Fabulous #food #science research with @IFRScience in Norwich – finding out more for #NFDF2014.

If you read my earlier #NFDF2014 post about the Norwich Research Park, you will know Norfolk is home to an internationally respected cluster of bioscience institutes. One of these is the Institute of Food Research (IFR), which specialises in exploring the relationship between food and health. This includes researching the importance of gut bacteria to good health, preventing food related illnesses and developing healthier, more sustainable foods (including ways to reduce and reuse food waste).

IFR on Norwich Research Park

IFR on Norwich Research Park

In early June, I had the pleasure of meeting Professor Tim Brocklehurst to find out a bit more about IFR’s research, including its work with commercial businesses. Tim started by explaining the basic difference between the John Innes Centre (JIC) and the IFR. “JIC’s focus in on how to grow more crops (pre-farm gate products). Whereas the IFR is looking at how we convert primary production into safe, nutritious, food (post-farm gate products) for the consumer.”

“So while JIC is concerned with, say, increasing wheat yields, we want to know if it is the right wheat for people’s health needs and how we can improve it. This might mean looking at how to change the level of long-chain sugar molecules (amylopectin and amylose) in wheat, which can influence diabetes, or exploring the way gut bacteria breaks down wheat starch and the effect this has on a person’s calorie intake. We are also interested in the way gut bacteria signals to the brain that we are full – the ‘satiety’ response.”

You are what you eat – possibly

The role of gut bacteria (or gut flora, if you prefer) in human health is pretty amazing – as are the number of different bacteria in our stomach. As some scientists like to point out, from the bacteria’s point of view we are just a giant bacteria hotel. There are more bacteria cells in our body (some 10 to the power of 13) than there are mammalian cells – and there are over 3,000 different species of bacteria in our gut. These micro-organisms control how we process food, absorb calories and vitamins, and even how we feel.

Image of gut bacteria - somewhat enlarged - courtesy of IFR.

Image of gut bacteria – somewhat enlarged – courtesy of IFR.

“There is increasing evidence of a link between the state of our gut flora and health problems such as inflammatory bowel disease (Crohn’s disease and ulcerative colitis),” says Tim, “as well as our mood swings. And there is some evidence that re-balancing the flora (using faecal transplants) might help reduce the symptoms of some of these ailments. However, this is a hugely complex area – we have to be careful about how we interpret the evidence and related claims, which is why we need to conduct more research to gather sufficient data.”

Growing capabilities

That is one of the many reasons why a proposed new Centre for Food and Health (CFH) will be so important not just for the Norwich Research Park but for food science in this country.

“The CFH will effectively be an ‘IFR Plus’,” explains Tim, “integrating our expertise with the skills of colleagues at JIC, The Genome Analysis Centre (TGAC), and the University Hospital. The presence of TGAC is particularly important because its high-speed gene sequencing capabilities enable us to conduct meta-genomic analysis on a scale we could only have dreamt of 10 years ago. We can now ask very detailed questions about what happens at the genetic level and the way diet might affect the genetic expression of proteins.”

Such genetic analysis may in time lead to the development of personalised nutrition, as well as personalised treatment for a range of diet related ailments. This is very exciting for the scientists but also creates significant business opportunities, which is why IFR is heading up a bid for European Union funding to set up a Knowledge and Innovation Community (KIC) specialising in food innovation. “The idea is to start with the scientific research and then partner with the business community to create new products, new jobs and economic growth to fund further research.”

From Farmer to Pharma

According to a recent independent report, every £1 invested the IFR already returns over £8 to the UK economy through the commercialisation of its research and its support for businesses. It does this through a number of routes, including the Food and Health Network, which Tim heads up. “The Network is our knowledge exchange for colleagues in the food, drink and health related industries.”

The IFR has also set up IFR Extra to work with companies on new product development, product enhancement and product safety. IFR Extra is also looking at ways to lower manufacturing costs by saving energy and water and reducing food waste, including working with partners on The Biorefinery Centre (also located on the Research Park) to convert waste into fuel.

Talented IFR scientists doing ground breaking research.

Talented IFR scientists doing ground breaking research.

“This is a very exciting time to be a food scientist,” says Tim. “Not only is food the UK’s largest manufacturing sector but also globally we face huge challenges in producing enough safe and healthy food to feed a rapidly growing population, and doing so sustainably. This means there are numerous opportunities in both research and business to make a real difference to public health.

“Whether you want to do primary research to inform public policy (on say the level of sugar in food), work on improving foods or develop new medical treatments, this is the field to be in. The Norwich Research Park is already one of Europe’s largest single-site concentrations of research in Food, Health and Environmental Sciences – and it is set to grow rapidly over the next few years. So if you are a keen student or graduate, you should definitely look at the opportunities to work here.”

Thank you for your time Tim and a fascinating morning’s discussion.

Dates for your diary

If you want to find out more about the work of the IFR or the other bioscience institutes at the Norwich Research Park, please follow the links in this blog. Also, if you work in the food industry or the agri-food chain, you should take a look at the Total Food 2014 event, which takes place 11-13 November in the John Innes Conference Centre.

JustGiving - Please sponsor us

About this post

This is one in a series of #NFDF2014 tagged posts about the Norfolk Food and Drink Festival 2014 and related stories – I hope you enjoy them. If you have any questions or comments, or ideas for future posts, please post them under this blog or tweet them to me. I will do my best to reply.

Thank you for reading – best wishes – Huw.

@HuwSayer / @Business_Write

#Norfolk schools – your chance to win up to £2,000 in #NFDF2014 champion @Heygatefarms’ Grow and Cook awards

Could your local school use up to £2,000 to inspire children to grow and cook their own food? I’m sure it could, which is why you should persuade those in charge to enter the second Grow and Cook awards. This competition, sponsored by Heygate Farms Swaffham Ltd, aims to encourage children of all ages to explore the connection between farming and food – and how to prepare delicious, healthy meals.


Read about last year’s winners here.

William Gribbon, Heygate’s award winning Farm Manager in Norfolk, is the brains behind the Grow and Cook awards. He is passionate about farming and helping young people discover where their food comes from and how to enjoy it. This, along with his support for Norfolk’s farming community, is why the organisers of the Norfolk Food & Drink Festival asked him to be one of their three #NFDF2014 champions.

Making the link between farm and food

You might have see Will at the Royal Norfolk Agricultural Association’s ‘Grow your own Potatoes day’ on 17 March 2014. This event was about encouraging children to explore the world of the potato, from planting to plate, in all its many forms. Visitors to the Royal Norfolk Show (25/26 June) can watch the children harvesting their potatoes and find out which team grew the heaviest crop.

In our modern, urban culture it is all too easy for children to grow up with limited knowledge of the source of most of their food or how to prepare that food. This leaves them dependent on fast food and ready meals. While not all such food is bad – and its convenience has real value for the time-poor – there seems little doubt obesity is partly linked to a lack of awareness of what constitutes healthy, affordable food.

The Grow and Cook awards aim to re-establish the vital link between growers and young consumers. The judges – Will and Michelin-starred Chef Galton Blackiston – will be looking for projects that encourage children to engage enthusiastically with growing and preparing their own food. These could involve learning important cookery skills for a healthier life or understanding the environmental challenges of watering, feeding and protecting crops from pests and disease.

Enter today

For your school’s chance to win one of the two £1,000 prizes, make sure they enter their project in the awards and then encourage friends and family to vote for them. You can find full details on how to enter and vote here. We wish all the children who take part the best of luck and hope they have lots of fun in the process.

NFDF coloured logos

About this post

This is one in a series of #NFDF2014 tagged posts about the Norfolk Food and Drink Festival 2014 and related stories – I hope you enjoy them. If you have any questions or comments, or ideas for future posts, please post them under this blog or tweet them to me. I will do my best to reply.

Thank you for reading – best wishes – Huw.

#NFDF2014 blog: Can @GeorgeMoateLtd’s Norfolk engineered #Tillerstar help deliver #Sustainable farming?

“It offers major savings, without compromising on the quality of the [seed] bed.” That’s the verdict of just one of the many farmers now using the new George Moate Tillerstar to prepare their fields for planting crops such as potatoes, onions, leeks and carrots. The farmer, Sam Patterson, who grows 145 hectares of potatoes in Lancashire, went on to tell Arable Farming magazine that by removing the need for a de-stoner “we’ve saved at least £245/ha from our establishment costs.”

Norfolk’s thriving engineering sector

Don’t let anyone tell you that engineering in this country is finished. Even here in Norfolk, which many people wrongly think of as a sleepy backwater where everyone is a farmer or retired, we have a thriving engineering and manufacturing sector. As World Class Norfolk reports, there are some 1,000 engineering firms in the county, employing around 10,000 highly skilled people (around 5% of the workforce) and supplying global companies such as Boeing, Airbus, NASA, Toyota and Lockheed.

One of these successful companies is George Moate Limited, run by Lesley Pratt and her husband Richard. It makes the award winning Tillerstar, which is helping to revolutionise the planting of vegetables and root crops. And when I say ‘make’, I don’t mean ‘assemble using imported components’: I mean it manufactures virtually every single part in its factory on the edge of North Walsham – so is an ideal subject for an #NFDF2014 blog.


The roots of a new agricultural revolution

George Moate, a Yorkshire farmer and inventor, was the firm’s founder. Over the years he’d developed various bits of agricultural machinery, including bringing the first hydraulic folding tilling machine to market. Then, in 2011, he exhibited a prototype Tillerstar at the Harrogate Show and suddenly the enquiries started pouring in – leaving George with a hard choice: stick to farming (which he loved) or run a full-scale engineering business; he chose farming.

Lesley, an experienced business woman who’d been looking for a new venture after taking time out to raise a family, bought the patents and set about developing the business. This included making 23 major engineering changes to George’s original designs. She also bought back eight prototype machines and had them upgraded to match the new specifications: “We didn’t want any machines out there with the George Moate brand that didn’t meet our standards,” she explains.

Lesley’s partner (in life and business), Richard, already owned a successful engineering company called PSS Steering & Hydraulics, also based in North Walsham. PSS specialises in manufacturing, designing and re-manufacturing parts for heavy duty vehicles and machines made by the likes of Land Rover, John Deere, and JCB. With a 70 strong team of designers, engineers and machinists, it is ideally equipped to make most of the components for the Tillerstar.

What makes the Tillerstar different?

As Lesley explained to me, there has been a quiet revolution in potato farming over the last 30 years or so. When I helped with potato harvesting, during my summer holidays in the early 80s, we had to pick out the stones and clods as the potatoes were carried up the conveyor belt to the trailer. Then farmers introduced new machinery to de-stone fields before planting, by sifting the stones and dumping them in deep-ploughed trenches running alongside the planting ridges.

While this means harvesters now lift far fewer stones with the potatoes, it creates two major problems for potato farmers and agriculture in general. The first is that the stones have to be ploughed up at the end of each season and re-scattered, before other crops can grow successfully. The second is that, over time, all this deep ploughing degrades the soil structure and reduces fertility, which means farmers then have to use more expensive fertilisers to maintain yields.

Deep ploughing, trench digging, and re-scattering is also labour and machine intensive, costing a lot in terms of time and fuel. The beauty of the Tillerstar’s innovative design is it lifts and sieves the soil, and forms the planting bed all in one go, without needing a separate trench for the stones. By reducing the number of ‘passes’ the tractors make, it saves money (one farmer in Ireland estimates he is saving £50 a hectare in fuel alone) and reduces soil compaction.


The Tillerstar gets its name from the four horizontal, rotating star rollers fitted behind the cultivator (see illustration above). The cultivator lifts the soil and throws it back onto the rotating stars. These then throw the heavy stones and clods forward into the bottom of the newly dug bed before letting the finer soil fall through behind to cover them.

The integral bed former, which the operator can change to suit soil conditions and produce the desired finish, then mounds up the earth ready for planting. As such, the Tillerstar only has to turn 6-7 inches of soil to create a bed that’s 12-14 inches deep – which further helps save fuel and reduce soil degradation. While scattering the heavy material in an even layer across the bottom of the bed not only improves drainage but also removes the need for re-scattering at the end of the season.

Winning awards and exporting globally

Despite only being launched three years ago, the Tillerstar has already won a string of awards. These include: The Innovation Award from the British Carrot Growers’ Association in 2012; a Gold Medal at the Royal Norfolk Show in 2013 for Best Commercial New Machine; an Award of Merit in the Best New Product or Innovation (Mechanical) category at LAMMA 2014. The machine is now being used successfully across virtually every main soil type in the UK and has satisfied customers in Ireland, Norway, Poland, Russia, and New Zealand (with new enquiries coming from Africa, the Middle East and America).

Meanwhile, a team from Cambridge University (led by Dr Mark Stalham) has been using Tillerstars in field trials aimed at helping potato farmers improve yields and reduce soil degradation. The long term results aren’t in yet but preliminary reports indicate “no reduction in yield”, even when planting “substantially shallower than a traditional 30-35cm.” As Lesley points out: “While the research is important, we already know we are doing something right because innovative and entrepreneurial farmers (including Guy Poskitt, who was Farmer of the Year in 2012) are willing to invest in our machines.”

We’re blogging for charity

We are using our blogs to raise awareness of an excellent local charity called Nelson’s Journey. If you enjoyed this post, please help a grieving child by donating £1 (or more if you can spare it) to Nelson’s Journey today. Thank you.

JustGiving - Please sponsor us

Join the conversation

If you have any questions, comments or suggestions, please post them under this blog or tweet them to me. I will do my best to reply. Look out for my other blogs about the Norfolk Food and Drink Festival 2014 (see my earlier post about being an #NFDF2014 Champion) – and stories from around the county – I hope you enjoy them.

Thank you for reading.

BW Icon