Eastern promise: why the UK’s Norfolk and Suffolk are vying to unlock their agri-tech potential

By Oliver Morrison

- Last updated on GMT

Image: Getty/Gary Yeowell
Image: Getty/Gary Yeowell

Related tags agri-tech agribusiness Innovation

The two agriculturally important counties of Norfolk and Suffolk in the east of the UK are aiming to untap their ‘high potential opportunity’ in plant science for nutrition, FoodNavigator learns.

Norfolk and Suffolk in eastern England are important agricultural areas. However, most of what is produced here is taken outside the region to be processed. A new project at the Norwich the Broadland Food Innovation Centre just outside Norwich aims to address this to increase the rate of food and drink processed in Norfolk and Suffolk.

Clarke Willis, Director of the Food Enterprise Park who has been deeply involved in the development of the centre said the key is to keep processing in the region “to connect what farmers are growing to their end markets, and part of this involves bringing more businesses here and helping companies in the region to grow”.​ 

The region, according to Willis, boasts some of the UK’s best brains researching plant science, food nutrition, gut health, healthy ageing and climate change at world-leading research organisations at Norwich Research Park such as the John Innes Centre, the Quadram Institute, and the Sainsbury Laboratory, plus academic institutions like the University of East Anglia.

The exporting bottleneck 

But a bottleneck obstructing progress is the fact goods from the area are exported for processing, he complained.

The Broadland Food Innovation Centre aims to provide the infrastructure to change this. Developed by Broadland District Council, it contains 13 food production units, test kitchens, a sensory kitchen and meeting rooms.

“We in the food industry have a responsibility to consider the products we are feeding people in order to reduce obesity, cholesterol, and diabetes,”​ he explained. “Highly processed food has zero nutritional value and in Norfolk and Suffolk we have an opportunity to create a supply chain to produce healthy nutritional food.”

The two counties produce 11% of the UK’s agricultural output including 17% of its fruit and vegetables, but most of what is produced here is taken outside the region to be processed. Meanwhile, if we look at pulses and pea-based products, the majority is grown in China and Canada.

“We need to reassess the supply chain to keep processing in the region and to connect what farmers are growing to their end markets. Part of this involves bringing more businesses here and helping companies in the region to grow,”​ he said.

Innovating solutions to have emerged from the aforementioned ‘best brains’ include Fischer Farms which is establishing the world's largest vertical farm with 25,000 square metres of stacked growing space to able to grow as much produce as 1,000 acres of conventional farmland. 

There are also innovative spin-out companies in alternative proteins and a growing number of food businesses harnessing the region's crops and expertise to create new protein sources and plant-based foods which are good for the planet and for our health. For example, Novo Farina takes the humble yellow pea grown locally to create a gluten free, protein rich and high fibre flour, texturised plant protein, crumbs and gluten-free snacks as alternatives to meat and wheat-based ingredients for the food industry and retailers. While another Norfolk business, One Planet Pizza makes plant-based frozen pizzas which are now available in Asda.

Government-backed plant science for nutrition

The region’s potential has been recognised by the Government which has named Norfolk and Suffolk a ‘high potential opportunity’ in plant science for nutrition. This status aims to get the region onto the national and international stage and promote it to a global network with the aim of attracting investment. “The High Potential Opportunity is important because it’s not just about producing food, it’s about producing healthy nutritious food,”​ noted Willis.

The Broadland Food Innovation Centre, meanwhile, is a “dynamic new space”​ which opened in September 2022 and consists of 13 food-grade units, sensory and test kitchens and meeting spaces.

It aims to make a bold difference to the region by helping innovative projects become robust and enjoy sustainable success. 

The Centre is backed by fully-funded innovation support for food and drink businesses as well as a ‘cluster’ of business leaders who meet for networking and to support each other. This cluster (led by The University of East Anglia) includes the Plant-Based Protein Innovation Platform which is focused on how to expand the production of plant-based protein within the East of England's supply chain, making it this place to start, situate, and scale a plant-based food and drink business.

Open to all organisations involved in the supply chain, the platform aims to ensure collaboration and commitment across the sector and to explore the trends, innovation and opportunities, funding and investment, market viability and nutrition. 

The challenge for farmers, agri-tech, food and drink producers large and small as well as retailers is to help their customers to eat more healthily,”​ noted Willis. “By working together, collaborating with the science and research expertise we have in the region, we can start to make a difference.”

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