges driven by the desire to remove plastic packaging from fresh produce that is currently instrumental in extending shelf life and preventing product wastage. The sector therefore needs this timely intervention of scientific and technological development to address these challenges and develop more sustainable food systems that have a lower environmental footprint and allow more of the food harvested to reach the table.

Publications

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