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STFC Food Network+

Professor Sarah Bridle, Principle Investigator for the STFC Food Network+, describes the launch of the Network and its ambitions to apply the skills and facilities of the Science and Technology Facilities Council to tackling the challenges facing food supply.

The Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) Food Network+ (SFN) was created in order to bring together STFC researchers and facilities with research and industry in the agrifood sector.

The SFN is building an interdisciplinary community working to provide a sustainable, secure supply of safe, nutritious, and affordable high-quality food using less land, with reduced inputs, and in the context of global climate change and declining natural resources. The SFN is highlighting and developing key opportunities for the STFC community to make a meaningful contribution to the food system - from sustainable intensification, through building resilience in supply chains to novel technologies to engage consumers and help change behaviour and improve nutrition.

The STFC Food collaborations and research projects working towards safe, sustainable food systems both in the UK and developing countries.

• To enhance the impact of STFC/food interdisciplinary collaborations by encouraging co-design with the non-academic sector.

The Network launch meeting was held in June 2017 and this was attended by around 80 people from the 600+ member group. The meeting enabled lots of introductions to be made and created opportunities for knowledge share between the STFC Physics and AgriFood communities. Since the Launch, the focus has been on building the network and its capabilities together with the appointment of 6 SFN Champions, who are now poised to engage with their respective communities and with each other to catalyse new interdisciplinary ideas.

In order to achieve its objectives, the Network aims to fill the intersections in Figure 1 with active projects and help them to become sufficiently well established to continue beyond the network support through other funding and/or industry backing. Well-connected, collegiate and dynamic experts on each of the 3 food and 3 STFC areas will engage their communities with the potential of the network, brainstorm with each other about possible connections and encourage new interactions. These Champions are working within the Network themes as follows:

Figure 1 Intersections between the STFC Network+ facilities and expertise and the challenges facing food science

Theme 1: Sustainable food production

This theme is focused on developing food production systems that maintain healthy soils, reduce impact on the natural environment and provide reliable yield in the face of changing climate.

SFN Champion for Sustainable Food Production, Simon Pearson, has a wealth of experience within the agri-food sector both in academia (Reading and Lincoln) and industry. His industry domain experience includes 8 years within the Marks and Spencer food group and a further 8 years running farming companies in the UK and Portugal.

Simon now leads the Lincoln Institute of Agri Food Technology that conducts interdisciplinary and collaborative research with industry. Key focus areas are the use of robotics in agri-food (soil sensing, crop picking and the use of autonomous vehicles), the impact of water on agricultural systems (diffuse pollution, salinisation) and the application of digital technology in agri food (IoT, system modelling and control). Simon is PI of an STFC Ag Tech China grant that is deploying novel sensor technology on robotic platforms to measure soil moisture. The data gathered will be used to support the development of radar based EO (Earth Observation) techniques to estimate soil moisture.

The vast and complex food system is ultimately interdisciplinary and consumes biological, engineering, physical, social, digital, environmental and economic sciences. The challenges facing the food system are highly complex and large scale and interdisciplinary approaches are needed to find solutions. The SFN provides an ecosystem that encourages interdisciplinary research by matching industry, academia and funding mechanisms to drive sustainability in the food system.

At the launch meeting, opportunities for deploying STFC facilities within the agri food domain were identified, in particular the STFC capability in data science. There is no doubt that digital technologies (IoT, blockchain, digital connectivity and architectures) will drive productivity and system sustainability in the future, however, the data requirements and opportunity in the food system are so vast that new digital approaches will be required. Simon would like to receive ideas for possible projects.

The challenges facing the food system are highly complex and large scale and interdisciplinary approaches are needed to find solutions.’

Theme 2: Resilient food supply chains

This theme goes from farm to fork, covering the monitoring, modelling and design of food supply chains to enhance resilience, environmental and social benefits, and public health. Sonal Choudhary is SFN Champion for Resilient Food Supply Chains. She is an ardent believer in the potential of multidisciplinary research to combat the complex challenges arising from global food systems.

Sonal has a strong educational and research background in plant sciences, environmental sciences and agri-food supply chains. She is currently working at Sheffield University Management School, where her research focuses on UK agri-food value chain risk analyses, sustainability performance of global food supply chains, identifying inefficiencies within the supply chain and exploring value maximisation opportunities using continuous improvement cycle. Most recently, Sonal has initiated projects co-designed with industrial partners that involve identifying and evaluating risk-based resilience at production, processing and retail level. She is particularly interested in researching how big data and disruptive technologies, such as IoT and Blockchain, can be used for value maximisation and building sustainable food systems.

Owing to global challenges, such as climate change, growing population, dietary transitions and changing supply chain dynamics, it is imperative to understand the potential risks within food supply chains and enhance capabilities to analyse and mitigate them. In addition to building resilience, it is equally important to maximise value in supply chains through the use of disruptive technologies and advanced data sciences.

There is considerable potential for the STFC data science, computational facilities, including e-infrastructure, to support large-scale data analysis and technology for building resilient agri-food supply chains that could provide opportunities for value maximisation for stakeholders. Sonal would like to invite new research ideas and potential projects.

Theme 3: Improved nutrition and consumer behaviours

This network extends all the way to investigating consumers’ dietary needs, food preferences and practices as well as focusing on questions of food supply, affordability and distribution (addressed in Themes 1 and 2), all critical to developing sustainable nutrition.

The SFN Champion for Improved Nutrition and Consumer Behaviours, Christian Reynolds, is enthusiastic about applying STFC facilities, data science, technology, modelling and computational approaches to the challenge of changing consumer behaviour to enhance nutrition and health, whilst reducing waste and demands on land, energy and water.

Christian is currently working at the University of Sheffield, where his research examines the economic and environmental impacts of food consumption with a focus on the energy impacts of cooking, consumer food waste and sustainable dietary shifts.

Running across each of these food themes is existing STFC expertise that can address important research questions within and between the food themes and catalyse new research activity. There are three key areas of STFC expertise: A STFC data science, B STFC technology and C STFC facilities (see boxes on pages 36, 37 and 38).

Both ISIS and Diamond can be used to study particle sizes and aggregation in food samples without the need for any special sample preparation (such as drying). The samples can also be modified (heated, mixed, pressurised etc.) in-situ, which allows users to see how the structures within their samples change in real time. The complementarity of neutrons and X-rays allows scientists to gain a very detailed picture of the materials being studied.

Next steps

Following a survey filled out by over 100 SFN members, STFC has decided to run two sandpits in February, at which the two communities will brainstorm together to come up with new ideas for how STFC can contribute to food.

The first will focus on farm-based measurements to support earth observation to improve food production. The second will look for ways all 3 STFC capabilities can contribute to improving the food supply chain, from farm to fork.

The best proposal from each sandpit will be funded and further proposals will be encouraged to enter the general call for funding, opening soon, leading to several awards of up to 8k each in March.

A ‘handbook’ is being created to provide background information about food challenges, that will be aimed at newcomers, and an introduction to STFC capabilities that will be aimed at food research and industry.

It will be structured around Figure 1, providing basic information about each of the 3 Food and 3 STFC Themes and then exploring the 9 different ways in which they intersect.

High power lasers can be used to study the movement of individual molecules in living plant cells to be observed in real time – this information could hold the key to making crops more disease resistant.’

Achievement of objectives

A successful SFN will have instigated multiple new projects between STFC research and facilities and food research and industry, that would not have happened without its involvement.

The seed funding provided by the SFN should enable these projects to become self-sustaining beyond the SFN collaboration. The SFN will build cross disciplinary communities which understand the skill sets and challenges needed to solve agri-food problems.


Astronomers and particle physicists routinely analyse terabytes of data in large international collaborations which share code and frameworks. This necessitates the use of novel algorithms to sift and/or extract the key information about the universe.

SFN Data Science Champion, Seb Oliver, is a professor of astrophysics specialising in surveys of the sky with telescopes operating at a variety of wavelengths to understand galaxy evolution. He has a particular interest in applying novel statistical techniques to these big data challenges. He has developed a strong track record in interdisciplinary research applying astronomical data analysis methods to other fields with grants and publications in biochemistry and medical areas, including MRC Discipline Hopping, STFC Challenge funding and a Wellcome Trust Seed award. He has been a member of the MRC Discipline Hopping panel. He currently leads a multi-institute centre for doctoral training in data science in the South East, which will train around 60 PhD students.

Astronomers routinely analyse images of large fractions of the sky, taken in multiple wavebands and at a range of resolutions, e.g. to measure the age and chemical composition of stars and galaxies in the presence of confounding emission from the atmosphere. These techniques could be applied to remote sensing observations looking down on the earth to identify crop species and stressors e.g. to better inform interventions, such as pesticide application.

STFC also funds the UK particle physicists, who play important roles in analysis of particle collisions that happen 600 million times per second within the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN. These collisions often result in decay to create new particles. The ~30Pb of data collected every year by these measurements must be combed through to find new physics, such as the Higgs boson. Building on the technology of the world wide web, invented at CERN in 1989, the CERN computing structure allows 8000 physicists near real-time access to LHC data.

An example of simulated data modelled for the CMS detector on the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN
Source: Lucas Taylor for CERN http://


STFC researchers routinely push the boundaries of cutting edge technology for building space, CERN and STFC instrumentation, for example the precision engineering of lens systems to a fraction of the thickness of a human hair, and hyper¬fast and/or sensitive detectors.

Stephen Serjeant is the STFC Food Network+ Technology Champion. He is the Open University’s Professor of Astronomy and specialises in extragalactic galaxy surveys, infrared astronomy and strong gravitational lensing. The Open University has a long history in space instrumentation, including charge-coupled devices (CCDs), complementary metal–oxide– semiconductor (CMOS) detectors, gas chromatography–mass spectrometry (GC-MS) and much more. Major mission instrument involvement and leadership includes Philae that landed on comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko, the Mars Curiosity rover, the first phase of the ExoMars mission, the Huygens lander on Titan, XMM-Newton, Chandra, Swift, GAIA, Chandrayaan-1 and 2, UKube-1, Euclid, AlSat-Nano, JUICE, Athena, SMILE and WFIRST. Stephen is the deputy UK Project Scientist for the proposed SPICA space telescope and works closely with instrumental colleagues in Euclid and other missions. He is keen to deploy STFC space technology expertise to new domains in food, particularly in addressing the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

STFC has designed over 200 instruments for space missions. These instruments have to be extremely robust to survive accelerations of several g during launch and to survive the ultra-hard vacuum and harsh radiation environment of space. They also have to be extremely compact, light and low-power, as physical space, mass and electrical power are almost always at a premium in a spacecraft.

Beagle-2 and Rosetta spacecraft’s lander Philae contained GC-MS instruments to measure the composition of the comet. Based on this technology, the team developed a low mass, low power tuberculosis detection GC-MS for use in the developing world. There are many ways this technology could be applied to food research, for example by detecting moisture damage to cocoa beans or levels of volatile molecules like pesticides.

Beagle-2 and Rosetta spacecraft’s lander Philae

All Rights Reserved Beagle 2


The STFC operates and provides access to world-class, large-scale research facilities and manages the UK access to large-scale facilities in other countries. These facilities underpin UK scientific research across all areas and include ISIS (the UK’s neutron and muon source), Diamond Light Source Ltd (the UK’s synchrotron facility) and the Central Laser Facility (CLF) as well as high-performance computing and modelling.

Sarah Rogers is the STFC Food Network+ Facilities Champion. She is also the small-angle neutron scattering (SANS) team leader at ISIS (the instrument responsible for the world-class SANS beamline Sans2d). She has been an SAS facilities scientist since 2006, firstly, as a junior beamline scientist at Diamond Light Source Ltd and then joining the ISIS SANS team in 2008. Sarah’s expertise includes using SAS to study multicomponent colloidal systems and performing insitu measurements (including mixing and flow, heating/cooling and pressurising), both of which are very relevant to food science. Sarah works closely with the Industrial Liaison Team at ISIS and Industrial Users are regular visitors to the SANS beamlines at ISIS. Sarah is keen to grow the user base of all the STFC facilities for food science applications. For example, the CLF provides high power lasers, which can be used to study the movement of individual molecules in living plant cells to be observed in real time - this information could hold the key to making crops more disease-resistant.

X-ray A: United States Department of Energy
X-ray B: © Nevit Dilmen
X-rays (B) and neutrons (A) can provide very different views of the inside of living organisms. Here a classical X-ray image of a hand shows how the X-rays highlight the metallic elements in a sample whereas the neutron image shows how the neutrons highlight the
lighter elements (carbon and hydrogen) in the frog

Professor Sarah Bridle, PI for the STFC Food Network+, University of Manchester.

Sarah has spent the last 20 years trying to uncover the nature of dark energy using gravitational lensing - the bending of light by dark matter. She led the first cosmology constraints from the biggest ongoing cosmological imaging survey, the Dark Energy Survey, which is imaging one eighth of the sky and measuring shapes and approximate distances to 300 million objects. Motivated by the need to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions, she has diversified her research interests and is now spending half her research time on agriculture and food, including applying astronomy techniques to image analysis in agriculture and leading the STFC Food Network+.



Co-Authors: Professor Katherine Denby, University of York, Dr Kieran Flanagan, University of Manchester, Professor Bruce Grieve, University of Manchester, Professor Jason Halford, University of Liverpool, Professor Lenny Koh, University of Sheffield, Professor Mark Reed, Newcastle University, Dr Sonal Choudhary, University of Sheffield, Professor Seb Oliver, University of Sussex, Professor Simon Pearson, University of Lincoln, Sarah Rogers, Science and Technology Facilities Council, Christian Reynolds, University of Sheffield, Professor Stephen Serjeant, the Open University, Alison Fletcher, University of Manchester

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