Thought Leaders & Innovators Conference & Partnering Event Report

THE BRITISH food industry must boost innovation in order to improve productivity, but sustainably. This was one of the key points made by Lord Carter of Coles in his talk “Innovation in Agriculture and Food”.

He was speaking at the first ever Thought Leaders and Innovators Conference and Partnering Event, organised by Footprint Forum in London, on Thursday 24 May. This was a new type of event combining keynote speeches, panel discussions and partnering sessions. These gave people with innovations the opportunity to meet others they wouldn’t otherwise meet.

Lord Carter explained that, in the EU at least, agricultural productivity had pretty much flatlined. Over the next decade, projections for increases in agricultural production vary widely – in Brazil an increase of over 40%, in the US growth of between 15% and 20%, and in Europe about 4%.

“This, we believe, is not sustainable,” he said. Lord Carter explained that he chairs the Sub-Committee on the House of Lords subcommittee on agriculture and environment.

From July 2011 to July 2012, we undertook an inquiry into innovation in EU agriculture. This set out to examine how the EU’s strategic aim to promote innovation throughout the economy could be delivered in the agricultural area, and particularly looking at how EU policies could assist.”

He outlined what is meant by innovation, which interacts closely with innovation throughout the food chain:

New technologies such as biotechnology, new crops and new machinery such as precision farming. GPS technology is fitted to 20% of new farm tractors and 50% of combine harvesters, resulting in savings on fuel and other inputs of around 10%.

Incremental change such as commercial decisions to plant an alternative crop or alter a label. Simple use of labelling can add substantial value to a product such as “Camembert from Normandy"

Process changes – we heard about a new IT tool for the pig industry allowing the real-time measurement of energy and water use, feed intake, environment and growth. This was developed through a partnership of producers, academics and suppliers.

Lord Carter highlighted that innovation is seen as part of a system, involving co- operation between all parties including researchers, the food processing industry, retailers and consumers.

In one of the morning sessions, Debra Patterson from the Savoy described an innovative project to recycle corks. “Tony Laithwaite from Laithwaite Wines approached me and now the Savoy’s corks are collected and used as mulch in the vineyards. Special needs schools also make them into items that are sold to raise money for the Prince’s Trust.”

Jack Harding, the Savoy’s chief engineer, explained that the water in the hotel’s showers is heated by waste heat from the refrigerators. He also said the lighting is automatically adjusted. “If there is no movement in the room after 20 minutes, it shuts down. With 280 rooms, that makes a huge difference.”

A total of 134m working days are lost through sickness, which costs the British economy £100bn a year, said Tony Cooke from Sodexo in a panel discussion on health and wellbeing. “Around 27bn people are employed and spend most of their time at work. Foodservice has an important role to play to support that,” he said.

We recognise we don’t have all the answers, but if there is no response, there could be a health-related tax called fat tax or sugar tax introduced. If you think that’s barmy it’s already been introduced in Canada and Denmark.”

William McCartney from Sussex Partnership NHS Foundation Trust said: “Food is medicine. One in four of us will have some mental illness. A big part is fresh healthy food and looking after staff.

You’'ve got to work with staff and value them. They are the key. I have seen the frustration of not getting good procurement practice into the NHS.

“I can guarantee fresh salads cut this morning at 5.30am on patients’ plates at lunchtime and broccoli from a local farm on the plate tomorrow. That’s very different to getting vegetables that have been sitting in chillers.”

Cooke responded: “You’re lucky your board backs you up – if only all NHS trusts took the same view. Something has to be done to recognise the role food plays in patients’ wellbeing.”

Mark Jankovich from Delphis Eco said: “The days of us buying off the shelf are numbered.” He described an initiative he started with 3663 “where we gave schools concentrated cleaning liquid in a bottle which they sold to parents for 50p, making 40p margin. When the bottle is empty, the pupils bring it back and get it filled up, so schools learn about recycling. The same project is at Sue Ryder’s 300 charity shops which sell it at 99p.”

When he heard 2,000 people were waiting for an allotment in Wandsworth, he decided to use some space at the company’s premises and create a community garden.

Feedback from delegates at the meeting was positive, with many praising the format of talks, panel discussions and partnering sessions. Lucy Frankel from Vegware said: “The partnering sessions offered an opportunity to sit down informally with people at the coalface. The format of the meeting was good; I enjoyed sitting in on a panel discussion. As a relatively new player, it can be difficult to get noticed so it was great to air my opinions.”

Details on Thought Leaders & Innovators Conference & Partnering Event 2013 to be announced in September.

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