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21st February 2011, 11:04am  (updated 21st February 2011, 11:10am)
Water footprint research could shape next steps for crops
Potato crop Experts from the University of Lincoln’s Department of Agriculture and Land-based Sciences are taking part in a project that could influence the way crops are grown in the future.

By visiting potato producers in the East Midlands and assessing water usage during potato growing, packing and processing, researchers hope to understand the ‘water footprint’ of potatoes. They will then be able to look at ways of helping potato producers and processors to adapt to the potential effects of climate change and how to cope with less water.

The project is being backed by The Food and Drink iNet which co-ordinates innovation support for businesses, universities and individuals working in the food and drink sector in the East Midlands. It is the first time that anyone has looked in the East Midlands at the potato supply chain in relation to its water catchment - and the future risks to the industry in what is one of the country’s prime potato growing areas.

David Stainton, principal lecturer in Agriculture at the University, said: “There is a high demand for water in potato production and we’re looking at how much the volume used affects the yield and the quality of the crop. There are many factors we can consider when looking at how we can reduce water usage, such as the growing cycles of different varieties of potato, optimum soil types and the efficiency of the different methods of irrigation, so we need to establish the current situation.”

Experts at the University of Lincoln are working with colleagues at the University of Northampton (who are leading the project), Cranfield University and Lincolnshire potato company Branston Ltd. The project is one of five Collaborative Research and Development grants announced by the Food and Drink iNet. Funded by East Midlands Development Agency (emda) and the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF), the Food and Drink iNet is one of four regional iNets that has developed an effective network to link academic and private sector expertise and knowledge with local food and drink business innovation needs.

“Universities, through research such as this, have a massive part to play in food security and resource management in the future, nationally and internationally,” added Mr Stainton. “We know that climate change will affect water availability in the future so we need to work now to minimise the impact on the food sector.”

Richard Worrall, Food and Drink iNet interim director, said: “We are pleased to be able to work with our colleagues at the University’s of Northampton, Lincoln and Cranfield, and with Branston Limited on this ground-breaking research project. No one has ever looked at the water footprint of potatoes across their supply chain in the East Midlands before, and the results could have great significance on potato growing and processing in the future.

“The Food and Drink iNet Collaborative Research and Development support is designed to provide help for innovative research schemes that will benefit the food and drink sector, and this fits the bill perfectly.”

Potatoes are a particularly important crop in the East Midlands region, which hosts 17% of the national crop area. Potatoes account for the greatest area of irrigated crops in the country. Although the annual total water withdrawals for irrigation are small compared to other sectors, they occur, by definition, in the places and at the times of year when water resources are under most pressure. Therefore, the use of water for growing potatoes is of particular significance to the East Midlands region.  

Cranfield and Lincoln universities will focus on water used during potato growing, while University of Northampton researchers will look at water used during packing and processing.

The Food and Drink iNet aims to build on the tradition of innovation in the food and drink industry in the region by helping to create opportunities to develop knowledge and skills, and to help research, develop and implement new products, markets, services and processes. It is managed by a consortium, led by the Food and Drink Forum and including Food Processing Faraday, Nottingham Trent University, the University of Lincoln, and the University of Nottingham. It is based at Southglade Food Park, Nottingham, with advisors covering the East Midlands region.
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