A research team is being backed by The Food and Drink iNet to turn the spotlight on how much water is used by potatoes during their lifetime…from growing through to processing.

Researchers hope that by understanding the ‘water footprint’ of potatoes they will 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.

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.

Experts at The University of Northampton are working with colleagues at the University of Lincoln, Cranfield University and Lincolnshire potato company Branston Ltd on the project, which is one of five Collaborative Research and Development grants worth a total of more than £235,000 announced 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.

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.

“Businesses are becoming increasingly aware of the importance of water in their supply chain, not only for security of supply, but also for the environmental impacts caused by water use,” said Dr Margaret Bates, reader in sustainable waste management at the University of Northampton.

“Any disruption of water in the supply chain can impact significantly on a business’ ability to operate and deliver; therefore a greater understanding of water usage will enable companies to adopt strategies to mitigate against future scarcities and impacts of climate change.”

The ‘water footprint of the potatoes food chain’ project has been awarded £50,000 towards the £62,500 cost of the research.

“We are pleased to be able to work with our colleagues at the University of Northampton, the University of Lincoln, Cranfield University and Branston Limited on this ground-breaking research project,” said Food and Drink iNet interim director Richard Worrall. “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.

“This project seeks to understand the water footprint of the potato food chain in the East Midlands,” said Dr Bates. “It will develop key messages to enable food producing businesses in the region to adapt to the potential effects of climate change and the associated change in water resource availability.”

The water footprint of a product is a measure of the total appropriation of freshwater resources in the life cycle of the product. Potatoes use approximately 130 litres of water/kg during growth, 10 litres/kg during processing and 0.1 litres/kg during preparation by the final consumer.

“People are looking at the carbon footprint of everything but it’s considered, with the issue of water scarcity in large parts of the country, that the water footprint will be very important in the future,” added Dr Bates.

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.

For more information visit www.eminnovation.org.uk/food

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