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25 August, 2020 - 09:02 By Tony Quested

Cambridge crop science centre opens in October

Bleeding edge plant science that will transform global food production will become flesh with the launch of the new Crop Science Centre in Cambridge on October 1.

While the launch will be virtual the potential impact of the venture is very much real.

The centre is a coalition of expertise between Cambridge University’s Department of Plant Sciences and agricultural technology innovator NIAB (the National Institute of Agricultural Botany) and aligns their complementary strengths at the groundbreaking new facility.

The centre’s founding ethos is to enhance the sustainability, equity and resilience of global food production systems through the application of fundamental plant science research. 

It will address the most urgent problems society faces – providing a secure global food supply in the face of a changing climate. A commitment to delivery and impact underpins the centre’s strategic focus: to bring transformative technologies to farmers across the world, improve the environment and ensure food security for millions of people.

The research is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, YKRI Research England, the Department for International Development, CUPGRA and NIAB Trust.

The rationale is abundantly clear: In April, the World Food Programme issued a stark warning: the world was sleepwalking towards a biblical famine. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has put an additional 120 million people at risk of starvation. Arguably more shocking, however, is that 135 million people were already suffering from acute food shortages and hunger.

The centre seeks to respond to the increasingly pressing challenge of feeding people across the globe.

Under the direction of Professor Giles Oldroyd, the inaugural Russell R. Geiger Professor of Crop Science, the centre will serve as a global hub for crop science and focus on finding more sustainable and environmentally friendly ways for agricultural food production around the globe.

Professor Oldroyd leads an international programme called the Engineering Nitrogen Symbiosis for Africa (ENSA) project, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the UK Department for International Development. 

ENSA is focused on understanding the signalling and developmental processes in plants that allow interactions with fungi and bacteria, helping plants to acquire limiting nutrients.

ENSA’s research has the potential to deliver significant yield improvements to the poorest farmers in the world. “Global food production relies heavily on inorganic nitrogenous fertilisers that cause pollution problems from their use,” explains Professor Oldroyd.

Professor Oldroyd is a Fellow of Fitzwilliam College, a Fellow of the Royal Society, a Fellow of the Royal Society for Biology and a Member of EMBO. He also serves as a Research Group Leader with the Sainsbury Laboratory Cambridge University, a research institute funded by the Gatsby Charitable Foundation. 

In a separate but synergistic venture, start-up agritech businesses will have access to new work and research facilities, alongside business support opportunities, with the development of Barn4, a purpose-built facility on the outskirts of Cambridge.

NIAB was recently awarded £2.5 million from The Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority to construct a 375m2 business incubator on its Park Farm site in Histon in Cambridgeshire. 

Barn4 will be open to tenants from spring 2021 with startups and SMEs offered laboratory, workshop and office space, meeting rooms and video-conferencing facilities. 

They will also be able to access NIAB’s high performance computing capability, specialist laboratory facilities and both indoor and outdoor growing spaces.

Demand in Cambridge remains strong for these facilities despite the impact of COVID-19 on office working. The AgriTech sector continues to grow and incubator space in and around the city is heavily over-subscribed. 

The unique offering of state-of-the-art technical facilities and links to NIAB, the Cambridge technology cluster and the wider agricultural sector will be ideal for early stage companies to grow and flourish.

Dr Juno McKee, director of NIAB Ventures, says that Barn4 will provide facilities for up to 15 companies with 45 staff. 

“NIAB will work with a network of commercial and academic partners to provide a complete ecosystem within which technology driven start-ups and spinouts can thrive,” said Dr McKee.

The new building will be an addition to NIAB’s recently redeveloped Park Farm field research station which includes two new large research and office buildings (5,500 m2), 2,500 m2 of research glasshouses with an additional 300m2 planned, 3,000m2 protected outdoor growing space and field trial plots.

NIAB’s director of commercialisation, Dr Michael Gifford, said that in the face of challenges such as COVID-19, Brexit, the new Agriculture Bill, climate change and food security, the UK agrifood industry was under enormous pressure to redefine its farming and food supply chains.

One way is to accelerate the pace at which it commercialises and adopts new AgriTech innovations to deliver sustainable change.

Dr Gifford said: “Cambridgeshire is fast becoming a world-leading centre for AgriTech with an unrivalled combination of new innovative SME’s partnering with commercial industry, research, academia and networking organisations across the science, technology and agrifood sectors. 

“To date there have been gaps in support for startups including access to sector specific expertise, basic research facilities with laboratory space, field plots, and engineering workshops. 

“We are thinking about AgriTech in its widest sense and expect to have companies specialising in plant genetics, pest management, soil health, and AI to support sustainable farming decisions, farm robotics and much more.”

A study carried out for NIAB by the University of Cambridge’s Judge Institute showed that AgriTech startups felt that they would have benefited most from sector specific technical expertise and advice. This is exactly the type of support provided at Barn4.

“In Barn4, NIAB will be able to provide an environment in which young companies can thrive in the AgriTech sector. It allows companies to access Cambridge’s unrivalled technology sector and University whilst also being on the doorstep of some of the most fertile farmland and progressive farmers in the world,” said Dr Gifford.

NIAB opened its new Cambridge headquarters on February 2 following a two year £25 million redevelopment and construction project.

The new Lawrence Weaver Road headquarters includes offices, state-of-the-art laboratories, growth room facilities and meeting rooms, all improving and modernising NIAB’s facilities in Cambridge.

The campus is on NIAB's original Old Granary and John Bingham Laboratory site, opposite NIAB’s home for the past 100 years on Huntingdon Road. 
The old headquarters site, based around the original 1921 building, was sold for redevelopment in 2018 but has remained home to NIAB until now. 

The development of the new headquarters involved the demolition of old workshop and farm buildings, refurbishment of existing offices and laboratories, and the construction of a new three-storey crop science building and a full height reception atrium plus conference room.

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