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Improving Primary Produce

Improving Primary Produce

Work Package WP 3.1: Improved Food & Drink Production

Research Deliverable 
3.1.1 Improving Scottish primary production
Leading Ideas 
Food and Drink Production
Local Food
Scottish Primary Production
Improved Food and Drink Production
Crop Genetics


Scotland produces an extensive larder of nutritionally valuable animal and plant-derived products that can be grown, harvested, produced and processed to provide a healthy and sustainable diet. Evidence has accumulated suggesting that specific dietary constituents from plants and animals can prevent the onset and progression of socially and economically important chronic diseases (e.g. cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes and obesity). However innovative routes to increasing the intake of beneficial dietary components are required, especially in ‘at risk’ groups. Driven by Scottish Food and Drink Policies [A Recipe for Success (2009) and Becoming a Good Food Nation (2014)] which aim to increase access to good quality food to improve Scotland’s diet and food culture, this work focuses on providing scientific evidence to deliver plant- and animal-based foods with superior nutritional qualities, within a framework of reducing resource use, as well as examining barriers and opportunities for the farming and food and drink industries to enhance consumer uptake of such foods.

Aim of Research

The quality of Scottish primary produce is a critical attribute for Scottish producers as it differentiates their products in crowded markets and attracts premium prices. The diversity of these food products (from crops to shellfish) can be crucial for the sustainability of rural communities. They also contribute health benefits within the diet of Scottish consumers and are of key importance to the health, and wealth, of the nation.

Major advances in technology have provided opportunities to further our understanding of the accumulation of known health beneficial components (HBCs) in a range of Scottish food produce e.g. β-glucans in barley, polyphenols in berries, micronutrients in shellfish, and vitamin C in potatoes.  Understanding the effects of environment, geographical location and more sustainable agronomic practices on HBC levels is important for consistent delivery of benefits. Similarly, understanding the barriers to the uptake of produce with healthier and more sustainable characteristics in supply chains, and consumers’ demand for such healthier and sustainable products is crucial so that improved Scottish primary products can deliver these health benefits.

This RD aims to identify novel or improved primary products with proven health benefits, grown under sustainable production systems, which have realistic potential for beneficial inclusion in the food chain.

The work will:

  • Exploit genetic variability and breeding strategies for potatoes, barley and soft fruit
  • Evaluate the potential of under-exploited species/varieties of barley, leafy green vegetables and root vegetables
  • Improve the product quality of barley and soft fruit for health benefits
  • Assess the impact of more sustainable farming on health promoting attributes of potatoes, grain, oilseed and beans
  • Characterise the health-promoting properties of Scottish produce (soft fruit, shellfish)
  • Assess the likely uptake of healthier sustainable produce by consumers and the supply chain


2020 / 2021
2020 / 2021

Substantial progress has been made in our understanding of the role of genetics, wild versus domesticated varieties, agronomy, and location/ environment on health beneficial component (HBCs) levels in crops relevant to the Scottish Farming community and crucial to the Scottish economy. Our studies in barley, potato and soft fruits have shown that genetic markers, such as QTLs, are available, and candidate genes involved in HBC accumulation have been identified and are being tested in model systems. These genetic markers for improved HBCs may be transferred into tools that can accelerate breeding of new varieties with modified HBC levels to improve Scottish health. Human studies on the effects of berry intake on health have identified components which influence type 2 diabetes and delineated mechanisms by which specific blueberry HBCs may influence their effects on weight management and metabolic health. These HBCs could be a target for selective breeding of healthier blueberry varieties.  We have also begun to unpick the potential of novel controlled environment agriculture techniques, such as vertical farming, to extend the potential of crops to modulate HBC composition and overall sensory quality to provide healthier and tastier produce. Socio-economic studies have improved our understanding of the demand, competition, supply, and consumer purchasing preferences for Scottish produce (e.g. lamb and sheep meat).



Health beneficial components: Researchers identified (i) how specific polyphenolic components of soft fruit inhibit an enzyme which regulates insulin signalling, identifying potential for soft fruit extracts in the management of type 2 diabetes, and (ii) Components from raspberries were identified in an in vivo study to exhibit genoprotective effects in the digestive tract possibly leading to a reduced risk of colonic cancer. (iii) Furthermore, a model study identified positive impacts of raspberry compounds and metabolites on neuroprotection through manipulation of neuroinflammatory pathways. (iv) SRP researchers described how the accumulation of health beneficial b-glucan accumulation in barley is influenced by specific individual genes (

2019 / 2020
2019 / 2020

In a year that brought geopolitical upheaval (e.g. Brexit), food attitude changes (the evolution of the plant based diet and the proliferation of plant-based foods) and significant societal disruption due to the Covid-19 pandemic, substantial progress has been made in improving our understanding of improving Scottish food quality for human health. An important thread is improving and exploiting our understanding of the role of genetics, wild vs domesticated varieties, sustainable agronomic practices, and location/ environment on health beneficial component (HBC) levels in crops relevant to Scottish Agriculture and crucial to the Scottish economy.  Many studies aim to elucidate genetic markers that will accelerate the breeding of varieties of higher quality, nutritionally enhanced crops. There has been considerable success for targets such as dietary fibres and minerals in barley, vitamin C levels in potatoes and HBCs in soft fruits. The RD has also examined the potential of underutilised, wild varieties as sources of increased HBC levels. We have continued to explore the impact of production systems and have confirmed that integrated, rotation-based, lower input agronomic practices (also see had little detrimental effect on quality and nutritive values of crops economically important to the Scottish farming community. As part of the evolution of food production and the need to develop systems for nutritious food provision, we are working with SMEs to examine the impacts that new controlled environment agriculture production methods such as vertical farming have on modulating nutritional profiles as well as sensory criteria.

Allied with the food nutritional enhancement studies we have also targeted their health benefits and, with a focus on Scottish soft fruits, we are identifying components which influence type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and are elucidating the underlying mechanisms which may aid the control of weight management.  Ultimately the identification key HBCs will feed back into the associated breeding programmes for enhancement and/or new product development. In addition, food system analyses continue to improve our understanding of the uptake of healthier produce (i.e. oats and potatoes) by retailers and consumers and the influence of targeted labelling (variety, health benefits and provenance) in this process.




  • Food Production in a Changing Climate: An STV documentary, ‘Climate of Change’ , highlighted research to increase plant resilience to climate change and reduce GHG emissions. Future solutions for sustainable, high quality food included areas from this RD such as vertical farming, molecular breeding and plant-derived protein. Researchers engaged in the ‘climate conversation’ as part of the Scottish Government (SG)/Sustainable Scotland Network initiative - Climate Week. Pledges collected will form part of a public display highlighting how food-focussed research will contribute towards the SG’s target of achieving 0% net emissions by 2045.

Policy and Public Engagement: RD research was showcased in an invited talk by the DEC Advisor to the Scottish Parliament Cross Party Food Group (Jan-20) entitled ‘Connecting Climate Change, Natural Capital and Health -


  • Stakeholder Engagement and Presentations: Researchers presented on the potential of Vertical Farming at the BBSRC/EPSRC Advanced Horticulture Workshop (held - 25/02/2020). This meeting involved representatives from diverse backgrounds (engineering to bioscience related disciplines) and explored how we can stimulate sustainable, efficient and profitable production systems for the horticulture sector.

A RD researcher chaired a discussion panel at the Royal Society’s Future Food-Health and Sustainability Meeting on the UK’s role in improving novel food production -





2018 / 2019
2018 / 2019

Progressing the understanding of the effects of genotype, wild/domesticated varieties, sustainable agronomy, and location/environment on health beneficial component (HBC) levels in crops continues. Studies into genetic control of HBC accumulation in barley, potato and soft fruits indicate that genetic markers for selection of varieties with improved HBCs are feasible. Integrated, lower input agronomic practices have no detrimental effect on HBC levels in major Scottish crops. Human studies continue to assess the effects of berry intake on health by identifying the components which influence type 2 diabetes and elucidating the underlying mechanisms which may aid weight management. In addition a new study is investigating effects on cardiovascular health.  Our understanding of uptake of healthier produce by retailers and consumers and the interactions of price, income and demand also continues to improve.



  • Soft fruit health benefits: Based on sustained SRP, Underpinning Capacity and external leveraged research funding, SEFARI researchers were invited to publish a review on ‘Evidence for Health Benefits of Berries’  in the high impact journal Annual Plant Reviews highlighting the effects of consuming berries or their phytochemical components on neurodegenerative and non‐communicable diseases and the underlying mechanisms involved.
  • Presentations to the International Association of Agricultural Economists: SEFARI scientists presented two papers at the meeting (August 2018), (i) “Exploring the effects of increasing underutilized crops on consumers’ diets: the case of millet in Uganda”, output from a BBSRC GCRF project, but applying methodology used in the SRP to simulate the impact of increasing the amount of fruit and vegetables in the diet, and (ii) “Rate of success of new dairy products in the UK: how important are health and sustainability claims?” 
  • Raspberry research: Research on raspberry bioactive compounds and health won a prize for the best poster on novel bioactives at the 2nd International Conference on Food Bioactives and Health ( A published book chapter identifies both direct health benefits of consumption and opportunities for use of bioactives from soft fruits.
  • Microbiological environment in vertical farming: Theme scientists have secured Innovate-UK KTP funding with Intelligent Growth Solutions Ltd seeking to control the microbiome within the growing environment in vertical farming systems and reduce the need for crop sanitisation.
  • ‘Scotland 2030: Our Food Future’: Theme research including the protein content and nutritional aspects of wild vs cultivated vegetable species, and related food waste streams, as potential dietary sources was presented at a Scotland’s Futures Forum entitled “Scotland 2030: Our Food Future” co-hosted by Nourish (Sep 18; see video highlights here). Chaired by Claudia Beamish MSP, and well attended by policy and wider stakeholders, this seminar used Nourish Scotland’s vision of a sustainable food system to kick-start a discussion on food in Scotland. The work was also highlighted at the ‘Nutritionists in Industry’ meeting (Sept-18) to over 100 nutritionists working across the private sector, at the European Microbiome Congress (Nov-18), and in a keynote address to a new European network on plant-based diets (Jan-18).
  • Presentation to the Association of Scottish Shellfish Growers conference: A SEFARI scientist was an invited speaker at the meeting (October 2018), and presented “Shellfish and the Health of the Nation’ outlining the health benefits of consuming Scottish shellfish based on work within the deliverable.
2017 / 2018
2017 / 2018

This research programme continues to provide evidence for potential enhancement of natural health beneficial components (HBCs) in Scottish primary produce. The genetic basis for improved HBC content is being defined, opening up potential selection of new improved crop varieties for Scottish agriculture. The effects of seasonality, environment and location on crop and seafood quality have also been examined. Evidence for health benefits of soft fruit continue to accrue with positive effects on glycaemic control and weight management coming to the fore. Research has also studied some of the barriers to uptake of healthy produce by both retailers and consumers. Interwoven into the research, a detailed and bespoke set of stakeholder engagement events have been organised to disseminate these good news stories to key industrial, non-governmental organisation, policy, consumer and academic audiences.




  • Novel work has been published on the potential benefits of fruit polyphenols crossing the blood-brain barrier and potentially aiding neuroprotection in age-related diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.
  • In addition, the first paper was published from the Centre for Sustainable Cropping on the impact of conventional and integrated management systems on the water-soluble vitamin content of (Scottish) potatoes, field beans and cereals.
  • Initial Quantitative Trait Loci (QTLs) have been identified for vitamin C content in potatoes. Linkage groups relevant to this trait have been identified on chromosomes 3 and 4, and candidate genes are being investigated which could lead to breeding of vitamin C enhanced potato varieties.
  • Prof Wendy Russell, whose work was selected and submitted by SEFARI Gateway, was recognised by the Food and Drink Federation for work with the industry creating new opportunities for producing healthier options for food.
  • Significant funding applications were awarded, which add value to the programme. ‘Maringa: delivering nutrition and economic value to the people of Malawi’ (£480,401), and ‘Formulating value chains for orphan crops in Africa’ (£470,460) are BBSRC Global Challenges Research Fund projects. ‘Transition paths to sustainable legume-based systems in Europe’ (€5M; MRP, €840k) is an EU H2020-funded project. Also, RD3.1.1 scientists were part of a consortium of 14 partners from the UK, France (INRA), the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research Institutes and a range of African national agricultural institutes that secured Gates Foundation funding (project total - $13.7M) for ‘Breeding Root Tubers and Banana Products for End User Preferences.


2016 / 2017
2016 / 2017

Scotland has a reputation as a land of high quality and healthy food produce and the work delivered in this programme has identified some of the sources of the natural components underpinning these attributes. The significant enhancement of Vitamin C in potatoes, the world's third most important food crop, through selective breeding looks viable. Similarly, the development of barley as a raw material for human food shows great potential. Scottish fruit continues to add to an accruing portfolio of health benefits with research strongly suggesting positive effects on glycaemic control relevant to type 2 diabetes. Integrated with the research, there has been a full programme of stakeholder engagement spanning academic, industrial, non-governmental organisations, policy and consumer audiences, undertaken to elaborate and inform the relevance of this research to each audience and their priorities.



Several PhD studentships were appointed to develop aspects of RD3.1.1 research, specifically on the health benefits of seafood and soft fruit derived components.

• Two papers have focused on the potential health benefits of newly identified triterpenoid compounds, with putative anticancer effects, which could be included as targets in the Scottish Raspberry Breeding Consortium programme

• Work published in Public Health Nutrition highlighted that the nutritional composition of farmed fish varies over time and so dietary advice may need to be re-considered [de Roos et al. 2017]. The work had wide public dissemination, as the authors used social media to blog about the paper, as well as promoting it through the journal homepage.

• An external funding application was awarded, complementing the work on shellfish in this deliverable: ‘Crabmeat consumption and health: do crabmeat consumers have a greater cadmium burden compared to non-crabmeat consumers?’ (£96,634).

Future Activities

The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting lockdown continue to hamstring progress in certain areas, but we have adapted to new working practices and continue to make progress. Work will continue to uncover genetic factors that influence the levels of health beneficial components in barley (b-glucans, arabinoxylans and minerals), and potatoes (vitamin C). Human intervention trials related to understanding glycaemic effects which were delayed by lockdown may be re-started soon. Model studies are continuing to assess the effects of specific berry components on obesity development and weight management. Work will continue to study the uptake of healthier Scottish produce by both retailers and consumers with a focus on potatoes and oats, and this will also examine the effects of the covid 19 pandemic and influence of Brexit. Work is also being expanded to understand if growing crops in the highly controlled vertical farms can systemically improve their overall quality and health benefits.

Selected Outputs


Novel colon-available triterpenoids identified in raspberry fruits exhibit antigenotoxic activities in vitro. (2016) – paper published in Molecular Nutrition & Food Research by McDougall et al



Polyphenols journey through blood-brain barrier towards neuronal protection. (2017) – paper published in Scientific Reports by Figueira et al


Impact of conventional and integrated management systems on the water-soluble vitamin content in potatoes, field beans, and cereals. (2018) – paper published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry by Freitag et al.


The composition of potentially bioactive triterpenoid glycosides in red raspberry is influenced by tissue, extraction procedure and genotype.  (2017) – paper published in the journal Food & Function by McDougall et al


The impact of blackcurrant juice on attention, mood and brain wave spectral activity in young healthy volunteers (2018) – paper published in Nutritional Neuroscience by Watson et al.



Regular crabmeat consumers do not show increased urinary cadmium or beta-2-microglobulin levels compared to non-crabmeat consumers. (2019) – paper published in the Journal of Trace Elements in Medicine and Biology by Sneddon et al


Evidence for Health Benefits of Berries. (2018) – a review published in Annual Plant Reviews by Foito et al


Raspberry Fruit Chemistry in Relation to Fruit Quality and Human Nutrition in Raspberry Breeding,  (2018) – a chapter in Raspberry (Springer) by Hancock et al


Identification and microbial production of the raspberry phenol salidroside that is active against Huntington’s disease (2019) – paper published in Plant Physiology by Kallscheuer et al


Blood-brain Barrier Transport and Neuroprotective Potential of Blackberry-Digested Polyphenols: An in Vitro Study – (2019) – paper published in the European Journal of Nutrition by Figueira et al.





Work on berries, health beneficial components, their inheritance and breeding was the subject of a discussion featured on the BBC Scotland Radio programme "Brainwaves" which featured food innovations across Scotland  




Identification and microbial production of the raspberry phenol salidroside that is active against Huntington’s disease (2019) – paper published in Plant Physiology by Kallscheuer et al

Quantitative Trait Loci Mapping of Polyphenol Metabolites in Blackcurrant (Ribes nigrum L.) (2020) – paper published in Metabolomics by Abreu et al.

Importance of Health Claims in the Adoption of New Breakfast Cereal Products in the UK (2019) – paper published in Nutrients by Costa-Font & Revoredo-Giha

Anthocyanin-enriched bilberry extract attenuates glycaemic response in overweight volunteers without changes in insulin (2020) – paper published in Journal of Functional Foods by Alnajjar, Mahasin et al



Analysis of polyphenolic metabolites from in vitro gastrointestinal digested soft fruit extracts identify malvidin-3-glucoside as an inhibitor of PTP1B. (2020) - paper published in Biochemical Pharmacology by Nigel Hoggard et al

Bioaccessible raspberry extracts enriched in ellagitannins and ellagic acid derivatives have anti-neuroinflammatory properties. (2020) – paper published in Antioxidants by Gordon McDougall et al

Fruit-based beverages contain a wide range of phytochemicals and intervention targets should account for the individual compounds present and their availability. (2020) – paper published in Foods by Wendy Russell et al.

Targeted mutation of barley (1,3;1,4)-β-glucan synthases reveals complex relationships between the storage and cell wall polysaccharide content. (2020) – paper published in the Plant Journal by Kelly Houston et al.


Articles in popular press

Taking an alternative approach to crops, An article published in The Scottish Farmer in 2020.