Category Archives: Research & Education

The Seeds of Change: Innovating for Sustainable Agriculture

Agriculture is a vast and vital industry that provides livelihoods for hundreds of millions and food for billions across our planet. Similar to other sectors, however, agriculture’s expansion and industrialisation have increased its impact on the environment to unsustainable levels (Alam and Rukhsana, 2023), especially regarding greenhouse gas emissions and the biodiversity crisis. As a result, work is now crucially needed to adopt new technologies and alternative practices to ensure that the world’s five billion hectares of farmland can store carbon and provide quality habitats as well as feeding us. To get an idea of the challenges facing sustainable agriculture and how they might be overcome, I’ve spoken to researchers from Newcastle University’s own School of Natural and Environmental Sciences.

Hay bales at Newcastle University’s Cockle Park Farm. Credit: Matt Horne.

Sustainability challenges

Implementing sustainable practices into farming is a complicated and difficult process for a variety of reasons. Postgraduate researcher Sophia Long points to cost, and a lack of resources, technology, education, and training as key concerns that are affecting different farms in different ways and slowing down agriculture’s progress towards sustainable practice. Additionally, she notes that many sustainable innovations, including novel machinery and new chemistry and crop varieties, require an adjustment period to be implemented, further delaying change.

Despite these challenges, however, there is optimism in the sector and Dr David George, a reader in Precision Agronomy here at the University, referred to the recent updates to the Sustainable Farming Incentive as a key element of this positivity. On top of this, the development of carbon and biodiversity markets, inclusion of sustainable best practice as a feature of trade shows and magazines, and recognition of the importance of sustainable management by farmers themselves are all good signs of an improving outlook for sustainable agriculture.

Research and innovations

Newcastle University has a variety of innovative facilities focused on agricultural production, teaching, and research and this infrastructure is being used to develop the skills, technologies, and practices needed to support agriculture’s transition towards sustainability. These specialist facilities include Newcastle University Farms (NU Farms), which hold around 800 hectares of land spread over three sites (Nafferton, Ouston, and Cockle Park), and a series of vertical farm units, growth room facilities, and a food and consumer research facility on central campus. Some of the sustainable innovations, highlighted by Sophia and David, that are currently being developed at these sites include:

  • The development of automated systems and disease sensors in the Vertical Farm units to reduce the need for fertiliser, transport, and water when producing crops whilst improving their quality.
  • Research on the soil microbiome to improve the sustainability of disease management through the development of novel cultural and chemical control plans.
  • Trials of different tillage practices at NU Farms, including ploughing, minimum-tillage, and direct-drilling, to gather data on crop performance and carbon release (from the soil) for each of these practices.
  • Spore sampling technology, which is being explored at NU Farms in conjunction with biopesticides and biostimulants to reduce the use of conventional synthetic chemistry and thereby improve crop health and slow the build-up of pesticide resistance.
  • Scattering silicate rock dust over crop fields for their ability to enhance carbon and nutrient capture in the soil, both sequestering greenhouse gases and improving crop growth (Skov et al. 2024).
  • Remote imaging and sensing for pest/disease detection and environmental monitoring to help boost soil, crop, and animal health. This technology could be used in conjunction with the increasingly precise and automated application of crop inputs, which is also being researched at our university.
  • Methods to engage farmers in overcoming barriers to ‘Regenerative Agriculture‘ in the north of England through machinery solutions.
A tree-lined field with sheep at Newcastle University’s Cockle Park Farm. Credit: Matt Horne.

The future of farming

Sustainability is increasingly becoming the focus of agriculture’s future (Onuabuchi Munonye and Chinelo Eze, 2022) and a range of new technologies are lining up to support this. Across the Agriculture department, NU Farms, and the researchers I spoke to, however, it was stressed that co-benefits must be at the heart of change to ensure that the future of agriculture is truly sustainable. Specifically, change in the agricultural sector must support farmers’ incomes and resilience as well as the natural environment. Here, four key areas are central to a holistically sustainable future for farming:

  1. Technology: Drones and sensors for data, automated and precision machinery, new crop inputs, land use practices, and further technologies are all improving the efficiency and reducing the environmental impacts of crop and livestock rearing for each unique farm.
  2. Biodiversity: Research, education, and stewardship schemes are helping farmers to support and improve the agroecological systems on their land, yielding enhanced natural pest control and soil fertility and combatting pesticide and fertiliser use.
  3. Adaptation: Changes in pest, disease, and extreme/unseasonal weather stresses will force farmers to adapt their crop rotations and water, disease, and pest management practices. Here, plant breeding, education, and community engagement will all be vital tools to pre-emptively future-proof agricultural production against the impacts of climate change.
  4. Income: Many farms here in the UK are under intense financial pressure and even being forced out of business, harming livelihoods, rural culture and knowledge, and impacting the UK’s food security and resilience. Produce prices must reflect the tenuous financial situation for farmers and more transparency from distributors (such as supermarkets) would help consumers to gain a more well-rounded view of the food system they rely upon.

Overall, Dr George summarises the features of a sustainable future for farming as a “good balance of environmental, animal welfare and food production outputs that co-delivers for natural capital gain / net zero and food security, supported by simple yet flexible policy and clear, connected, consolidated and collaborative knowledge sharing”.

A huge thank you to Sophia, David, and everyone else who offered their time and expertise for this piece. If you want to find out more about sustainable agriculture then have a look at the links and references below and you can learn about biodiversity on campus here. Finally, if you’re looking for updates about sustainability at our university, you can sign up to the Sustainability Network.

Links and references

NU Farms research webpage

Regenerative agriculture initiative funded by Newcastle University

NU Farms Impact Statement

Press Office article on enhanced rock weathering

Alam, A., and Rukhsana (2023) ‘Climate Change Impact, Agriculture, and Society: An Overview’. Alam. A., and Rukhsana (eds) Climate Change, Agriculture and Society: Approaches Toward Sustainability. Cham, Switzerland: Springer International Publishing.

Onuabuchi Munonye, J., and Chinelo Eze, G. (2022) ‘The Concept of Sustainable Agriculture’. Filho, W. L., Kovaleva, M., and Popkova, E. (eds) Sustainable Agriculture and Food Security. Cham, Switzerland: Springer International Publishing.

Skov, K., Wardman, J., Healey, M., McBride, A., Bierowiec, T., Cooper, J., Edeh, I., George, D., Kelland, M. E., Mann, J., Manning, D., Murphy, M. J., Pape, R., Teh, Y. A., Turner, W., Wade, P., and Liu, X. (2024). Initial agronomic benefits of enhanced weathering using basalt: A study of spring oat in a temperate climate. PLOS ONE, 19 (3).

Sustainability in Medicine: keeping our planet and ourselves healthy

As seen in the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, sustainability is a major concern across all aspects of society due both to the far-reaching challenges of climate change and the impacts that modern life has on environment. Having said this, our attention can sometimes focus on certain aspects of society (such as the fossil fuel industry) more than others and one area where sustainability can be missed at times is healthcare (Sherman et al. 2020). So, to gain a better idea of the challenges and opportunities sustainability can bring to this critical service, I’ve spoken to a range of current students, societies, and academics involved with medicine at Newcastle University.

Image: The main entrance to the University’s Faculty of Medical Sciences. Credit: Chris Bishop.

Why is sustainability important in medicine?

As Nuala Murray from the University’s Sustainable Medics Society points out, sustainability and medicine are very relevant to one another for a variety of reasons. Initially, the changing climate is creating a range of novel and dangerous challenges for healthcare practitioners globally, from spreading zones of regional diseases to dealing with the fallout of worsening extreme weather events (Abbasi et al., 2023). On the other hand, the provision of healthcare itself is a resource intensive process, with the NHS making up around 4% of the UK’s total emissions profile alone (NHS, 2020). This makes healthcare a centre of both adaptation and mitigation in the fight against climate change, underlining the importance of sustainability in healthcare provision. Positively, examples are appearing of key bodies in the sector recognising this reality. For instance, Newcastle NHS Trust were the first NHS trust to issue a Climate Emergency statement (in collaboration with Newcastle University), our NU Med Malaysian Campus has invested in a permanent Eco Lounge, and our own Medical School has a dedicated Sustainable Medicine Lead.

Challenges and opportunities

The medical training, practice, and research provided by our University is vital, but it needs a variety of specific resources to function properly and this can make improving medical sustainability a challenge. I spoke to Oak Taylor, one of our medical students, to get a better idea of how this looks in practice. She pointed out, for instance, that many items, including protective equipment and syringes, are single use by necessity to ensure quality standards and avoid spreading infection. Additionally, she noted that many of the anaesthetic gases that are critical for operations are also very polluting. Despite these challenges, however, there are still lots of opportunities to improve sustainability in medicine. So, while ambulances can’t be electric due to the need to refuel quickly, medicine delivery vans can be electrified, and while front-line protective equipment will need changing regularly, equipment used during training can often be reused. Additionally, many of these steps come with other, additional benefits, such as improvements to air quality from using electric vehicles or boosting patient satisfaction by greening hospital grounds.

Here at Newcastle University’s medical, dental, and research facilities, a variety of projects are being carried out to implement more environmentally sound practice. For instance, our previously mentioned Sustainable Medicine Lead, Hugh Alberti, has been working throughout the School of Medicine to introduce sustainable healthcare teaching to the curriculum. This has led to a range of impressive initiatives, including all final year students completing sustainable quality improvement projects as part of their final GP placements – that’s 370 tailored sustainability projects being written for GP surgeries throughout Newcastle every year! Meanwhile, our Sustainable Medics Society run regular conferences on sustainable medicine and are currently working on a project to make lab sessions for clinical skills modules more sustainable by reducing plastic waste. Finally, lots of medical labs, including core labs used by a variety of different teams, have received Laboratory Efficiency Assessment Framework (LEAF) accreditation – with several operating at ‘Gold’, the highest level of the standard currently available!

Image: a student operating medical equipment. Credit: John Donoghue.

What next?

This range of initiatives is having a tangible effect by both directly improving environmental outcomes and ensuring that sustainability is established as an important consideration in the minds of current and future medical practitioners. Our medical students, teachers, and researchers aren’t done yet, though! Ambitions for the future include further improving the University’s already impressive Planetary Health Report score, and further reducing the use of single use items in medical teaching.

Many thanks again to Nuala, Hugh, Oak, and everyone else who generously contributed their time for this piece. If you want even more information on sustainability in healthcare, have a look at the references and resources below. Additionally, if you’re looking for steps you can take yourself, get started by having a look at our recent Sustainability Newsletter for advice on how to sustainably dispose of medications!

References and further reading

Abbasi, K., Ali, P., Barbour, V., Benfield, T., Bibbins-Domingo, K., Hancocks, S., Horton, R., Laybourn-Langton, L., Mash, R., and Sahni, P., et al. (2023) ‘Time to treat the climate and nature crisis as on indivisible global health emergency’, British Medical Journal. 383. p. 2355.

Andrews, E., Pearson, D., Kelly, C., Stroud, L., and Rivas Perez, M. (2013) ‘Carbon footprint of patient journeys through primary care’, British Journal of General Practice. September.

Gillam, S., and Barna, S. (2011) ‘Sustainable general practice: another challenge for trainers’, Education for Primary Care. 22 (1). 7-10.

NHS England and NHS Improvement (2020) Delivering a ‘Net Zero’ National Health Service – July 2022 Update. Skipton House, London.

Pencheon, D., and Wight, J. (2020) ‘Making healthcare and health systems net zero’, British Medical Journal. 368.

Sherman, J. D., Thiel, C., MacNeill, A., Eckelman, M. J., Dubrow, R., Hopf, H., Lagasse, R., Bialowitz, J., Costello, A., Forbes, M., et al. (2020) ‘The Green Print: Advancement of Environmental Sustainability in Healthcare’, Resources, Conservation and Recycling. Volume 161.

Catching the Tailwinds: Wind power and the green energy transition at Newcastle University

What is Wind Power?

Wind power is a renewable source of energy that harnesses the kinetic force of natural air flows. To do this, turbine blades are angled so that the passing winds push against them and transfer their energy into rotational movement. This movement then drives a generator that transforms the kinetic energy into electrical power. Similar processes, minus the last step, have been utilised for millennia for purposes including milling grain, pumping water, and, in their simplest form, navigating oceans. Since the 1970s, however, the technology’s potential to generate electricity at scale has led to a gradual modern resurgence of wind power as a useful tool in the global transition towards cleaner and greener energy (Chiras, 2010). To understand how Newcastle University is responding and contributing to this transition, I’ve drawn on the expertise of Professor of Offshore Engineering, Zhiqiang Hu, to explore some of the exciting projects in progress across our organisation.

Image: Turbines at the Port of Blyth. Credit: Graeme Peacock.

The University’s wind research and collaborations

Our University has a range of talented researchers working across a variety of wind power technologies and among of the most promising of these is offshore wind generation. Placing wind turbines offshore (sometimes a long way out at sea!) allows them to be far larger than their land-based siblings which boosts generation capacity while avoiding taking up precious space on land. As a result, the offshore wind industry is developing quickly as an important way to meet the global demand for decarbonisation. This is creating a wealth of challenges and opportunities for those working in the sector and Newcastle University has a strong position within this dynamic landscape thanks to two key factors.

Firstly, the University has attracted attention from a variety of leading energy and engineering companies thanks to both our wealth of specialist knowledge and the forward-looking approach to sustainability that we take throughout our institution. Our researchers are working on a variety of cutting-edge themes, specialising particularly in the strength and integrity of wind turbines, their operation and maintenance, and developing ways to store their excess generation as hydrogen! Meanwhile, to help power this research, the University has entered a long-term deal to acquire wind power from Statkraft – a major European wind power supplier.

Secondly, the North-East is also a busy place for offshore wind power industrially, due both to the region’s existing maritime infrastructure and the vast wind farm being developed at nearby Dogger Bank in the North Sea. This wind farm, projected to be the largest in the world, has created a strong local offshore wind power supply chain, further attracting investment and collaboration with leading companies eager to work with local centres of expertise such as our University. These factors have led to a variety of exciting projects collaborating with industry including:

  • Professor Hu’s work to collaborate with colleagues and companies, including ORE Catapult, Hywind Scotland, and Equinor, to develop technologies (including using AI (Chen et al., 2021)) that will help maintain floating wind turbines at sea.
  • The University’s Hydrodynamics Laboratories in the Armstrong Building have been working with Balmoral to develop their HexDefence technology to avoid scouring issues at the base of offshore turbines (read more about scouring here (Zhang et al., 2023)).
  • Newcastle University’s Marine Zero PhD Centre has been supporting TechnipFMC on a project to develop dynamic cable monitoring technology to ensure that power gets back to land safely from the turbines out at sea.
Image: Turbines in the Black Forest above Freiburg. Credit: author.

Impact beyond the University

The varied partnerships and research projects underway at our University are creating opportunities and positive change within our organisation, but the work that’s being done here is having impacts far beyond the streets of our campus. Here, the University’s work contributes to positively impacting the emissions profile of the entire North East, proving the possibilities of decarbonising UK higher education, and providing vital knowledge that will contribute to the global green energy transition!

Enormous thanks to Professor Hu for the expert insight he provided for this article, you can see more of his work here. Finally, to stay fully up to date on sustainability news across our University, keep checking our regular blogs and contact us at the Sustainability Team to be added to our monthly newsletter!


Chen, P., Jia, C., Ng, C., and Hu, Z. (2021) ‘Application of SADA method on full-scale measurement data for dynamic responses prediction of Hywind floating wind turbines’, Ocean Engineering. Volume 239.

Chiras, D. (2010) Wind power basics: a green energy guide. New York: New Society Publishers.

Zhang, F., Chen, X., Yan, J., and Gao, X. (2023) ‘Countermeasures for local scour around offshore wind turbine monopile foundations: A review’, Applied Ocean Research. Volume 141.

PGRs explore how sustainability relates to research and professional development

SustainaWHAT?! is a multi-disciplinary, cross-faculty and now cross-institutional collaborative project which encourages PGRs to explore the relationship between the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and their research, with a focus on their professional and personal development.

Building on the success of the 2021 event, in Spring 2023, PGRs from three institutions (Newcastle, Bournemouth and Cardiff) worked with academic leads to create SustainaWHAT?! 2023 – a series of four events which aimed to:

  • provide an opportunity to bring a sustainability lens (via the UNSDGs) to their prospective research with a view to informing the rationale and potential impact of their current and future research;
  • develop a range of competencies applicable to their contexts;
  • develop a network of PGRs (+PGTs and ECRs) interested in sustainability within and across the three institutions.

‘The Gathering’ (March) was an introductory workshop which saw over 60 students (predominantly PGRs, with some ECR, PGT and UG students) exploring the UNSDGs in relation to their own lives and research through a range of activities.

At Newcastle, this event gave 26 postgraduate students from HaSS, FMS, and SAgE faculties a vital opportunity to collaborate across schools and research interests. This hybrid, part in-person, part over zoom, event between Newcastle University, Bournemouth University, and Cardiff University provided a space for whole university thinking on how research can be related to the UNSDGs.

A powerful keynote speech was given by sustainable development expert and Insights North East Fellow Jecel Censoro, and discussion panel members Dr Elisa Lopez-Capel (SAgE), Dr Jenny Davidson (HaSS/ School X) and Mx Jan Deckers (FMS) answered attendee questions on sustainability.

This opportunity to work across schools was deem important by attendees, with one Newcastle PGR stating after the event, ‘The climate crisis requires interdisciplinary solutions and collaboration’. Of the 52 survey responses (from all three institutions), 95% of students reported that they are rarely or never given the opportunity to work across disciplines on sustainability projects, so we believe this Sustaina-WHAT?! work fills a vital niche.

SustainaWHAT?!’s work draws on UNESCO’s Learning Competencies for Education for Sustainable Development, including overarching ways of thinking (e.g. critical thinking), of practicing (e.g. collaboration), and of being (e.g. reflection), when planning events. As demonstrated by attendee responses below, our work continues to be successful in developing attendee ESD competencies which prepare and support student work not only in their research projects but also their ongoing professional development.

Critical Thinking: Through the individual and group activities during the March event the percentage of students who stated they were able to link the SDGs to their research increased from 43% before the event to 76% after the event.

Collaboration: Cooperation between students with disparate research interests during a group activity led attendees to make clearer links between each other’s work through the SDGs, with students commenting that ‘SDGs are interconnected’ and ‘I became more aware of SDGs in my domain of research’.

Reflection: After being invited to review their existing awareness of sustainability during the March event, 84% of students leaving the event reported they intended to explore sustainability as part of their future career, and 82% stating that they planned to adopt sustainable actions in their daily lives.

What did the students across the three institutions learn? When asked what their biggest take away from the March event was, the students commented:

  • ‘More exposure on SDGs and their relation to communities, societies, and countries.’ (Bournemouth)
  • ‘Connection and motivation.’ (Cardiff)
  • ‘Develop potential connections between sustainable development and my research.’ (Newcastle)

In ‘The Challenge’ (April), three multi-disciplinary and cross-institutional PGR teams worked closely online and under time constraints over two events to explore and respond to country-based briefs, drawing on the UNSDGs. ​Each team (supported by a PGR facilitator) produced a proposal which was judged by a panel of academics from 3 institutions and an external NGO. In addition to prizes being awarded for 1st-3rd place, teams received individualised feedback on their proposal strengths ​and developmental suggestions. First prize was awarded for a proposal on “Improving Sustainability Through UK Manufacturing Law”, which was developed and presented by Callum Thompson (PGR in Engineering, Cardiff) and Tushar Somkumar (PGR in Law, Newcastle). Their work illustrated the value of creating opportunities for students to come together from different disciplines and institutions to work effectively to respond to global challenges.

Finally, there was an online event, ‘The Celebration’ (May) to announce ‘The Challenge’ winners, and to celebrate the achievements of all involved – the project team and student attendees. 

The initial findings from the project’s evaluation work were also shared. Understanding the student attendee experience of the project and the impact on people’s learning and views on sustainability have been a core element of the work undertaken by a dedicated evaluation team. We’ve not only been interested in attendee experiences, but the team have been keen to observe and explore the cross-disciplinary and institutional project team (some self-reflection was required too) in terms of what working practices are needed for successful collaborative working across disciplines and institutions. The team are now working on finalising an evaluation report to share across our institution.

Moving forward – get involved! Colleagues from Bournemouth, Newcastle and Cardiff are scoping out a student-led sector-wide sustainability network which brings together Early Career Researchers (ECRs) and Postgraduate Research Students (PGRs) who are working on bringing sustainability into their research. The network seeks to connect its members across institutions and facilitate cross-disciplinary interactions and collaborations. To find out more/ get involved contact:

Co-authored by Charlie Osborne (PGR, SNES) and Rosalind Beaumont (Senior Lecturer, School X)