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    Planting begins for multimillion-pound potato research project

    Posted 24 April 2023

    “A key principle of regenerative agriculture is minimising soil disturbance. Intensive soil disturbance is caused during conventional potato growing – tillage, bed-forming, destoning, planting and harvesting, accompanied by soil compaction by heavy machinery -and we hope this project will help develop new approaches.”

    A man holds potatoes in a potato field

    A multimillion-pound project will develop novel machinery and cultivation practices for UK potato farms to minimise tillage intensity, improve soil health and lower greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

    Defra and UKRI, as part of the Farming Innovation Programme, recently announced funding for the Potato-LITE project which will run for four years.

    This project is being delivered by a consortium led by PepsiCo in partnership with McCain Foods GB Ltd, GRIMME UK Ltd, Harper Adams University, Crop Health and Protection (CHAP), Cranfield University, and farmers from Strawson Limited, JRO Griffiths Ltd, JM Bubb & Son and H Sutton & Son. 

    Tillage is considered one of the largest drivers of GHG emissions in crop production, making this a critical area for improvement. Current potato tillage operations can lead to the loss of soil organic carbon into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide (CO2).

    Global research has shown that the loss of soil carbon can reduce soil health, increase the need for fertiliser inputs and reduce farm profits – making the investment in low intensity tillage solutions more important than ever. 

    Dr Mac McWilliam, R&D Director of Agricultural Science at PepsiCo, said: “Agriculture is at the heart of PepsiCo, including our Walkers brand in the UK. As a business, we're deeply committed to developing scientifically validated solutions which will enable us to make progress towards our global PepsiCo Positive (pep+) goal of spreading regenerative farming practices across 7 million acres by 2030.   

    “The Potato-LITE project will help us drive this positive action by transforming potato cultivation and improving soil health whilst reducing greenhouse gas emissions. We are delighted to be working in partnership across the supply chain, including our growers, as we work towards a net zero future.” 

    Dr Alex McCormack, Innovation Technical Lead at CHAP, said: “Working alongside our public-sector partners and leading experts from Harper Adams University and Cranfield University, will enable us to better understand the impact of intensive cultivation operations seen in potato and root crops. In doing so, this project will mitigate the negative effects on soil health, reduce GHG emissions linked to production and enable the sector to transition towards regenerative practices.” 

    Potato-LITE kicked off in March 2023 and the Harper Adams University team have been soil sampling and measuring GHG at two Shropshire sites before the first potatoes were planted in April, using a range of low intensity tillage approaches developed by the consortium. These field trials will quantify the effects of low intensity tillage on crop quality, soil health and GHG emissions compared to current best practice methods.

    Senior lecturer in Soil and Water Management Dr Paula Misiewicz said: “Soils will have to play an important role in avoiding catastrophic climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions and they must also mitigate the effects of climate change that is already determined by historic emissions. Therefore, soils must be managed to be more resilient in the face of extreme rainfall events and drought.

    “It is encouraging to see farmers increasingly interested in soil health, biological methods of improving soil fertility and reducing the need for synthetic inputs - an approach often referred to as regenerative agriculture.

    “A key principle of regenerative agriculture is minimising soil disturbance. Intensive soil disturbance is caused during conventional potato growing – tillage, bed-forming, destoning, planting and harvesting, accompanied by soil compaction by heavy machinery -and we hope this project will help develop new approaches.”

    Ed Hodson, Potato Product Specialist at GRIMME UK, said: “We are very excited to start the Potato-LITE project which is vital to help set the direction of potato production techniques for the near future.  

    “Innovative equipment and processes are needed to move forwards as UK production has reached a plateau. This project will bring new solutions to deliver commercial and environmental benefits through reducing the intensity of cultivations. 

    “Growers will also be provided with the tools to make informed field by field decisions to identify the best process of growing potatoes, resulting in environmental benefits but also cost savings, labour reductions and improved work rates.” 

    Mark Strawson, Managing Director at Strawson Limited, said: “We are working hard on implementing regenerative farming practices to improve soil health. Currently, potato cultivation is a heavy process, with significant volumes of soil being moved to bury stones and clods to establish a friable seed bed. 

    “Climate change disruptions and the need to reduce energy use have brought this work into sharp focus. As such, disruptive innovative solutions are required to directly tackle such challenges whilst also reducing fuel use and labour costs linked to establishing a potato crop. 

    “We are excited to work with Innovate UK, other growers, academic partners, consultants and the supply chains to develop novel processes and use modernised, lower impact cultivation machinery to establish sustainable potato crops in the UK.” 

    James Young, Vice President of Agriculture at McCain GB & Ireland, commented: “Given the increasingly unpredictable climate, the shift towards smart and sustainable farming practices is vital to futureproof the farming industry.  

    “At McCain, we are committed to implementing regenerative agriculture practices across 100% of our potato acreage by 2030. To achieve this goal, we’ve created a Regenerative Agriculture Framework, with minimising soil disturbance as one of its core principles. We are thrilled to work alongside industry leaders and several of our growers on Potato-LITEite to explore optimised systems for potato cultivation to ensure the long-term viability of potato growing in the UK.”

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