Advances associated with PACE horticulture have created an opportunity to completely rethink how crops are grown by integrating technologies into the production of fruit, vegetables, and salads to access significant potential benefits.
Crops grown in protected and controlled environments are ideally suited to the application of digital technologies with the potential to increase yield and quality with fewer inputs or more efficient resource usage. PACE horticulture can also reduce biological, chemical, and other environmental hazards, especially through minimising risks from pests, diseases, and climatic variation. In addition, opportunities exist to introduce automation at every stage of the growing cycle to reduce reliance on labour, which is increasingly a barrier to expanding production.
This is pre-announcement of a planned funding opportunity so that interested applicants may begin contacting potential project partners, including industry partners, in advance of submitting an expression of interest to apply.
Applicants will be invited to submit proposals for research and innovation projects to advance the potential of PACE horticulture systems, within the context of broader challenges relating to the fresh produce sector in the UK including resilience, sustainability and the effective use of resources such as energy. The summary titles of the challenges will be as follows, in the context of horticultural crops for protected and controlled environments:
- genetic improvement of crops for increased yields, resilience, and quality
- exploiting of advances in robotics, automation and digital technologies
- advancing sustainability targets by reducing environmental impacts of through optimising the usage of growing inputs
- sustainably increasing yield, quality and productivity by better system design and management
- responding to the need for produce with more novelty, variety, lower prices, higher standards for quality and safety, and nutritional value
- minimising waste and loss of crops during growth, harvest and post-harvest, by maximising quality and resilience, and conditions for growth and storage
- developing strategies for managing crop pest and diseases in protected and controlled environment systems to remove or reduce the need for chemical controls
- addressing lack of evidence, scepticism and the understanding the potential for unintended consequences
Proposals should bring together businesses to partner with academic researchers for innovation focused research activities. These activities should address the potential for PACE horticulture to contribute to wider national goals, which range from generating high-value employment, contributing to food security, advancing net zero targets, and improving biodiversity.
PACE horticulture may contribute towards the diversification of the agri-food system, potentially by complementing conventional field production by adding resilience at key points of vulnerability. Progress needs to be underpinned by research and innovation that supports the resilience of the sector. Growers seek to maintain reliable production of affordable, safe, and nutritious foods, while managing uncertainty and external shocks, such as labour, inflation, energy, invasive pests and diseases, and the availability of growing inputs including fertilisers and fresh water.
Collaborative research and innovation in this area may require accessing a broad range of expertise. Research teams may need to draw upon other specialist groups all of which would need to apply their knowledge to challenges in producing fruit and vegetable crops in protected and controlled growing conditions, including:
- systems analysts
- data scientists
- social scientists
Proposals should seek to make connections across the supply-chain, considering the needs of groups from growers to retailers, to suppliers and technology providers.
Pre-competitive projects in PACE horticulture could stimulate the formation of a community with coordinated goals, able to identify opportunities for shared investment, and with the potential to collaborate to test proposed solutions within relevant systems. Improved connectivity could also enable better knowledge exchange, encouraging sharing of existing resources, and collective efforts to update previously established models and reference materials for shared benefit.