Vegetable shortages in supermarkets have hit the headlines recently, with the inevitable rise in prices sparking consternation among consumers. Extreme weather in Spain and Italy was blamed for shortages of common vegetables like lettuce, courgettes and spinach. However, while the UK as a whole continues to rely heavily on imported fruit and vegetable produce, a huge horticultural operation in Kent has been successfully supplying locally grown produce for almost a decade and is benefiting from the scientific expertise of staff from the School of Human and Life Sciences. Dr Joe Burman, Senior Lecturer, talks to Inspire about his role as a 'scientific handyman' and Research Coordinator at high-tech greenhouse development, Thanet Earth.
Joe studied at Christ Church as both an undergraduate and a postgraduate. By background, he is an entomologist with a particular interest in insect ecology.
As Joe explains: "I study insects and my PhD focused on scale insects, which are a pest of citrus and ornamental plants. In particular, I looked at other beneficial insect predators which control scale insect pests. I went on to complete my postdoctoral research at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, where I studied insects in the context of conservation – in particular, chemical ecology. I'm specifically interested in insect pheromones. In pest management, pheromones are used to attract, monitor and kill pest insects.
"I've also been doing some work on how insect science can be used to solve problems in agriculture and biodiversity conservation. Although my background is in entomology, the discipline puts you in touch with all sorts of other specialities. To be a good insect scientist, you have to be a good plant scientist as well. So I've got a broad background in plant science and ecology too."
In addition to his research and teaching within the University, Joe is also the Research Coordinator at Thanet Earth, where he oversees science and innovation projects alongside other academic and industrial partners, helping to deliver technologies and techniques that are novel and sustainable in glasshouse food production.
Thanet Earth is the UK's largest, most high-tech greenhouse complex, growing tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers. It has strong green credentials and uses the latest advances in sustainable technology.
The site contains five vast greenhouses where the vegetables are grown and then sold both locally and nationally to some of the UK's biggest retailers. Each greenhouse is a power station too, generating electricity for the National Grid. The plants are kept warm by making use of the waste heat from this 'combined heat and power' system, which also provides extra carbon dioxide for the plants to grow to their potential. Thanet Earth's environmental credentials are further strengthened by the use of biological pest control – using predatory insects to control the pest insects rather than harmful insecticides – as well as employing a rainwater capture system. As a consequence, the horticultural complex has a very low carbon footprint.
The company is owned by a consortium of companies, which made a strategic decision to invest in the UK market.
"Kent happens to be an ideal place to set up a glasshouse..."
As Joe explains: "Thanet Earth is a collaboration between three specialist grower companies of Dutch origin along with a British business that specialises in supplying fresh produce to UK retailers. The Dutch have a strong record in large glasshouse production and they brought ambition, expertise and investment ability to this project. Thanet Earth now holds a significant percentage of the UK market for those three products, so it has become a successful investment.
"Kent happens to be an ideal place to set up a glasshouse as it receives one of the highest amounts of sunlight in the UK and it has land that is able to be developed for that."
Thanet Earth have actively welcomed collaboration across a broad spectrum of activities with academic institutions and commercial organisations. Joe has responsibility for coordinating research into production and post-harvest techniques internally to improve the quality and shelf life of products, and for the creation of digital imaging tools for predicting flavour and quality in tomatoes. As part of the wider environmentally friendly practices, he also provides guidance on biodiversity management of Thanet Earth's native chalk grassland habitats.
"The hot topic in tomatoes is flavour."
Research into the way tomatoes are grown and methods to improve their flavour have yielded some fascinating results: "Thanet Earth grow huge tomato plants, many tens of metres in length – the conditions in which they are developed allow you to grow them much more intensively than a tomato in your own greenhouse. A lot of it has to do with the selection of the varieties grown. Thanet Earth selects varieties primarily for flavour, but to be commercially viable, the varieties selected are also bred to be very productive through the kind of traditional plant breeding that's been going on for hundreds of years.
"The hot topic in tomatoes is flavour and one of the things you regularly hear in the press is that many tomatoes don't taste like they used to – they are bland and watery – and there's an element of truth in that. Varieties for commercial production have suffered over the years from selection for yield over flavour. Tomatoes have hundreds and hundreds of different chemical compounds in them. However, only about 15-20 of those elicit a response in terms of flavour, so we've been analysing how flavour is generated in tomatoes and how that links to a customer's sensory perception of that tomato. We've also been examining the genetics underlying that variation. Traditionally, plant breeding and selection has been about aesthetics, growth habits of the plant and volume, but we want to be able to easily assess multiple varieties for the best and most intense flavour as well.
"The big retailers want to see the best product possible from their growers, so if Thanet Earth have a better understanding of what their varieties offer in terms of flavour, it gives them a competitive advantage."
"One of the main benefits of the relationship with Thanet Earth is being able to get Christ Church students engaged with it."
In addition, Thanet Earth provides many unique opportunities for the University's Life Sciences students, allowing them to undertake research projects on fruit quality, plant diseases and site biodiversity. Access to the facility has been a real help in explaining the complexities of horticulture to students.
"One of the main benefits of the relationship with Thanet Earth is being able to get Christ Church students engaged with it," Joe reveals. "We offer courses in lots of different sciences – from animal sciences to ecology to plant sciences. However, engaging students with plants and their importance is a real challenge. They don't necessarily understand that there is a huge amount of science involved in horticulture. When we take the students to a modern, very scientific, commercial glasshouse, it is an eye-opening experience for them because they generally think of a tomato as something that is grown in their granny's garden. They don't always appreciate the scale and complexity of the operation – it's a really good chance to engage the students with horticulture.
"We take around 50 third-year students over to Thanet Earth every year. We bring them to an area where you can literally look out over the top of the complex, providing a rather majestic and impressive view. We deliver a lecture and then take the students on a tour around one of the glasshouses. They all get suited up in hygiene suits and are shown the production system, the hydroponics - which is an efficient method of growing plants without using soil - and the combined heat and power unit.
"We receive a lot of positive feedback from the students following their visit to the site. Often, it's the first time they've ever considered horticulture science as a potential career opportunity, so that's one key benefit."
The University's relationship with Thanet Earth has also been extremely useful for students' research. According to Joe: "We've also encouraged students to carry out research as part of their dissertations and individual study projects. For example, you can use ozone to suppress fungi from growing on your products to improve their quality, so one of our students will be looking at the effects of ozone treatment in tomato packaging. There have been various similar projects that we've been building up. The hope is that we can widen the student research pool even further, extending it to MSc and PhD-level research."
Commenting on the benefits of the relationship between the University and Thanet Earth, Robert James, Technical Director at the complex, said: "It's been great having Joe on board as he is providing us with a direct link to science and academia.
"The application of science and technology is becoming ever-more important in our business and having someone like Joe, who can understand how it is relevant to what we do and vice-versa, is very beneficial."
Find out more about Life Sciences courses at Christ Church.
For further information about the work of Thanet Earth, see the website.
Images: Alex Hare; Thanet Earth