The UK Government has unveiled a £24m funding pot for innovations aimed at transforming the food system, including a project using captured CO2 to manufacture animal feed, amid fresh warnings of agriculture’s links to illegal deforestation.
Allocated as part of UK Research & Innovation’s (UKRI) Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund for Transforming Food Production, the funding is being split between nine UK-based projects.
Among them is REACT-FIRST, a project working to take the carbon captured from Drax’s biomass plant in Selby, North Yorkshire, and use it to produce feed for fish and poultry. The carbon and protein components in traditional animal feed are usually accounted for by soy or fishmeal – linked to deforestation and overfishing respectively – and by grains, which require arable farmland and much water to produce.
Leading the project is Nottingham-based biotech scale-up Deep Branch Technology. Once the feed is produced, it will be trialled in fish and poultry supply chains by Sainsbury’s and the Scottish Aquaculture Innovation Centre.
Drax first began capturing carbon dioxide at its power plant in February 2019, using technology provided by C-Capture. It has since begun trials to convert the captured carbon into new plastic products and has partnered with Mitsubishi in an attempt to mitigate a greater proportion of its emissions.
REACT-FIRST has received a £2m share of the pot. The remaining £22m is being split between eight projects working to apply big data, artificial intelligence and robotics to farming in a bid to increase efficiency, and to pioneer alternative farming methods such as vertical farming and hydroponics. Both Defra and BEIS were involved in the funding allocation process, alongside UKRI.
“It’s great to see investment in these outstanding ideas which will help us tackle the farming industry’s greatest challenges, from achieving net-zero emissions to investing in sustainable alternative protein for animal feed,” Farming Minister Victoria Prentis said.
“Farming has never before been at the centre of such exciting and forward-looking innovations.”
In its recommendations to the UK Government on achieving a net-zero national economy by 2050, the Committee on Climate Change (CCC) concluded that current technological solutions and stronger policy frameworks could enable the UK to reduce emissions by around 97% against a 1990 baseline. The remaining 3% could be achieved by the scale-up of CCS solutions and hydrogen energy technology – both listed as a “necessity, not an option”.
The CCC is also calling on Ministers to urgently transform land use in the UK, given the forest products and agri-food sectors’ contribution to the climate and nature crises.
Wood for the trees
The Government funding announcement comes shortly after a new analysis concluded that up to 22% of the soy and beef imported to the EU from Brazil in 2019 was produced on land that was illegally deforested.
Published in Science magazine, the report documents researchers’ findings after they used satellite-enabled software to analyse land surrounding 815,000 rural properties in Brazil’s Cerrado region – a vast tropical savannah that has been plagued by deforestation for several years.
While around 80% of the properties and their estates were owned or managed by farmers that respected the Forest Code, deforestation risk was recorded at 18-22% of the areas analysed.
All breaches of the code were recorded in areas linked to the production of soy or cattle, the report concludes. Around 70% of the world’s soy is used to feed livestock. Of the remaining 30%, the majority is processed to make soybean oil. Just 6% is estimated to go to direct human consumption.
Brazil can “become an environmental world power that protects its ecosystems while feeding the world,” said the report’s authors – but that the “political will” to do so is currently lacking.
Deforestation rates in Brazil are understood to have increased dramatically since Covid-19 was declared a pandemic in March. Green groups have put this down to President Jair Bolsanaro’s policy decisions around pandemic management and forest management.