Author Archives: Emily Collins

Five ways Kent research is improving our food system

As a Right to Food university, Kent is committed to supporting food systems that advance human health and environmental sustainability in society. This starts with Kent research. Our research community is collaborating with local growers, producers, policymakers and wider industry to achieve real change with global impact, and has partnered with Growing Kent and Medway to support horticultural and plant-based food and drink businesses through our Biotechnology HubTogether, we’re making our food systems more: 


It’s widely accepted that we need to reduce waste to limit our impact on the environment – but doing so often isn’t financially or practically viable. To tackle this, Kent researchers are working with local producers to find commercially viable ways to shift towards a more circular economy. For instance, Senior Lecturer in Chemistry and Forensic Science, Dr Rob Barker and Reader in Molecular and Evolutionary Parasitology, Dr Anastasios Tsaousis, are bringing the ancient technology, biochar, to the 21st Century, in collaboration with Re-Generation Earth, with the ambitions to turn farm waste into a carbon-locking soil fertiliser. 

Another issue Dr Barker is helping to address is the economically and environmentally unsustainable import of two million tonnes of soymeal for animal feed into the UK each year. How? By optimising the use of black solider fly larvae as an alternative animal feed. By feeding excess and spoilt fruit and veg to the larvae, producers can cut their waste and upcycle it into a more valuable source of protein that can be used as low carbon feed for animals and create a ‘waste’ product which acts as a bio stimulant for crops. 

Meanwhile, in another lab in Kent’s School of Biosciences, Industry Research Fellow in Agri-Biotechnology, Dr Lori Fisher has been working with Sharpak Aylesham to reduce packaging waste. She conducted tests which informed the development of a recyclable punnet that maintains and extends the quality of raspberries, without the need for the plastic pad that traditionally keeps fruit fresh. This has the potential to reduce plastic waste by 3.6 meters squared a year! 


In the UK, the costs of ill-health, disease and obesity associated with UK dietary habits are enormous, yet a large portion of society don’t follow the UK dietary guidelines for healthy eating. To tackle this, Head of the School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research, Professor Iain Wilkinson, is working with researchers at the University of Reading to develop a blueprint for a set of policy interventions to support more people to transition to healthy and sustainable diets in the UK. Professor Wilkinson will contribute to the project by designing, delivering and analysing the outcomes of an experiment which examines what people put in their supermarket food baskets from a dietary health and sustainability perspective. 

Nutrition is also a major concern amongst older adults in home care, where diet is often not a matter of choice but what is made available. Malnutrition and dehydration are leading causes of preventable illness and deterioration of quality of life for older adults, and major drivers of health inequalities. Dr Stacey Rand, Senior Research Fellow in the Personal Social Services Research Unit, has been examining this relationship to inform how social care services meet the needs of older adults living at home. 


Responding to growing consumer demand for healthy food, local producers are working with Kent researchers to better understand the nutritional content of their products and identify new market opportunities. Dr Lori Fisher, for instance, has worked with J L Baxter & Son to explore the bioactive and nutrient compounds in the Asian pear (Nashi pear) to understand its health benefits and market potential.  

Another project funded by Growing Kent and Medway saw Rent a Cherry Tree partner with Senior Lecturer in the Biology of Ageing, Dr Marina Escurra, and Reader in Biogerontology, Dr Jennifer Tullet, from the School of Biosciences to determine the health benefits of their cherry products -including those formerly considered ‘waste’- and identify new ways to market them. The research team are now working with wine-makers, Defined Wine, to explore whether the waste from the wine-making industry can also be used to create new foods that improve health. 


Dairy production is one of the biggest methane emitters in the world. As a result, many people have switched to plant-based alternatives, leading to a huge growth in demand for plant-based milk, but less so for animal-free alternatives to cheese. One reason for this is that alternative protein companies are not able to offer affordable and scalable solutions to casein -the main cheese protein- production, limiting their ability to mimic dairy taste and textures. Professor of Systems Biology, Tobias Von Der Haar, and Professor in Fungal Epigenetics, Alessia Buscaino, are working to solve this by taking unconventional microbial species which are naturally more suitable for food production and genetically modifying them with the aim of producing casein in high quantities. This could give rise to better tasting, more affordable plant-based cheese. 


Climate change, disease and invasive species are all putting UK crops under stress. Combine this with more stringent environmental regulations and the introduction of sustainable farming incentives, and it becomes clear why food-related businesses are increasingly looking to collaborate with researchers to develop new technologies. One such researcher is Professor of Agri-Environmental Economics in the School of EconomicsIain Fraser, who is joining a world-class consortium of partners, led by agronomist Rob Saunders from H.L. Hutchinsons, to develop a commercially viable system which can precisely target orchard inputs to specific trees, or parts of a tree. Specifically, Iain will evaluate the difference between existing technology and new technology, which includes robots, drones and innovative chemical spraying systems.  

Researchers in Kent Business School are taking a wider view of the food supply chain to identify opportunities to improve resilience. In 2022, Professor Maria Paola Scaparra worked with Professor Kathy KotiadisProfessor Jesse O’Hanley and partner universities to increase the use of operational research in food supply security planning in South East Asia. Meanwhile, Lecturer in Marketing, Dr Rachel Duffy, has been examining the behavioural dimensions of supply chain relationships in the food industry, in particular, their implications for performance.

Kent research set to play pivotal role in bringing robot technology to UK orchards

Kent research is set to play a pivotal role in a groundbreaking new project which could revolutionise fruit production in the UK.

Professor of Agri-Environmental Economics, Iain Fraser, is joining a world-class consortium of partners to deliver the £4.5 million Precision Orchard Management for the Environment (POME) project. Led by agronomist Rob Saunders from H.L. Hutchinsons, the team will develop a commercially viable system which can precisely target orchard inputs to specific trees, or parts of a tree.

Funded by Innovate UK and DEFRA, the project will see Professor Iain Fraser collaborate with other academics, engineers, agri-tech startups, software developers, equipment suppliers, NIAB horticultural experts and farmers to implement technology which will improve the sustainability and efficiency of one of Kent’s leading industries.

Specifically, Iain will evaluate the difference between existing technology and new technology, which includes robots, drones and innovative chemical spraying systems. As well as calculating any improvements in efficiency, he will examine the likelihood that farmers will adopt the new technology and consider how the environmental benefits relate to UK environmental policy post EU-exit. By combining all three, he will be able to provide the project consortium with an informed assessment of whether the new spray technology is commercially viable.

Commenting on the impact the project will have on the farming community, Mr Saunders said, ‘The system we are building will cater for different sizes of farm business and with optional services depending on the farm’s need. The industry has changed a lot in recent years and will continue to do so as technology advances, and we believe systems like this will become commonplace.’

Iain has developed his understanding of orchard management, crop production and yields through his involvement in a series of projects, including the development of better crop yield forecasts to help farmers and supermarkets ensure there is sufficient produce available to meet demand. This project comes off the back of the Interreg-funded project Beespoke which examined the ‘pollinator deficit’ and how the support of wild pollinators by appropriate management can support both crop production and biodiversity.

Kent research to support seaweed project in Zanzibar

University researchers are helping county Kent-based seaweed technology business Nutri-San develop new techniques to transform seaweed extracts into a plant-based thickening agent for use in the food and pharmaceutical industries. As part of this project, Nutri-san is opening a new carrageenan factory on Pemba Island, Zanzibar.

During a signing ceremony of the Joint Venture Framework agreement between Zanzibar’s state-owned seaweed company, ZASCO, and Nutri-San on 22 November, Kent’s Dr Rob Barker gave a short presentation on carrageenan extraction techniques to an audience of over 100 Zanzibarian Ministers and Government officials, as well as media outlets.   

Nutri-San produces animal feed supplements from a blend of sustainable seaweeds and has been working with Alessia Buscaino, Professor of Fungal Biology at the University’s School of Biosciences, and the team at the Kent Biotech Hub for several years. An Algae UK/Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council-funded initiative enabled the team to conduct research on Nutri-San’s seaweed blends.  This initial research led to the team exploring alternative uses for by-products from Nutri-San’s production process, including the development of horticultural and agricultural bio-stimulants – something which Growing Kent & Medway have been keen to support.  They have since developed a highly productive relationship and are excited that their collaboration is being broadened to include Dr Barker and his team.  Together they will continue to work to drive innovation which impacts positively on people, animals and the planet. 

The new factory will be one of only a small number of facilities globally that is capable of producing high quality carrageenan from red seaweeds. Nutri-San has been supporting the seaweed harvesting community on Zanzibar for a number of years and the company’s diversification into carrageenan production will enable many more jobs to be created including key scientific and technical roles. 

Professor Buscaino said: ‘The partnership between the University and Nutri-San has been made possible by the Growing Kent & Medway consortium and it demonstrates how academia and business can work synergistically to great effect, for the immense benefit of both institutions. Our involvement with the commercial operation of Nutri-San in Zanzibar is exciting and we are also excited to announce that Dr Michelle Marin Chau, Nutri-San co-founder, has become an honorary member of staff at Kent. Her unique insights and experienced leadership will be an invaluable asset to us as we work together towards creating positive change.’ 

San Chau, Nutri-San-CEO, added: ‘We have been very fortunate to have developed a relationship with the University of Kent through our research collaborations with Professor Alessia Buscaino and her team, both in the School of Biosciences and at Growing Kent and Medway, which now spans several years.  Recently, this relationship has been extended to encompass more members of the Kent team.  Going forward together our partnership will have benefits for the community not only in Kent but also globally and we are hugely excited about this.’