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Multi-million funding for new ‘terrestrial blue economy’ research

A pioneering new research project, designed to unlock the true potential of sustainable shrimp production in the UK using renewable energy technology, has received a multi-million pound funding boost.

Published 22nd April 2022

The pivotal new project, led by experts from the University of Exeter in partnership with the University of Reading and Rothamsted Research, will aim to establish the UK as a world leader in sustainable, environmentally friendly shrimp farming.

The research – which also includes 11 industrial partners including Sainsbury’s, Lyons Seafoods and Ixora Energy Ltd – has now received £2 million from UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), as part of its Transforming UK Food Systems Strategic Priorities Fund (SPF) Programme.

Called “Transformational blueprint for a blue economy on UK terrestrial farms: integrating sustainable shrimp production in a changing agricultural landscape”, the project will be led by Professor Rod Wilson from Exeter’s Biosciences department, with co-investigators including Professor Ian Bateman OBE from Exeter’s Land, Environment, Economics and Policy (LEEP) institute.

The new project will aim to ignite the UK as a world-leading “terrestrial blue economy”, by demonstrating both the health and environmental benefits of indoor home-grown shrimp, compared with more traditional farming practices.

Shrimp is a healthy seafood with high protein, low calories, rich in vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and omega-3 fatty acids.

However, traditional production methods utilised overseas are not only vulnerable to climate/disease crises, but often use environmentally unstainable practices – including destroying up to 80 % of nearby mangrove forests that are important in removing huge amounts of CO2.

Furthermore, some overseas production methods can lead to local biodiversity problems as well as the shrimp containing residues that can cause human health issues.

The new project seeks to introduce a risk-free, healthier and sustainable supply chain for consumers by helping to expand this model of production across the UK, whilst simultaneously encouraging UK terrestrial farms to carry out practices that directly benefit the environment and human health.

It plans to co-locate shrimp farming production with renewable energy sources across a number of existing Anaerobic Digestor (AD) plants in the UK.

The team believe that if just 20 per cent of the UK’s current AD plants were adapted for shrimp farming, they could introduce 960 shrimp production units and harvest 5,520 tonnes of shrimp per year – around 25 per cent of current UK warm water shrimp imports.

Importantly, this project will generate data to evaluate the true potential of sustainable UK shrimp production using renewable energy technology, as well as providing this shrimp industry with the necessary world-class scientific support.

Professor Wilson said: “In the UK we already love eating shrimp (king prawns) as a healthy, high quality and tasty seafood. This project aims to transform practices on UK terrestrial farms to encourage the integration of home-grown, indoor shrimp production alongside anaerobic digestors (AD) that use farm waste to make renewable energy. These AD also generate a lot of heat which is otherwise wasted, but tropical king prawn farms can utilise this heat to make their production cost-effective in the UK. This simultaneously means we will have better control over both their nutritional quality and the environmental impact of their production.”

This new approach to food production also has the potential to help the UK environment. As Professor Bateman outlined: “By providing a new income stream for farmers which requires far less land than conventional farming, the ‘terrestrial blue economy’ of prawn production frees up farms to take advantage of grants under the new Agriculture Act for enhancing biodiversity, reducing carbon emissions, improving water quality and providing recreational access to the environment.”

The funding has come as part of the UKRI’s £14 million injection into crucial research that puts improved health outcomes for people and the natural environment at its core.

Professor Guy Poppy, Programme Director of the Transforming the UK Food Systems SPF Programme, said: “The food system affects all of us every day and plays an essential role in both human health and the health of the planet.

“The 11 new projects joining our consortia and CDT means we now have a network of more than 37 UK research organisations across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

“That network is also supported by approximately 200 additional stakeholder organisations, including the private sector colleagues and other government departments and agencies.

“The range of projects engaged in the SPF Programme will help to address the complex challenges we face around dietary choice and methods of farming and will help to ensure there is sustainable and healthy food for everyone in the UK.

“The excellent research and researchers will also help to establish solutions and frameworks that can be tried and tested across the global food system, with the UK leading the way towards healthier and more sustainable food for all.”

Find out more about the Transforming the UK Food System for Healthy People and a Healthy Environment SPF programme.