Food for thought: the N8 Agrifood Conference 2018

Plants, People, Planet Managing Editor Bennett Young recently attended the N8 Agrifood conference in Liverpool. Also attending was Elspeth Ransom, a PhD student in Katherine Denby’s lab at the University of York and Warwick University. Read on for Elspeth’s round-up of the key points from the conference.

Food system challenges are complex, global issues which can only be tackled by taking an interdisciplinary approach. The N8 Agrifood conference held in Liverpool on the 13th and 14th of June offered a fantastic opportunity to explore solutions to these problems, by gathering together a unique mix of participants ranging from biologists, physicists and social scientists to individuals representing industrial and governmental organisations. With the aim of initiating strong collaborations, the two days presented a chance to hear from a broad spectrum of experts, with parallel interactive sessions enabling thought provoking discussions. As a biologist with a very focused area of research I was very much looking forwards to interacting with a range of other disciplines and I was not disappointed!

Day one kicked off with welcome addresses from Louise Kenny, Deborah Smith and Katherine Denby highlighting the breadth of the N8 remit and opportunities of the conference to catalyse new ways of thinking. This was followed by an excellent keynote speech from Professor the Lord Trees on the impact of Brexit on UK agriculture. Speaking about the chance that Brexit offers to solve issues within our current food system, he reminded us of the importance of ensuring that we maintain high standards of food production, environmental care and animal welfare.

Image: Professor the Lord Trees giving a keynote lecture at the N8 Agrifood conference in Liverpool. Courtesy of Shane Rothwell.
Professor the Lord Trees giving a keynote lecture at the N8 Agrifood conference in Liverpool. Courtesy of Shane Rothwell.

The first selection of parallel sessions covered topics from crop improvement to social innovation tackling food poverty and robotics in food manufacturing. Within the crop improvement session, we learnt about GeoNutrition from Louise Ander and the fantastically named gribble, which is being used by Simon McQueen Mason’s group to digest lignocellulose waste.

After a break for lunch (and time to top up the depleting caffeine reserves!) the afternoon gave an insight into the opportunities offered by the Agrifood Training Partnership, which provides specialist training within the agri-food supply chain by exposing individuals from industrial backgrounds to current academic expertise. The final concurrent sessions of the day explored innovations in the food supply chain, food systems in the global south and resilience in oilseed supply chains. Food waste was tackled in the session chaired by Christian Reynolds, which discussed the social projects tackling edible food waste, along with the potential of using inedible food waste as a resource for other food or industrial applications, e.g. toast ale! Discussions focused on switching public perception from viewing excess food as ‘waste food’ to seeing it as ‘surplus food’ with additional value.

Image: Poster session at the N8 Agrifood Conference in Liverpool. Courtesy of Shane Rothwell.
Poster session at the N8 Agrifood Conference in Liverpool. Courtesy of Shane Rothwell.

Set in Liverpool’s iconic Royal Liver Building, the conference dinner offered a great chance to network, reflect on the diversity of the day’s discussions and take in the views over the waterfront. Even the winds and threat of rain did not stop delegates from congregating on the balcony for drinks. Bob Doherty’s warm welcome preceded the meal which, in fitting with the themes of the conference, contained locally sourced ingredients.

Royal Liver Building, Liverpool. Courtesy of Shane Rothwell.
Royal Liver Building, Liverpool. Courtesy of Shane Rothwell.

Day two started with one of my favourite sessions, ‘Physics and food’, in which industry leaders from Nestle, Bradgate Bakery and PepsiCo took to the floor, reviewing the importance of big data and precision technology in product quality. From food safety, to taste, aesthetics, nutrients and tracking through the supply chain, there are numerous challenges to overcome in modern food manufacturing. Never before had I considered the fascinating technicalities of reducing sugar in chocolate or the challenges of running ice-cream through piping. The need for the involvement of engineers and physicists alongside specialisms more traditionally linked to food production was clearly emphasised.

Jonathan Rigg delivered the second fantastic keynote speech on his work examining the transitioning social and agricultural landscape of the Greater Mekong subregion. Another coffee break prepared me for the most interactive session of the conference, run by the Innovative Food Systems Teaching and Learning programme. Delegates were given the opportunity to rotate round tables and meet a range of stakeholders in the food system, covering ground from careers in the agri-food system to integrated problem solving and outreach.

Once again, the lunch break gave the perfect opportunity to hear about the other sessions I had missed out on. In particular, the talks examining the psychology behind consumer food choices led to some very thought-provoking discussions. The final session of the day brought together all of the themes from throughout the conference and asked “What have we learnt and how can we move forwards?”. The importance of collaboration and trust within the agri-food system was reiterated, along with the need for a food shift to ensure food security for the future.

Image: Winner of the New Phytologist Trust / Plants, People, Planet prize for best poster, Nikoleta Stamataki. Courtesy of Shane Rothwell
Winner of the New Phytologist Trust / Plants, People, Planet prize for best poster, Nikoleta Stamataki. Courtesy of Shane Rothwell.

Altogether the N8 conference was a refreshing and exciting opportunity to learn about a wide variety of work going on across the agri-food system, and I am hopeful that it will lead to the creation of many new ideas and partnerships!

By Elspeth Ransom


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