Waitrose Science Day offers food for thought

Increasing biodiversity, developing natural pest control, sequestering carbon, reducing pollution – graduate researchers work with Waitrose fruit and veg suppliers to produce better food more sustainably.

Nearly 100 fruit and vegetable suppliers joined PhD researchers at an online conference to learn about the progress of joint research projects between academics and growers.

The more than £2 million Waitrose Collaborative Training Partnership, led by Lancaster University, is funding 33 graduate researchers to spend four years working on a pressing environmental issue around food production. As well as having an academic supervisor, they are supported by an expert from one of 21 companies supplying fruit and vegetables to Waitrose supermarkets.

The online Waitrose Science Day gave the researchers the opportunity to present their preliminary findings to their fellow PhD students and to interested growers and suppliers.

Presentations ranged from exploring how farmers could create wildlife corridors to help an endangered butterfly to a study modelling the most efficient use of fungicide to combat stem rot in avocado production.

“The Science Days with Waitrose are absolutely brilliant because we all get to hear what everyone else is doing research on,’ said Mandy Stoker, whose project explores how cover crops, which are used to stabilise soil over winter, could also capture carbon from the atmosphere and store it in the soil.

“If we are going to meet the Paris Agreement on climate change, we need to capture the excess carbon from the atmosphere,’ said Mandy, who is doing her field work at home in Shropshire, on the mixed arable and livestock farm run by her husband.

Mrs Stoker, who has run her own environmental consultancy E4environment for the past 20 years, is working with her industry partner, vegetable grower Barfoots, which employs thousands of people around the world. She is using different sorts of agricultural treatments to see which sequester carbon most effectively.

‘Barfoots are interested in anything that improves soil health and compliments their agricultural performance. Whilst they are financially driven, Barfoots have signed up to net zero targets, so this research will help them to readdress the carbon balance of the business’ says Mrs Stoker, who is being co-supervised by Rothamsted Research.

Mrs Stoker believes her partnership with Barfoots means her research is geared much more closely to the real problems that farmers face.

‘They are very good at putting a farm commercial view point, which is really important because you can get bogged down in the nitty gritty of the science and lose sight of why you are doing it.

‘When they ask questions, it helps you to understand what is important to them, which isn’t always the thing that you, as an academic researcher, think is important.”

Fellow researcher, Hannah McGrath, came to her PhD straight from completing a masters. She is collaborating with Huntapac Produce, to explore if wild-flower field margins can improve pest control and increase pollination in carrot fields.

She agrees that collaborating with businesses in the supply chain helps to focus your research right from the start.

“A week into my project, I had a meeting with Huntapac, and we narrowed down my field work to a three-week period when carrots are particularly susceptible to pest problems.

“We underestimate how interested farmers are in what we are doing. While they are unlikely to pick up a journal paper, if you are standing with them in their field, discussing what is going on, they are can see the potential of our science.”

Both Mandy and Hannah are now going into the final year of their PhDs. While the preliminary results they presented are not statistically significant, they do show a slight trend. They are hoping another year’s data will provide clearer answers.

“Growers want to know if something doesn’t work as much as if it does work because then they know whether to invest in it,” says Miss McGrath. “In normal academic life there is the pressure to publish or perish, but industry will still care whether our results are positive, negative or neutral.”

Some of the research highlighted in the Waitrose Science Day is already benefiting growers. Dion Garret’s PhD aims to improve the management of the current lettuce aphid, which can devastate lettuce and celery crops but has developed resistance to treatment. As well as working at a genetic level, Mr Garret set up suction traps in fields owned by Gs, one of Europe’s leading suppliers of fresh produce.

“These traps worked very well at trapping aphids and are giving a good insight into what aphid pest they are likely to see in an area and so what management strategies to use,” Mr Garret explained.

Rob Hues, Agriculture, Aquaculture and Fisheries Manager at Waitrose, who is also a working farmer, told the conference participants that farmers will have to change to farm more sustainably in the years ahead.

“I hope the way in the future is to work with nature. I really encourage you to understand the return on investment: doing the right thing should be reward enough, but it’s even better if you can demonstrate that the right thing also pays.”

Professor Carly Stevens, Academic Director of the Waitrose Collaborative Training Partnership, said: “This partnership is a fantastic opportunity for students and industry alike, it allows us to train the next generation of scientists equipping them for careers in research and in industry.”

The Waitrose Collaborative Training Partnership includes the Lancaster University, Warwick University, the University Reading, Rothamsted Research and the Waitrose Agronomy Group. It involves 21 fresh produce businesses partnering with 33 PhD researchers.

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