The Transforming Food Production (TFP) Challenge was launched as part of the second wave of the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund (ISCF). It is the only challenge that is focused on food and agriculture and £90 million over 4 years it is a ‘medium’ sized challenge.
£90 million is a lot of money in anyone’s books, but given the size of the agri-food industry and the challenge’s audacious aim of achieving net zero emissions or better - it looks a relatively small sum. However, we know that multiple targeted interventions on complex systems such as our food system can yield massively positive strides forward over the longer term.
At TFP that is what we aim to do, we are focused on the most truly transformative technology, methods and approaches that have the potential to transform existing agricultural production and spur whole new food production industries.
We are using our funding to build on UK scientific excellence, the brilliance of our entrepreneurial base and the can-do attitude of our innovative farmers. We are encouraging them to build diverse collaborations capable of tackling one of the “most wicked” problems of all - how to produce enough food to feed an ever-growing world population without screwing up our planet in the process.
The real opportunity being for the UK to lead the way in developing innovative climate friendly farming systems for the mutual benefit of people, the environment and our shared prosperity.
The range of projects funded
To date the TFP challenge has funded eight competitions yielding a diverse and exciting portfolio of over 80 collaborative projects - each of which has focused on a slightly different area, but all are aligned with the overall theme of ‘precision, data-driven solutions to help shift UK agriculture towards net zero emissions’. Broadly the portfolio can be split into two camps – those focused on ‘traditional’ production systems such as arable and livestock, and the other on future food production industries.
These future food production industries include highly exciting and innovative companies that are seeking to produce animal and potentially human food from new sources as diverse as C02 gas and insects. These projects have the capacity to truly revolutionise food production systems in the UK and to significantly reduce a wide range of negative impacts from our food production systems.
In the arable sector, TFP has funded projects looking at reducing the impact of black grass, a major herbicide resistant cereal weed in Eastern and Southern England. Which costs the UK economy £400m and results in 800,000tns of lost wheat each year – one project is developing an autonomous robotic weeding system that hunts out and mechanically destroy infestations, the other is an artificial intelligence-based system providing optimum, localised management advice directly to farmers via their mobiles to help eradicate the costly weed and increase yields whilst reducing inputs.
In the livestock sector, TFP has funded projects to increase profitability, by improving the effectiveness of beef supply chains via data capture and the flow of information from abattoirs back to producers and even genetics providers. Making these systems more resilient, resource efficient and sustainable.
In the horticultural sector the TFP program funded a number of projects to address labour shortages by automating fruit production systems with robotics for fruit picking, plant management (pruning etc.) and fruit transport to cold storage.
All of the projects regardless of sector aim to solve current industry challenges while at the same time reducing emissions from farming.
And the outputs we are beginning to see
Although the majority of TFP projects are just getting underway we can already see significant outputs:
For example, the Challenge has inspired new diverse collaborations between research organisations, SMEs and existing agri-food companies.
We have seen UK companies flourish and grow as a result of TFP funding - some companies have already attracted new investment (LettUs Grow, Garford Farm Machinery) while others have attracted new partnerships opportunities (Fieldwork Robotics collaborating with Bosch UK).
The programme has not only engaged traditional agrifood sector organisations – we have funded projects with partners across a wide range of sectors, from AI companies like ‘Quant Foundry’ through to medical technology companies such as 3D Bio Tissues.
Having a challenge in the food production space has created sense of momentum in the industry as researchers, companies and entrepreneurs are able to see a pathway for moving a host of new ideas and concepts closer towards reality and commercialisation.
For example, a current funding opportunity offers individual SMEs access to our grant funding alongside private investment helping UK agritech businesses develop late-stage innovation and crucially grow and scale their businesses.
Lastly, diversity in all its forms, is the most powerful thing an organisation or sector can possess and at TFP we want to ensure we source the best ideas and innovations from the full talent available across the UK – we are working hard to increase the visibility and accessibility of support to all.
We are well aware there is still significant under representation of young people, women, disabled people and those from ethnic-minorities or socially disadvantaged groups in agriculture. Which in the long term could seriously disadvantage the industry.
We are seeking to encourage a new generation of diverse agricultural professionals that can help embrace new innovations and approaches to farming, supporting a more sustainable and resilient food system for the UK.
A step towards net zero
Whilst TFP on its own won’t solve the net zero challenge for the industry, it is an important step along the UK path towards net zero agriculture.
We can expect to see some significant new technologies and systems that are available to UK food producers to help them achieve net zero by the end of this programme. These could be the vanguard of the net zero challenge – providing specific examples of where targeted Government support combined with world beating academic and research capacity and UK businesses’ entrepreneurial skills can change UK agriculture and even global agricultural systems.
You can follow Katrina on Twitter
You can go to the Innovate UK website
You can go to the UKRI website