Staple vegetables such as broccoli could join the list of greenhouse-grown crops as a result of an investment initiative aimed at helping businesses develop a new generation of plant-based foods. It could also find markets for parts of traditional greenhouse crops currently seen as waste, such as tomato leaves.
The plant science for nutrition programme is being run by the New Anglia local enterprise partnership which covers Norfolk and Suffolk. It is one of 43 ‘high potential opportunity’ (HPO) projects being co-ordinated by the Department for Business and Trade to attract investment to regions of the UK.
The FPC Future conference in March heard that a number of spin-out companies from research institutes in the region were already working on products such as a ‘high health’ broccoli soup, and it was likely more would follow with the investment the HPO programme is designed to attract.
“Rather than fund development of specific products, our programme will help the region’s research institutes support businesses and help the transition to more plant-based diets,” said New Anglia inward investment manager Stuart Catchpole.
Jonathan Clarke, head of business development at the John Innes Centre in Norwich, said the approach could ‘revitalise’ the market for vegetable and salad staples at a time when growers were finding it hard to achieve a profit selling them as commodities. “We are finding ways to re-evaluate the value of food,” he said.
The broccoli for the ‘high-health’ instant soup, developed by a spin-out company from the Quadram Institute (formerly the Institute of Food Research), is a new variety which features defined benefits for diabetes and some cancers is grown under licence. Dr Clarke told The Commercial Greenhouse Grower that grower trials are also under way on another variety bred for production under glass for automated harvesting, with a 40-day cropping time from seed to harvest. It is being developed for retailers looking to improve consistency of supply and reduce reliance on imports and would compete in the Tenderstem sector.
He also pointed to work by John Innes Centre plant scientist Cathie Martin which has resulted in tomato plants with an enhanced vitamin D content. “That’s not just the ripe fruit but in green fruits, leaves and pomace so that those parts of the crop can now have a value as the raw material to make vitamin D supplements,” he said. “It’s an exciting opportunity to get more value from the crop.”
Work is also under way with vertical farming company LettUs Grow to fortify pea shoots with vitamin B12, in an aeroponic production system. “It’s one of the most expensive vitamins to buy as a supplement and vegan diets are poor in it,” said Dr Clarke. “Six of these pea shoots could provide the recommended daily amount for less than the cost of a tablet.”
Other inward investment programmes being co-ordinated by the Department for Business and Trade, and local enterprise partnerships, include heat networks in Tees Valley, controlled environment agriculture in North and West Yorkshire, food processing automation in Lincolnshire and plant-based protein products in the north-east.