IOP welcomes more investment to underpin £28bn food industry

By Will Chu

- Last updated on GMT

'We need the new physics of food.' ©iStock
'We need the new physics of food.' ©iStock

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As the UK’s relationship with the EU evolves, the Institute of Physics (IOP) has called on the UK government to make the food industry a priority to remain economically competitive.

In a report​ commissioned by the UK and Ireland-based institute, the authors urged the creation of a dedicated industrial strategy committee, overseen by the UK government’s Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy.

According to the report, the committee would "provide a coordinated, strategic, raised level of investment in the scientific research that underpins innovation in food manufacturing".

In addition, it would "support collaborations between academia and industry, and leverage knowledge from the research base".

The role of physics in the food sector has been identified as having a critical role to play as the sector wrestles with improving food security, minimising environmental impact, and health and nutrition concerns.

Professor Peter Lillford CBE,former chief scientist of Unilever, and chairman of Technology Foresight Panel, Food and Drinks said: “As well as the challenges to primary production, our food chain faces other issues.

“The manufacturing industry has focused on secure, safe and low-cost food, but the new challenge is matching health with diets. This means calorie reduction while maintaining pleasurable eating sensations – all without efficiency losses. Reformulation and food structures design must be better controlled.

“This cannot be planned without knowledge of the basics of process and material interactions, in the manufacturing process line, the human mouth and the digestive tract. We need the new physics of food.”

The economic landscape

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The food manufacturing sector was larger than automotive and aerospace combined although the car industry was growing relatively faster. ©iStock

The IOP report said the food manufacturing sector was larger than the automotive and aerospace sectors combined.

In 2014, the food manufacturing sector contributed £28bn (€31bn) of gross value to the economy. Between 2004 and 2014, the value of food and drink exports more than doubled to £12.8bn (€14.25bn) – despite a decline in overall exports.

Despite this, the food sector lagged behind the growth seen within the automotive industry. This was attributed to a lack of investment and funding for research and development (R&D).

The UK Innovation Research Centre said that for every £1 (€1.10) invested in R&D by the UK government, private sector R&D outputs rose by 20 pence (€0.21) per year. This impact exists at national and sector levels, the report said.

Driving food innovation

“We believe food manufacturing should play a key role in the government’s industrial strategy,”​ said IOP’s chief executive Professor Paul Hardaker.

He stressed the importance of organisations like the IOP being involved in this process, and called on industry to unite with the institute to drive these messages forward.

The report said there was room for improvement in funding for physics disciplines that support food manufacturing, pointing to the industry’s reliance on technological innovation.

“Soft condensed-matter physics has added considerable insight into the behaviour of ingredients in products and during processing, resulting in the development of novel ingredients, improved products, reduced waste and improved processes,”​ said Professor Roger Eccleston, pro vice-chancellor and dean of Sheffield Hallam University’s faculty of arts, computing, engineering and sciences

“Research in this area has, for example, been used to develop membrane emulsification as a novel low-energy emulsification process, and to determine the self-assembly of proteins in solutions and at interfaces.”

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