Brainwaves was a research project to support the Irish and Welsh Governments’ strategic priority to decarbonise their agricultural sectors and ultimately to support their transition to net zero. The agricultural sector, in particular the beef and dairy industries, are integral to both economies and are particularly important for rural economic development. However, it is recognised that cattle farming is carbon intensive, and by reducing its environmental impact, will support a transition to a more sustainable future.
To help tackle the challenge of agricultural activities on the natural environment, without having a negative effect on rural development and agricultural activities, Brainwaves sought to implement a circular economy approach. The project has been trialing the use of innovative new technological systems to grow duckweed (Lemna minor) in a controlled indoor environment as well as on farm waste (slurry).
Duckweed is a high-protein crop with useful properties for a circular economy use as it absorbs excess nutrients such as nitrates and phosphates used in agricultural fertiliser, adding value, and reducing environmental harm by cleaning farm waste. Duckweed can also be used as animal feed for livestock, thereby reducing the reliance of Irish and Welsh farmers on imported soy-products. In future, this has the potential to reduce costs and increase the resilience of the Irish and Welsh agricultural sectors while improving the natural environment.
The first phase of the Brainwaves Project was a 3.5-year project funded by the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF) through the Ireland Wales Cooperation Programme. It was delivered by University College Cork (UCC) in partnership with Aberystwyth University (AU) between 2019 – 2023.
The evaluation recognised that the Brainwaves project captured the early stage of technological development of the duckweed growing systems, with a view to scale-up and, in the longer-term, commercialise the indoor and outdoor growing systems. Working in collaboration with UCC and AU, Wavehill conducted two online workshops to develop an evaluation framework. This captured the impacts of the project and led to a better understanding of what the next steps will need to be in developing the technological readiness of the duckweed growing systems.
A central project aim was to generate a sense of ownership to decarbonise the sector among the farming community in Ireland and Wales. The project team recognise that implementing new ways of working that developed a circular economy approach and supported a green transition would be more effective if key stakeholders such as farmers and agricultural suppliers are involved. Alongside the development of technological prototypes and small-scale testing, the project team therefore engaged with key stakeholders to support development of a new circular economy system. This helped ensure that any technological innovations and new systems are aligned to their needs.
The evaluation therefore engaged with key stakeholders representing the farming community in both Ireland and Wales to measure their understanding of the benefits of the new system and capture their perspectives on how duckweed can add value to existing farming activities. This complemented an analysis of the technology system testing activities. The evaluation also identified gaps in the stakeholder engagement strategy. This allowed the project team to identify who to work more closely with in the future to support further development of the technological systems. This approach supported the development of the duckweed growing systems from the initial proof-of-concept stage to testing the system in an operational environment.
The evaluation demonstrated that the initial engagement with stakeholders in the farming community provided a strong foundation for the project. It established that there is clear support for the project and recognition of the potential value of the circular economy approach to farming activities in Ireland and Wales. It also provided a scientific evidence base for the duckweed growing system and application of duckweed in a farming setting. This evidence has been shared widely in academic journals and publications for the scientific community worldwide.
Our work provided recommendations on deeper and broader stakeholder engagement. It also suggested next steps and reflections on achievements of the testing systems to date. The project has since unlocked additional EU and Irish Government funding to develop and refine the indoor and outdoor growing systems further, supporting further development of the technology readiness levels on the long-term path to full commercialisation.