Leading Food 4.0
Growing Business-University Collaboration for the UK's Food Economy
Introduction: Why Does the Food Economy Matter?
UK consumers spent £196bn on food, drink and catering in 2012. The sector contributed over £103bn to the economy, £19bn in exports, and 3.7 million jobs in close to 200,000 firms. 1 It encompasses seemingly disparate businesses such as farms and fisheries, high-tech manufacturers, mass-market retailers and industrial caterers. It is intimately bound up in competition for the use of land and water, in the management of climate change, and in the nation’s health and well-being.
As the food related riots of 2007-8 in countries such as Egypt, Bangladesh, and Haiti demonstrated, food shortages and spikes in prices can quickly escalate into food revolts with wide political ramifications 2. Food supply clearly has national and international geo-political significance.
Government and devolved administrations in the UK have recognised the vital importance of this industry. In establishing an Agri-Tech Leadership Council, the UK government said:
'We want the UK to become a world leader in agricultural technology, innovation and sustainability; exploit opportunities to develop and adopt new and existing technologies, products and services to increase productivity; and contribute to global food security and international development.' 3
The Scottish government notes that:
‘The vast majority of land in Scotland is under agricultural production and the sector is responsible for much of Scotland’s food exports.’ 4
It has established the Scotland Rural Development Programme 2014 - 2020 to support farming,forestry, crofting, and rural development projects.'
In launching Green Growth Wales, the First Minister Carwyn Jones said:
‘I want Wales to be a leader in Green Growth. In the same way that the availability of our natural resources put Wales at the forefront of the Industrial Revolution, driving the growth of iron and coal and then steel and manufacturing, it is our abundant natural resources that drive the growth of a new and different economy that will be rooted in the sustainable and intelligent use of those resources.’ 5
The Northern Ireland Executive’s Agri-Food Strategy Board set out its ambitious vision in Going For Growth. It wants to:
'...Grow a sustainable, profitable and integrated Agri-Food supply chain, focused on delivering the needs of the market.' 6
Improved innovation, leadership, entrepreneurship and talent for the food sector are fundamental to the UK’s economic success, not only today but in the very different future of what we call: Food 4.0.
University-Business Collaboration to lead Food 4.0
The next food revolution is under way. 1 Food 1.0 was simple cultivation; food 2.0 was built on mechanisation and manufacturing; and 3.0 was the product of advanced technology, processing and genetics. In Food 4.0, nine billion people around the world must be fed safely, sustainably, affordably and securely. And consumption is changing. As populations become wealthier, there is strong evidence that they call for a more meat and protein-intensive diet, with all that implies for food production and the consumption of scarce resources.
The Food 4.0 revolution is likely to be knowledge-intensive, collaborative and integrative. It may be built on big data, nano-technologies, genomics, and communications technologies. Or it may be the product of renewables, ecological policies, better consumer education and environmental literacy.
In all likelihood, it will be birthed by all of these. However it emerges, the UK’s food sector wants to be a leader in this new world. To lead, firms must benefit from highly talented graduates as well as world class science and inventiveness. Here the UK is well-placed. It has 0.9% of the world’s population, but produces 4.3% of its researchers, 9.5% of research paper downloads, 11.6% of citations, and 15.9% of the world’s most highly-cited articles.2 Cambridge, Oxford and Imperial are in the global top ten universities for the life sciences, 3 and the University of Reading is eleventh for agriculture.
The Food Sector must pull more of this excellence in inventiveness through into innovation if it is to prosper in Food 4.0, and food companies must attract talented graduates into the whole supply chain. They need high quality engineers and marketers to work alongside farmers and horticulturists. These pressing business needs must be integrated into and supported by long-term industrial strategies from government.
Recognising the vital importance of the Food Economy for the UK and the world, the National Centre for Universities and Business convened a Task Force to review ways of increasing the intensity, variety and nature of business–university collaboration for the sector. It was led by Justin King, then CEO of Sainsbury’s, and Quintin McKellar, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Hertfordshire and former Principal of the Royal Veterinary College.
They were supported by a steering group of senior figures from across the industry, civil service and the academy.
Supporting these were working groups on talent and skills, science and translation and land use. Following extensive research and consultation the Task Force has come to ten conclusions and made six recommendations.
- Despite its demonstrable success, the UK’s food industry is fragmented, with a long value and supply chain and hundreds of thousands of small companies, including farms and fisheries.
- Food lacks the unified voice with which to address government, research funders, universities and the education system that other sectors – such as automotive or pharma – have developed.
- The problems of a fragmented sector contribute to the generally weak links between businesses and universities. They must be improved through effective collaboration and research.
- There is enormous value to legislators, universities, colleges, schools, and the public in growing the value of the food sector. Universities and colleges will benefit from more research and better graduate employment prospects. Business will have access to greater inventiveness and more tailored graduate talent. And government will have a growing and strategically vital industry, alongside evidence to support policies that deliver sustainability. It would be a major strategic error to miss the opportunities created by the next food revolution.
- The UK government’s industrial strategy is primarily focussed on agricultural technology development. Its remit needs to be broadened to include the entire end-to-end value chain from lab to landfill. Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland share many of the collaboration challenges faced by England, but have developed more integrated strategies to deal with them. These could be broadened and shared across the UK to increase innovation and produce a better educated workforce for the sector.
- Only a few universities have a clear sense of the research, innovation and educational needs of the food economy. And few partner with universities across Europe on the challenges of the food economy. Conversely many, if not most, food businesses do not have a strategic and long-term relationship with universities. This is not uncommon for sectors dominated by small and mid-sized businesses.
- There are too few high-quality collaborative mechanisms that join up the food industry with universities and the publicly-funded innovation system. And there are not enough translators able to work across industry, universities, and research institutes.
- The sector fails to present a coherent, consistent, and visible message to school children, their parents, and their teachers, which can attract them into food-related courses at university and college, or from higher education into food economy jobs.
- The production of food requires access to land, water, and energy, and it impacts on the environment in many ways. These include the emission of greenhouse gases, the amount and quality of water use, biodiversity, and human health via nutrition. The food industry, therefore, is inherently connected to other sectors. This interdependence needs to be recognised and navigated.
- Agricultural landscapes supply fresh water, have a role in flood prevention, offer significant cultural, amenity and recreational value, and provide habitats for biodiversity. These services often arise not from the management of single fields or farms, but from all land management in an area. For example, downstream flood risk may depend on all upstream farms. We call this approach the landscape perspective. The market is not currently incentivising approaches that unite business, government, universities, and the publicly funded innovation system to promote farm management to deliver multiple benefits for society at the landscape scale.
- UK government to work with devolved administrations to produce a UK-wide plan for the education, skills and innovation needs of the food economy. The Agri-Tech Leadership Council’s remit and membership should be broadened to include the entire end-to-end value chain from lab to landfill. A UK minister should take the lead on the food economy and its education, skills, research and innovation needs. Similarly the devolved administrations should ensure a single ministerial overview.
- The Agri-Tech Leadership Council and the NCUB to work with food businesses and universities to create new collaboration programmes and forums. These would grow and promote the talent, skills, educational, research and innovation pipelines of the Food Economy.
- NCUB to create a trusted information, advice and guidance portal for food businesses looking to grow the value of their relationship with universities, and for universities wishing to discover the research needs of businesses.
- The Food Economy research, impact and innovation agenda should be more strongly promoted by all administrations in the UK and by the research funding bodies, and should be more coordinated at ministerial level.
- Devolved administrations will wish to create policies and structures appropriate for their own unique systems, but there should be coordination and knowledge-sharing between them to create more shared value.
- Universities, businesses and government must collaborate to deliver sustainable land use at the landscape level. Agri-businesses must address the challenge that farm management poses for landscape level outcomes. For example, no single farmer may be responsible for the loss of bees from a landscape, but collectively their actions may ensure it. Defra and the devolved administrations must ensure that the regulatory instruments for which they are responsible are aligned with this objective and provide signals which encourage collaborative action.
The Food Economy – Channelling Scale and Harnessing Diversity
Every report on the food economy begins with a definition. This in itself encapsulates one of its major problems. The sheer diversity and complexity of the sector muffles its voice and confounds its policy problems. A thought experiment sums up the issue. Imagine a ‘Jack Sprat’ dinner: you have fish, chips, mixed salad, wholemeal bread and a glass of white wine, and your companion is served steak, mashed potatoes, green beans and a beer. And you both have coffee to follow. This simple meal requires lab research, seeds, machinery, fertilisers, veterinary products and services, crop protection, animal feed, fisheries, trawlers, straw, slurry, manure, abattoirs, feed compounders, grain merchants, milk processors, maltsters, brewers, millers and bakers, manufacturers, wholesalers, retailers, and recycling or disposal for the packaging and leftovers. Then envision cooking it for a thousand people in a factory. Then work out how to feed nine billion people a year sustainably and affordably for the next century. Then work out how to get rid of the waste.
So the Food Economy is the entire network of scientific innovators, producers, distributors, consumers, and disposers of food and drink. It stretches from the lab to landfill. It is the biggest manufacturing sector in the UK, and as a whole is one of the biggest contributors to the UK economy.
Although there are global firms in the sector, 98% are small companies that employ 40% of the employees. So the industry may appear disjointed, fragmented and disconnected to the outside world including universities. For example, although there are ten key trade associations, there are over forty bodies for food manufacturing alone. Although each has a clear role, it is difficult for organisations outside the sector, including universities, to have a clear view of the collective or individual requirements of food businesses.
Behind this complexity is a common need to engage with the science and research base, and a desire to attract more and better talent from universities and colleges in order to be in the race to the top. But to achieve the breakthroughs that will make the UK a global leader in food, government needs to treat the sector as a strategic priority.
An Industrial Strategy and Single Plan for Food
The UK government is clearly committed to ‘behaving like a business’ by sticking to long-term planning that tackles strategic weaknesses in the economy, and has established leadership councils for eleven key sectors. 12
Most look at a whole industry such as the life sciences, nuclear, automotive, aerospace, and construction. But it has focussed mainly on just one sub-sector of the food economy, namely agricultural technology.
Despite this decision, we strongly support the work of the Agri-Tech Leadership Council. It now oversees an investment programme including:
- A £70 million government investment in an Agri-Tech Catalyst to provide a single fund for projects, all the way from the laboratory to market
- £90 million for a Centre for Agricultural Innovation.
- A Centre for Agricultural Informatics and Metrics of Sustainability.
This Leadership Council is potentially the source of a stronger and more cohesive voice not only to government, but also to the research, innovation and education base. It could, if properly constituted, act as a focus for collaboration on skills and innovation for the whole industry across the UK. But we believe that to increase its effectiveness, it needs a more comprehensive remit and representation.
Food needs a body that speaks for all parts of the supply chain, not just agri-tech, and which can leverage and focus investment. There is already good work being done by the Industry Skills Partnership that brings together 50 food and drink manufacturing companies, and a range of trade associations, in a programme supported by £2m of BIS funding and £1m of industrial support to develop future skills and talent for this part of the sector.13 But, as we have consistently noted, we need a lab-to-landfill view of the relationship between business, universities and the public innovation system, and therefore the agri-tech strategy, and its associated funding, must embrace the whole sector.
We also recommend that a reconstituted Agri-Tech Leadership Council work with the devolved administrations, NCUB and others to establish a Food Economy Business-University Forum. This would be a permanent body that ensures a long-term focus on strategic skills and on innovation collaboration between sectors.
Although the current Council has cross-department support from DEFRA, BIS and the Department for International Development (DFID), we note that other industries that cut across industrial boundaries have ministers with responsibilities in different departments. For example, the Minister of State for Culture and the Digital Economy has both BIS and Department of Culture, Media and Sport accountabilities; and the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Life Sciences is a shared role between BIS and the Department of Health.
Such is the importance, broad impact, and complexity of the Food Economy, we recommend that the Prime Minister ensures there is a shared ministerial role that can coordinate the relevant departments – DEFRA, BIS, DFID, the Department of Health (including Public Health England and the Food Standards Agency), the Department of Education and DCLG. This change will enable government to develop an integrated regulatory, research, educational and policy response to food. Furthermore, as we noted in our conclusions, the market is not resolving major issues at the landscape level. This calls for coordination and catalysing by government.
Many of the collaboration challenges we identify are shared across the UK. The devolved administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have produced more integrated strategies for food. The Task Force feels that these can be further developed to include its wider definition of the skills and innovation needs of the food economy. These should form part of a shared plan for business-university collaboration in food across the UK.
Finally in this group of recommendations, we believe that the Food Economy will grow more effectively if food science in schools is more highly valued and helps raise the profile of the food industry. We also think that food should be more broadly integrated into other parts of the school curriculum including biology, geography and other subjects.
In Scotland, the Higher qualification in Home Economics focuses on the physical, chemical, nutritional, biological and sensory properties of food. Food is also taught across the science curriculum and is supported by, amongst others, the Scottish Food and Drink Federation’s Future in Food 14 schools programme. As one would expect from the centrality of food to the Northern Ireland economy, the schools’ curriculum there integrates food into STEM education. 15 The new GCSE in food and nutrition will launch in Northern Ireland in 2016 aims, amongst other things, to ‘take account of rapid technological changes and the growth of scientific knowledge and understanding.’ 16 In Wales, food is included in the GCSEs for design and technology, as well as Home Economics and additional applied science. 17
We strongly support the creation of the proposed GCSE in Cooking and Nutrition in England, not least because it might contribute to tackling the health problem of obesity in young people. But we also believe the government could go further in emphasising the scientific nature of this qualification.
A good model of industry working with the education and business departments of government is the UK Space Agency’s Education, Skill and Outreach strategy where the sector intends to use space for education, and education for space. 18
We note also the launch of a new employer-backed careers advice and guidance company, supported by the Department for Education. We anticipate a concerted effort by the Food Sector and universities to coordinate with one another and cooperate with this new organisation to ensure a strong representation there of the needs of the whole industry. 19
UK government to work with devolved administrations to produce a UK-wide plan for the education, skills and innovation needs of the food economy. The Agri-Tech Leadership Council’s remit and membership – and the agri-tech strategy - should be broadened to include the entire end-to-end value chain from lab to landfill. A UK minister should take the lead on the food economy and its education, skills, research and innovation needs. Similarly the devolved administrations should ensure a single ministerial overview.
- NCUB to work with the Agri-Tech (Food) Leadership Council and devolved administrations to establish a new Food Economy Business-University Forum that would bring together business, universities and research institutes to take a long view of the skills and innovation needed to grow the Food Economy.
- The Department for Education (DfE) should continue to encourage pupils to study subjects, such as the proposed cooking and nutrition GCSE, as well as science and geography, that will provide them with the knowledge, skills and understanding they need to consider further study and employment in the food sector. The DfE should also ensure that reforms to A levels due in 2017 build on the rigour of the new GCSE. And we encourage each of the devolved administrations to continue their development of science-focussed food and nutrition courses.
Self Help: Collaboration Between Food Economy Businesses and Universities
Although government can play a vital catalytic role in developing collaboration on skills, education, research and innovation, the Task Force is firmly committed to programmes of self-help. The ‘One Vision/One Plan’ strategy outlined above should not stop at the front door of government. For too long, sub-sectors of the food economy have failed to speak with a single voice of the need for shared solutions to its educational, research and innovation challenges. This approach must improve if it is to shape and respond to the Food 4.0 revolution.
One of the most pressing difficulties is that of persuading schoolchildren and graduates to enter the industry, and it is to this that we now turn.
Talent, Talent, Talent
To understand the nature and depth of these issues, and possible ways of resolving them, we commissioned a survey of five hundred first and second year undergraduates, and one hundred and fifty four recent entrants to the sector, across the full range of sub-sectors and roles. 20
The good news for the sector is that most of the graduates working in it see it as a good career option and score it almost six out of seven for attractiveness. And there is a perception gap between those working in food and undergraduates without that experience.
And they would recommend it to others.
The reasons for this enthusiasm range from the personal to serving the public good.
“Agriculture and food are thriving, undergoing necessary shifts to adapt to the current climate (economic, cultural, ecological). It is an exciting place to be, with lots of career opportunities and the possibility to grow.”
“The agricultural sector has a direct impact on the health and wellbeing of the UK (sometimes even world) population. Agriculture also faces its greatest challenge with a rising world population, water and (fertile) land scarcity and a changing climate. Thus, working in the agricultural sector is both altruistic and also intellectually challenging.”
“The individual development is good, there are opportunities to move around and learn new skills and gain new experiences. It is fast paced, challenging and overall a significant sector to be in.”
“It’s a fascinating area, where you have many choices to work according to your abilities and interest, e.g. food processing operations, sensory evaluation, food safety, quality assurance, etc…”
These enthusiastic employees have degrees in management studies, media, and marketing as well as the sector’s more traditional subjects of nutrition, biology and agriculture. Our research shows that undergraduates need to receive strong and well-marketed messages that within agri-food, you can work on a range of exciting challenges and in a variety of roles including climate change, sustainable agriculture, traditional food-making, high-tech farming, processing, manufacturing and retail. Graduates must be exposed to the potential for a broad, long-lasting and interesting career in the sector.
To be successful in Food 4.0, businesses need graduates capable of leadership and vision, and with commercial acumen and entrepreneurial instincts. Such attributes and skills can be developed in university courses of all kinds. However, not enough talented undergraduates know about, care for, or have enough experience of the food economy to find it attractive.
According to our undergraduate respondents, the biggest problem was the image of the sector and a lack of information about the kinds of roles available in it.
This was confirmed in their comments.
“More advertising - I've barely heard/seen anything to do with it until now! If it is presented as an actual option for a full career, people will be interested.”
“Break down the stereotype that the sector is low skilled and poorly paid”.
“Making it 'cool' in the media. I personally think that a food technician is a 'cool' job but farm manager is very dull.”
“By raising awareness of the different job roles and opportunities. When I was studying for A-levels, the specific roles were not explained or advertised to me. Equally, when I was at university, these roles were not promoted until I started on a graduate scheme where I learned the different roles, experiences and sectors of a food business.”
No food company made it into the top twenty of a recent survey of engineering graduates’ perceptions of the top hundred companies to work for in the UK, and only a handful made the list at all 21. And in general, as the NCUB’s Student Employability Index demonstrates, undergraduates rate the attractiveness of food production well below that of health or the media.
A crucially important method of overcoming this prejudice and pulling undergraduates into the industry is work experience. There simply is not enough of it, or a simple means to access it, as our findings on the factors that might influence graduates to enter the sector show (Figure 7).
There is already considerable evidence on food economy skills gaps, such as the United Kingdom Food Supply Chain report 23 the agri-skills forum, and the Food Research Partnership’ skills sub-group. 24 However, government still needs to work with universities and industry to monitor pressing overall skills challenges, especially those created by the high-tech/high-spec economy of Food 4.0. There are strong case studies of individual success in Sheffield Hallam, Harper Adams and Lancaster universities. These must be built on to develop the highly-skilled talent needed to make the UK’s food firms globally successful.
Recognising the good work being done on forecasting skills needs and in the development of innovative new courses, the Task Force concentrated on the challenge of raising awareness and aspiration, improving perception, offering conversion, and facilitating work experience.
In particular, it wants to build on the good work of sub-sector career guidance sites such as Bright Crop and Taste Success. One issue is that there are many such sites and initiatives.
We believe that if these are coordinated, their collective impact will be substantially greater. As a direct result of being in the Task Force, Improve and Bright Crop have already agreed to coordinate their Ambassadors programmes.
We also support campaigns and initiatives such as Feeding Britain’s Future, which in 2014 expanded to include employability skills training in schools 25, and Tasty Careers, which has received support from the governments of Scotland and Northern Ireland.
IGD, the food and consumer goods research and training organisation, runs summer schools with universities such as Reading, Nottingham and Leeds, to give young scientists an insight into roles in the sector such as product technology, safety, quality and product development. We encourage other HE providers to engage in this programme.
We also back digital approaches such the upcoming Countryside Classroom. 27 This will be a web portal that pulls together teaching resources, venues and experts to connect schools with food, farming and the countryside. It will relate food and farming to all subjects from reception to A Level.
Our research shows conclusively that the Food Sectors need to be able to make a simple offer to undergraduates, and we call for the establishment of a single portal that links to and curates sub-sector work. It is vitally important that universities themselves develop approaches to the food economy that promotes interdisciplinary cross-fertilisation for undergraduates as well as for postgraduates and researchers.
We also look to industry experts in marketing to develop a cross-food economy campaign that targets school students and undergraduates. With these measures in place, we anticipate that universities will be able to contribute more effectively to outreach programmes on behalf of the food sector.
The Agri-Tech Leadership Council and the NCUB to work with food businesses and universities to create new collaboration programmes and forums. These would grow and promote the talent, skills, educational, research and innovation pipelines of the Food Economy.
- NCUB to coordinate industry and universities to create a single student portal that links to all other Food Economy sub-sector sites. This will be a single port of call for graduate careers advice, courses, work experience offers, inspiration and advice.
- Agri-Tech Leadership Council to work with higher education funding councils, the UK Commission on Employment and Skills and Research Councils on a review of skills gaps in the Food Economy.
- The Agri-Tech Leadership Council and the NCUB to collaborate on developing a national graduate work experience and placements framework for the Food Economy.
- Food Economy Business-University Forum to share successful practice in developing conversion courses and graduate apprenticeships that fill pressing skills gaps identified by industry.
- Universities to develop interdisciplinary food programmes in collaboration with industry.
- Businesses should commit to a high profile Food Economy Inspiration Programme that ensures that all current outreach activity is shared and that a registry of speaking and engagement opportunities is maintained and promoted. This should be hosted on the student portal.
- Businesses and Universities to collaborate on integrated outreach programmes to schools to promote, coordinate, and expand upon initiatives such as Feeding Britain’s Future, Bright Crop and the NSA’s Ambassador scheme. Details of initiatives should be hosted on the single student/ambassador portal.
- Food businesses to co-fund and coordinate a whole-industry Food Economy marketing programme for schools that promotes the single vision advocated by the Task Force and excites schoolchildren about careers in Food.
Trusted Brokerage, Intelligent Networks
The development of an industrial strategy for the Food Economy will encourage business and university investment by providing clarity over what will be funded and for how long.
Such a strategy will enable the kinds of cooperation and collaboration that creates smarter supply chains and long-run innovation similar to the United States Department of Agriculture’s Cooperative Research and Extension Services programme in which the Land Grant University work with a network of local or regional offices. These USDA offices are staffed by one or more experts who provide useful, practical, and research-based information to agricultural producers, small business owners, youth, consumers, and others in rural areas and communities of all sizes.
What are the drivers of innovation?
Before turning to our own original research on innovation, it is worth reflecting on two recent reviews of the drivers of innovation. One was commissioned from the consultants, Arthur D Little for DEFRA, and the other from the Knowledge Transfer Network (KTN), laid some of the groundwork for the Sustainable Agriculture and Food Innovation Platform – a £90m joint venture between Innovate UK, DEFRA, and the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC). The public funding will be match-funded by industry. 29
The latter report identified ten opportunity areas for research which could maintain and enhance the UK’s competitive position in global food manufacture. 30 These are:
- Next Generation Integrated Retail.
- Waste Minimisation.
- New Approaches to Food Manufacturing.
- Health & Wellbeing Through Diet.
- Smarter Packaging.
- Food Safety.
- Understanding & Changing Behaviours/Drivers.
- Authenticity and Traceability.
- Energy and Water.
- New & Smarter Ingredients.
The DEFRA report identified ten innovation drivers, both for large firms and for small and mid-sized businesses. 31
Although the balance of drivers is different for small and large companies, there are shared issues in these reports that call for action. Arthur D Little concluded that further work had to be done on “packaging up” the results of research to achieve innovation. They note that: “Capabilities in modelling, testing, trialling and scale-up for food manufacturing already exists in, for example, the National Centre for Food Manufacturing at Lincoln University, and the Centre for Process Innovation in Teesside but needs to be more widely publicised and SMEs given access to them. 32
There are other food research centres besides these three, such as those at Cardiff Metropolitan University, Reading and Nottingham. In addition, major manufacturers have their own R&D capabilities. The idea of publicising and curating information from them chimes strongly with the Task Force’s own research on innovation and R&D.
In our study of this issue we drew on semi-structured interviews with thirty technical directors, innovation managers, CEOs and managing directors from twenty six companies.
The following quotes sum up one of the challenges of knowing what research exists and how to access it:
“The problem is that you know that there is a university out there that will have the expertise that you need to access but we certainly wouldn’t have known which university to approach and short of emailing them all or asking them all one-by-one I don’t know how to get the information out.”
“Most of our communication tends to be because there’s relationships…somebody went there, or somebody’s worked with them in the past. It’s not because we have a good communication system that tells me x or y research institute is up to this or that. There doesn’t seem to be a nice forum for finding information, it tends to be experience and personal contacts.”
Although twenty five universities were mentioned by respondents, most referred only to one or two, and they felt keenly their lack of knowledge of what might be going on elsewhere. Furthermore, only half of the executives felt that they wanted their academic contacts to be restricted to a local university. Indeed, only a handful felt that locality was a strong driver, and that was mainly because they were working with a specific PhD student.
Our respondents often used intermediary organisations to help them find an academic partner - including the UK’s Global Food Security programme, the BBSRC, Knowledge Transfer Networks (KTNs), Innovate UK, Interface Scotland, and the Food and Drink Federation. This reliance on others to broker a relationship demonstrates that even this knowledgeable group struggled to find the right researcher or research teams. Indeed of all potential government interventions, this group most often cited the need for improved information provision.
Most respondents felt that looking at academic journals or searching LinkedIn is too time-consuming and random, and that a dedicated website or portal where they are able quickly, easily and intuitively to access information would be a far better option. The Task Force believes that the National Centre for Universities and Business is best placed to coordinate the development of a Food Economy digital platform that can bring together sub-sector sites and networks already active in the public sector.
This approach is consistent with the NCUB’s development of an intelligent brokerage platform, funded by the public sector, through which businesses will have access to data, contacts, consultancy, and research funded by Innovate UK, the research and funding councils, and in the longer run, charities.
To accompany this digital platform, the food businesses in our survey wanted shared online spaces where universities and business can discuss what they are working on, as well as forums and industry-wide trade shows and conferences where they could network with university researchers.
Finally, there is a pressing need to develop and promote the use of ‘translators’ – intermediaries with a deep understanding of the relevant academic research, who understand the financial and cultural issues facing businesses, and who can navigate successfully between these worlds. They are also sometimes known as ambassadors or champions. We encourage universities to fund such people as part of their impact strategies, and to invest in creating them by funding the training and outreach activities of such researchers. We believe that such examples of self-help will attract industry funding, assist impact case studies that contribute to a university’s reputation and Research Excellence Framework (REF) scores, and add to the standing of the higher education sector as a whole.
Finally, the food industry must become more systematic and effective in accessing sources of interdisciplinary expertise – such as Innovate UK’s Knowledge Transfer Partnerships (KTPs), in which an early career researcher enters a firm to help solve pressing innovation challenges.35
NCUB to create a trusted information, advice and guidance portal for food businesses looking to grow the value of their relationship with universities, and for universities wishing to discover the research needs of businesses.
- NCUB to create a Food Economy Collaboration Portal or App on its current web site for businesses which want to work with universities. This will contain information, advice and guidance about how to work with universities, links to academics, success stories, blogs and inspiration.
- NCUB to ensure that the Food Economy is a priority sector for its intelligent brokerage platform. This will offer curated and easily understood access to research in universities and research institutes.
- Innovate UK, RCUK, NCUB and the Knowledge Transfer Network to establish a systematic programme of workshops, events and networking opportunities with universities and businesses, building on current initiatives such as RCUK’s research clubs.
- NCUB to promote and link to information and guidance from all relevant sub-sector web sites and Apps.
Making an Impact – Innovating in the Food Economy
Universities are naturally good at being inventive, while firms have incentives and governance structures which should allow them to be innovative. 36 The relationship between businesses and universities in the Food Economy resembles that in four industries that the NCUB reviewed as part of its Task Force on growing the value of innovation in the UK. 37
That Task Force concluded that:
- Universities increasingly play a strategic role in sector-specific innovation.
- Businesses are developing fewer, but longer-term, strategic partnerships with universities.
- Open Innovation is an increasingly important means of developing new products and services.
- Unidirectional models of knowledge exchange and technology transfer from universities to business fail to capture the richness of the interaction or the associated value creation.
- Innovation for grand challenges requires cross-disciplinary, cross-institution collaboration.
- Each industrial sector needs collaboration suitable to its structure and needs.
Each of these trends and insights applies in some way to innovation in the food industry, where the single vision approach is as relevant for research as it was in skills and graduate talent development. Too many sub-sectors such as agriculture, manufacturing, processing, support and inputs and retail speak to government and research funders separately. There is no powerful unified voice representing the Food Economy as a whole.
This awareness cuts both ways. Many of the executives in this Task Force’s survey noted that government departments and research funders speak to food companies in a way that is more appropriate for long pay-back, big-science industries such as pharmaceuticals. They emphasised their desire to collaborate with universities, and were supportive of the various impact initiatives from the funding and research councils. As a Task Force, we support the culture changes being brought about by a balanced focus on impact, and are committed to working with public bodies and organisations to ensure that the multiple and multidisciplinary needs of the sector are publicised and met.
The UK food and drink sector invested over £425m in R&D in 2013 39 and is second only to the US in new product variants 40. However, many sub-sectors operate by small-scale process innovation, for example by delivering incremental changes to make packaging more attractive, food healthier and goods less expensive, rather than on step changes in technology.
“Innovation is matching ourselves and our products with the changing customer.”
“Done well and managed well [regulation] can really drive innovation. It can make industry look at itself and look at how to change.”
“The supply chain is so lean it makes innovation hard to do… I think the whole supply chain could move forward a lot quicker if we had longer-term view of value supply chain deals.”
If the UK is to be a leader in Food 4.0, and if it is to extract more value from publicly-funded research, it must embrace a more open and collaborative culture. The executives in our research noted that some problems need to be tackled from a systems or supply chain perspective, particularly where the impact of an innovation is felt in a different part of the supply chain from its origin. The most commonly reported examples were disease control and resistance to herbicides. These impact all competitors and involve low risk of a collaborative project benefiting only one of the project partners.
A fine example from a related sector is Dundee University’s International Centre for Kinase Profiling. Here the university works on the pharma industry’s most important class of drug targets in an entirely open way. The centre collaborates with eight large companies including Pfizer, GlaxoSmithKline, Boehringer-Ingelheim, Merck-Serono, AstraZeneca, Janssen Pharmaceutical NV, Novo-Nordisk and Merck & Co, and has overcome most of the issues to do with publications, intellectual property management, and intercompany collaboration.
Given the fragmented and small company-dominated nature of the Food Sector, another model for collaboration is the two Fuse projects that emerged from the NCUB’s Task Force on the Creative and Digital Industries. These identified the need to coordinate small companies in order to increase their ability to use university research, and for programmes to improve their planning and strategic thinking. It also pointed to the catalysing role of intermediaries.
There are many candidates for open innovation in Food 4.0. They include: harnessing big data and precision agriculture sustainably to double yields; achieving the efficient use of water and the recycling of non-drinking water; the use of manufactured nanoparticles in food production; the convergence with bio-pharma; and the reduction waste along the chain. The grand challenges of health, well-being and sustainability are fundamental to Food 4.0 and researchers in business and universities must collaborate in multi-disciplinary teams to achieve the necessary breakthroughs in these areas.
Whether innovation is fundamental or incremental, it must involve strategic, structured engagement with the public research base. We call on the funders of that research to build on initiatives, such as the Global Food Security programme, that engage systematically with the sector as a whole rather than just with its sub-sectors.
Agriculture is of necessity regionally specific, and innovation strategies must be sensitive to that specificity. Many of the Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) in England have developed agricultural growth strategies that are supported by research. For example, Agri-Tech East is a £3.2m programme to support the agri-tech industry in Peterborough, Cambridgeshire, Norfolk and Suffolk.
We look to BIS and the Department for Communities and Local Government to support NCUB in providing an information service which allows LEPs to engage with universities and business on local Food Economy strategies. For their part, universities are willing partners in innovation, but they must intensify interdisciplinary training (both for students and staff), incentivise staff to engage with the Food Economy, and value staff better who work with industry and create academic ambassadors and champions.
Finally, and in recognition of the complexity of working with universities and the public research base, we look to experts in university Intellectual Property to establish an online education programme to simplify and demystify the process. We also look to the online brokerage tools outlined in a previous section to help food businesses find out where university IP is available and how to clear or licence the use of it.
The Food Economy research, impact and innovation agenda should be more strongly promoted by all administrations in the UK and by the research funding bodies.
- Universities and research institutes should publish their mission-based impact strategies for the Food Economy.
- Research Councils to build on the work of programmes such as Global Food Security, and their multidisciplinary Food Security programme to establish a Cross-Council approach to the Food Economy.
- NCUB to work with the Agri-Tech Leadership Council to coordinate a Funders Forum that brings together all parties engaged in funding Food Economy Research, and in particular the Government Office of Science’s Food Research Partnership.
- Food Economy businesses must engage with research funders by joining University Councils and faculty Liaison Boards, participating in peer-review panels etc. This activity should be actively marketed with companies and time allowed for participation. NCUB will work with others to create a single digital source where these opportunities are offered.
- NCUB, Research Councils, Innovate UK and the Intellectual Property Office (IPO) to promote the use of IP management tools such as Lambert Agreements 42 and Easy-Access IP 43 to agri-food firms.
- As part of its work on smart specialisation, NCUB to market the single Food Economy vision and plan to LEPs and promote business-university engagement on potential Food Economy projects.
- Research funders, universities and Innovate-UK to promote and develop translators who can move between businesses, universities and research institutes. ADAS, previously the research arm of the Ministry for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, has provided this service for the environment, agriculture and rural affairs, but with the increased complexity of the Food Economy, the industry requires more organisations and research teams with translational missions.
Sharing the Place: The Food Economy in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland
Although many of the first four recommendations are as relevant to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland as they are to England, we recognise that these parts of the UK have their own unique industrial structures, administrative processes, funding mechanisms and food policies. In addition, the connectivity between universities and businesses changes when there are smaller populations and fewer higher education institutions. In this report we have chosen to celebrate success in the devolved administrations, while focussing on collaboration and knowledge-sharing across the UK.
From world-leading whisky production in Scotland to specialist livestock rearing in Wales, there are areas of strength across the UK Food Economy. Each nation has the opportunity through different policy drivers and structures to maximise its opportunities for comparative advantage, and has the ability to use business-university collaboration in a coordinated and coherent manner. Each Devolved Administration wishes to use Food Economy innovation and skills to build on its strengths and to help prioritise areas of strategic focus. But businesses operate across the UK, and internationally. So we look to these governments to reduce the impact of duplication, where each of the home countries attempts to specialise in the same part of the food economy, and fragmentation, where the UK as a whole, as well as its constituent parts, fails to make the most of an opportunity, for example for European funding.
Devolved administrations and English regions will wish to create policies and structures appropriate for their own unique systems, but there should be coordination and knowledge-sharing between them to create more shared value.
- NCUB and the Agri-Tech Leadership Council to work with the Devolved Administrations to share information, intelligence and development plans for innovation and skills, and for university-business collaboration.
- NCUB to ensure that its Intelligent Brokerage Platform is connected with intermediary organisations in the Devolved Administrations.
Signals from the Landscape – Collaborating to Unlock Business Value and Ensure Sustainability
“As a retailer we spend a considerable amount of time with our suppliers, farmers and growers working on our specific supply chains. The addition of landscape scale activities will unlock more value and resilience for everyone involved.”
Head of Sustainable and Ethical Sourcing, Major Retailer
Throughout this report, we have emphasised that a successful food industry is a sustainable food industry. Sustainability is embedded in all agricultural policy in the UK and across the EU, and university-business research and collaboration already play their part in ensuring that targets are met. However, there is a specific aspect of sustainability that current policy is insufficiently focussed on, which the market on its own is not currently resolving, and where collaboration is key – namely, management of the landscape.
Why landscape-level cooperation?
Farmers and growers need to make a profit to remain in business, and they are at the base of the agricultural food chain. But the production of food competes with other industries for land, water and energy, and impacts on the environment in many ways, such as the emission of greenhouse gases, the amount and quality of water it uses, its impact on biodiversity in the countryside, and its effect on human health.
As well as being fundamental to the food sector, agricultural landscapes have significant cultural, amenity and recreational value, and provide habitats for biodiversity. These services often arise not from management of single fields or farms but from all land management in an area. For example, downstream flood risk may depend on all upstream farms. Or to give another example, a pollinator such as the bumblebee will not stay within the confines of one farm (even if it could recognise property boundaries), but will use different resources such as food or nesting sites within a larger land area. Moreover, it will use resources differently at different times of year. A single farmer’s activities will not provide enough resources to maintain viable populations of wild pollinators, which need different types and patches of habitat scattered across a whole landscape. We call the view that emerges from the approach the landscape perspective on land use. 45
Governments around the world are responding to these challenges. In 2014, DEFRA noted that: Ministerial priorities of (i) growing the rural economy and (ii) improving the environment often come into conflict. 46
At a practical level, DEFRA offers Environmental Stewardship grants to farmers to deliver effective environmental management of their land. 47 But more fundamental research and knowledge exchange are required to make the dramatic shifts in performance needed for Food 4.0. To investigate ways of increasing farm productivity whilst improving environmental performance, the department has invested £4.5m in three interlinked research projects to establish a Sustainable Intensification Research Platform (SIP). 48 This will consist of a physical network of agricultural study sites in England and Wales, and a community of collaborating agricultural, environmental and socio-economic researchers from over thirty organisations.
Other landscape-level initiatives include a £70m strategic collaboration between the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID). 49 This will focus on near-market R&D which aims to get the benefits and outputs of research into widespread use quickly to improve nutrition, food security and incomes. It will aim to translate known science into technological solutions for use by researchers, crop breeders, development programme workers and farmers in developing countries. Finally it will commission high pay-off, higher risk, high-impact research on global scientific priorities.
The collaboration’s near-term projects are protection against a rapidly-spreading stem rust disease attacking wheat; cheap, effective and simple, paper-based biochemical test kits for use in the field; increasing rice yields by 50% and water use efficacy by 100%; the development of new varieties of maize that are better adapted to Africa’s nutrient deficient soils; and faster genetic gains for improved yield and stress tolerance in important tropical legume crops including groundnut, cowpea, common bean and chickpea.
Innovate UK’s Sustainable Agriculture and Food Innovation Platform aims to invest £90 million over five years to stimulate the development and adoption of new technologies that improve the productivity of the UK food and farming industries, while decreasing their impact on the environment. The priorities are crop productivity, sustainable livestock production, waste reduction and management, and greenhouse gas reduction. 50
All three of these programmes show that universities and research institutions are natural partners in sustainability and landscape-scale analysis. Their fundamental research projects need not bring any immediate financial benefit, so that universities can take risks with time and resources that are beyond the reach of individual businesses or farmers. But, as Stuart Lendrum notes at the head of this section, business has a vested interest in landscape-scale cooperation. The Task Force’s working group on land use investigated practical ways of developing joint projects that would increase the value for business of landscape collaboration, whilst at the same time increasing beneficial environmental outcomes.
Landscape Signals and Cooperative Behaviour
The focus of many sustainability initiatives is agriculture – and mainly farms. But as we noted earlier, broader ecosystem needs must be integrated into sustainable solutions for landscape management. This approach comes into sharp relief in cases where the benefits of cooperation (or the risks of not cooperating) are at their clearest. Examples include increasing pollination, controlling pathogens and trading water. Linking the delivery of public goods such as amenity and leisure to agri-environment policy increases the potential to develop an integrated approach to the management of the landscape that will benefit farmers, businesses and the rest of society.
Our interviews with retailers have confirmed their desire to reduce the risk to their supply chain, and to enhance their reputation and goodwill by engaging at a landscape level. Furthermore retailers compete for strong farmer relationships and their biodiversity, water use and waste management are part of their marketed points of difference. Despite this, unrealized business opportunities exist for coordinated action between growers supplying different product categories. Collectively, they can address production challenges and achieve sustainable UK-wide intensification of agricultural output. The landscape-level approach could optimise decisions by whole groups of farmers, and along the supply chain. It could also address shared production risks from landscape signals such as pest infestations, pollinator loss, soil management, water availability and biodiversity.
Business-university collaboration on landscape signals
Civil society and regulatory agencies are already responding to these challenges, and offer models to the business sector.
Our analysis of these existing landscape initiatives shows that landscape signals foster collaboration. Most cases involve more than one such signal. In Food 4.0 the food sector needs to be better at this kind of collaboration, while universities and research organisations can be strategic delivery partners in developing collaborative solutions for business and government.
Researchers are used to examining complex information and data sets, and can play a key role in identifying, capturing and interpreting landscape signals. Furthermore, the complexity of the landscape approach requires different ways of collaborating. The ability to keep diverse interests working together constructively is not straightforward, and the role of an effective, often independent, facilitator is essential to success. Universities must work with businesses to grow the knowledge, skills and experiences required to develop the landscape approach.
The Task Force’s working group on land use offers a working model for this action-oriented research.
The Task Force offers the following recommendation on collaboration to maximise landscape use:
Universities, businesses and government must collaborate to deliver sustainable land use at the landscape level. Agri-businesses must address the challenge that farm management poses for landscape level outcomes. For example, no single farmer may be responsible for the loss of bees from a landscape, but collectively their actions may ensure it. DEFRA and the devolved administrations must ensure that the regulatory instruments for which they are responsible are aligned with this objective and provide signals which encourage collaborative action.
- Universities and research councils must engage land management businesses in the development of research on sustainability and landscape-level ecosystems, as well as developing the interdisciplinary skills required to coordinate landscape research.
- Businesses to work with universities to help identify and use landscape signals as apractical way to collaborate and address sustainable land use.
- Businesses to move towards more open data on supply chains, and collaborate at landscape levels on a pre-competitive basis to realise new benefits and manage risks.
- Universities to work with businesses to develop cross-discipline courses that develop a pipeline of new professionals with the understanding and skills needed to foster the landscape approach.
- DEFRA to incentivise landscape level programmes on sustainable land and water use and consider the use of current programmes, such as the Rural Development Programme, to do so.
This Task Force was convened to reflect on the talent, skills, innovation and research needs of businesses across the whole food economy, and the most effective methods of increasing collaboration with universities and research institutes. If the measures we have advocated are adopted we believe that the UK can be a global leader in Food 4.0 and meet the twin goals of increasing the competitiveness of UK Food Plc whilst at the same time reducing its environmental impact. Not to do so will be to risk food insecurity and the decline of a sector that is one of the UK’s great success stories.