A new Global Food Security programme paper tallies votes to focus action. John Ingram reports.

John Ingram

As part of its work to understand the drivers of food security, colleagues and I in the UK’s Global Food Security programme (ably assisted by colleagues from the University of Cambridge) launched a six-month project to identify priority research questions (PDF) for the UK food system. The full results are published online in the journal Food Security.

When we think of the ‘food system’ many people naturally think of the food producing system. Several papers in recent years have identified priority research questions for agriculture, and the massive research effort is reflected in the July 2013 launch of the UK ‘Agri-Tech Strategy’.

But for me – and for many other researchers working on food systems – there are broader viewpoints. First, there is the full ‘food chain’ itself, from producing food to processing, retailing and consuming. Second, there is the notion of ‘food security’, which encompasses nutritional content, food safety, preferences and affordability in addition to food production per se.

Both food chain and food security viewpoints are equally important and we really need to think of them together – especially when an adaptation, such as introducing a novel food processing technology, has consequences for other food security elements.

Take the recent media-fest around the ‘lab-burger’. While the research motive was to show that meat can be produced other than by conventional means, there was considerable consumer kick-back to the technology. It may have been completely safe to eat, and arguably helped satisfy nutritional requirements (let alone reducing environmental impacts of production), but general public reaction gave it a very low score on the ‘preference’ ticket.

The lab-burger example underlines the complexity of the food system and shows how a single intervention gives rise to research questions across social, economic and environmental domains.

Questions and answers

A key aspect in setting our priority research questions was to attract as wide a range of ‘world views’ as possible, and particularly industry and policy viewpoints. Participants therefore included leading representatives in food producing, processing, packaging and logistics and retailing industries; local and national policymakers; consumer groups; and a wide range of academics.

A total of 456 individuals submitted 820 questions from which 100 were selected by a process of online voting and a three-stage workshop voting exercise. These 100 final questions were sorted into ten themes with the ‘top’ question for each theme identified by a further voting exercise, deriving an overall list of top 10 questions. This step also allowed four different stakeholder groups (primary production; food industry and retail; governmental policy; and non-governmental organisations and advocacy) to select the top 7-8 questions from their perspectives. This resulted in four sets of top questions from different stakeholder perspectives.

One example question from each of these groups is, respectively:

  • How can primary food production be sustainably intensified whilst maintaining or enhancing the nutritional value of those food items?
  • How can the fat, sugar, preservative and salt content of foods be reduced while ensuring that palatability is maintained, waste is minimised, and food remains safe and does not spoil?
  • Which intervention (or combination of interventions) would be most effective in achieving changes in consumption decisions and which types of intervention (e.g. awareness raising campaigns, choice editing, education, legislation or regulatory) are most appropriate for specific contexts and decisions?
  • Under which circumstances are the various channels for using food waste (including anaerobic digestion, feeding it to animals, composting, land-spreading etc.) socially, environmentally and economically preferable?

As the project’s ultimate aim was to “improve the effectiveness and efficiency of the UK food system”, it thus fits centrally within the overall aims of the GFS programme, and it is hoped these priorities will inspire new research partnerships.

The next stages are for interested parties to come together to (i) establish public-private funding opportunities; (ii) build academia-industry partnerships to develop and implement research projects that will answer the questions; and (iii) then integrate the answers within a conceptual framework to help analyse synergies and trade-offs among multiple social, economic and environmental objectives.

Turning these outputs into improved practice and policy outcomes is itself a further challenge, but this will be easier as we improve our understanding of interconnections in the UK food system as a whole.

The full results from the project are available in the journal Food Security.

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About John Ingram

John Ingram leads the Food Systems Programme in the Environmental Change Institute, University of Oxford. Prior to this post he was Food Security Leader for the UK’s Natural Environment Research Council (from where he developed the ‘Priority Research Questions’ project), and prior to that he was Executive Officer for the international Global Environmental Change and Food Systems project. Originally trained in soil science, he worked for 10 years on a range of agroecology projects in Africa and Asia, but for the last 15 years has been focussing on inter- and trans-disciplinary food systems research worldwide.

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