Department of Engineering / News / The £2 billion vegetable and the agricultural future of the East

Department of Engineering

The £2 billion vegetable and the agricultural future of the East

The £2 billion vegetable and the agricultural future of the East

From crop science to robotics, supply chains to economics, researchers work collaboratively across the East of England to sustainably increase agricultural productivity and profitability.

Around 55 tonnes of potatoes are produced per year for every hectare of cultivated farmland, but we know the optimal yield is 100 tonnes.

Dr Mukesh Kumar

The potato is a staple crop that we produce around five million tonnes of each year in the UK. It is an industry worth an annual £2 billion, and farmers in East Anglia harvest a third of England’s entire potato crop.

At the Cambridge Global Food Security Interdisciplinary Research Centre (IRC), a University-wide network concerned with the challenges of meeting the rising food needs of a growing population, collaborative work has enabled the exploration of opportunities to improve productivity in one of the UK’s key industries: agri-tech, which contributes £14.3 billion to the UK economy and employs 500,000 people.

Improved agricultural productivity would contribute to economic growth in Fenland, which accounts for about half of England’s most highly productive farmland. Of all the crops grown to a significant scale, potatoes are one of the more complex.

Mapping the supply chain

The complexities of the potato crop are not just confined to the field, but reach all the way to the table, as Dr Mukesh Kumar, Lecturer in Operations Management at the Institute for Manufacturing (IfM), part of the Department of Engineering, has been discovering.

Dr Kumar studies the dynamics of supply chains of products ranging from cars to milk. He recently teamed up with representatives from potato industries to investigate why potatoes have one of the highest waste problems of any commodity crop. 

“Our first step was to map out the potato supply chain from beginning to end,” says Dr Kumar. “We were amazed to find that it involves up to 23 key actors – from seed developers, producers and growers, to farmers, processors and retailers.”

He found that the main 'hotspot' for waste is at the farm, and that the processing industry was keen to address waste occurring from the farm to the factory gate. 

“The difference is caused by many factors, some natural and some due to farmers having limited access to resources and technological expertise. This gap between expected production and real production is a huge waste of resources.” 

Dr Kumar believes the team has just scratched the surface with this pilot study; now they need to look at the wastage issue in more depth to design better solutions for farmers. “To understand our food system properly, and improve resilience and profitability, we have to continue to work closely with the growers.” 

Bio-inspired robotics

One policy announced by the government in early 2018 was support for the development of high-tech innovations to make UK agri-businesses more productive and profitable, while improving resilience and protecting the environment.

Someone who recognises the complexity of this challenge is Dr Belinda Clarke, Director of Agri-Tech East, an ‘innovation hub’ of farmers, growers, scientists and entrepreneurs focused on improving the competitiveness of agriculture.  

“Aligning the expectations of farmers with the nature of cutting-edge research is a challenge,” says Dr Clarke, “and some of the frontier discovery research is quite a long way from market.

“It’s all about bringing innovation to end users in a way that’s immediately applicable to them,” she says.

As an active member of Agri-Tech East, the University is building connections across the whole breadth of the agri-food chain. In the Department of Engineering’s Machine Intelligence Laboratory, Dr Fumiya Iida, Reader in Robotics, wants to apply his expertise in robotics to the automation of agricultural processes. He’s interested in the challenge of creating robots that can effectively deal with ‘soft’ objects, like fruit and vegetables, without damaging them.

“Robots are really terrible at manipulating soft objects,” says Dr Iida. “It’s so easy for us humans, but robot technology is designed for a rigid world. Assembling cars, for example, is much easier for them compared with manipulating fruit and vegetables.”

Julia Cai works with Dr Fumiya Iida on lettuce-picking robot technology.

Using an electrically conductive soft material, his team is making robots that are sensitive to light, chemicals and other stimuli, enabling them to deal with uncertain tasks in unstructured environments, like farmers’ fields. He calls the work ‘bio-inspired robotics’ – looking at biology and why humans are good at certain tasks, and trying to create robots to do the same. 

Soft robots could have many applications, from harvesting crops, to packaging or quality control, to peeling and wrapping vegetables. “Across the supply chain there are so many challenges of soft manipulation,” says Dr Iida. “Robots could work in conditions that are terrible for human workers, like cooking beetroot in vinegar for the supermarkets. Imagine working in a noisy, hot, smelly factory all day long – at the moment humans have to do it because there’s no other solution.”

He adds: “We have many agricultural companies in East Anglia and they’re all aware that automation is the future for farming, but they don’t know where to start. And we don’t know where to start because we don’t know what the problems are.” By bringing the two groups together through targeted workshops in Cambridge, conversations are starting to happen and collaborations are beginning to emerge.

Dr Clarke says Dr Iida is just one example of the real willingness of researchers not just to disseminate knowledge generated within the University, but also to take on board the knowledge from within the farming community and embed it in research thinking for the future.

Dr Iida is collaborating with G’s Growers, based in Cambridgeshire, to automate the beetroot cooking process and to develop a soft robot to harvest vegetables such as lettuce. “Automation is necessary if you want to scale up agricultural processes to feed a growing population,” he says, adding “development of new technology doesn’t just happen in the lab.” 

Knowledge Transfer Facilitator Helen Francis (Department of Engineering) and Jacob Kirwan (G's Growers) talk about robotic harvesting, productivity and the partnerships between industry and academia

Innovation to commercialisation

Dr Iida has been awarded a Royal Society Translation Award to investigate the potential to commercialise a lettuce-harvesting robot. For others wishing to commercialise their agri-tech innovations, the recently established Ceres Agri-Tech Knowledge Exchange Partnership may be able to help.

Established through a Research England Connecting Capability Fund Award, the partnership links the Universities of Cambridge, East Anglia, Hertfordshire, Lincoln and Reading, and also the John Innes Centre, NIAB and Rothamsted Research. Its £4.5 million investment fund will help to develop viable agri-tech projects derived from the research of Ceres university partners towards commercial propositions that businesses can invest in.

“Ceres is a really exciting opportunity for the ever-growing agri-tech cluster in the East of England, particularly for projects that don’t have a defined route to market,” says Ceres Coordinator Dr Geoff Elliott.

“We’re looking forward to working with university and industry partners to bring the latest innovative research out of the lab and into practice. Ultimately our work will benefit the government’s Industrial Strategy and the UK economy, but – in line with the University of Cambridge’s mission – first and foremost we want it to benefit society.”

Words: Jacqueline Garget 

  • This is an edited version of an article that appeared in a special issue of Research Horizons magazine focused on University of Cambridge research in the East of England.

The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Images, including our videos, are Copyright ©University of Cambridge and licensors/contributors as identified.  All rights reserved. We make our image and video content available in a number of ways that permit your use and sharing of our content under their respective Terms.