Policy Lab Report: Is the UK ready for plant-based diets?

Is the UK ready for plant-based diets?

This Think Piece explores the emerging trend of plant-based diets and their impact on the UK food system. The report identifies what steps are needed to support the transition, capitalising on the benefits and minimising the risks the trend presents.

This work was funded by the Global Food Security (GFS) programme as part of its Policy Lab, in which Early Career Researchers compete to write a policy-facing report for the programme.

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Policy Lab on emerging food trends and their impact on the food system

GFS will hold its fourth Policy Lab for PhD students and early career researchers on the 6-8th November 2019. This event aims to synthesize the latest knowledge and evidence on emerging food trends and their impact across the food system in order to inform policy and practice. The winning team at the workshop will receive a £5,000 Policy Lab award to write a policy-facing report.

Call status: Closed


The Global Food Security (GFS) programme invites expressions of interest from PhD students and post-doctoral researchers to take part in a Policy Lab on the emerging food trends and their impact on the food system. The call is open to researchers in any relevant food-related discipline (for example biological, social, economic, environmental, and physical sciences). Policy Labs bring together students and researchers from different disciplines to scope a policy-relevant issue, with teams forming at the workshop and then competing to write a synthesis report for the GFS programme. The winning team at the workshop will receive a £5,000 Policy Lab award to write a policy-facing report. The report will be due six months after the Policy Lab and should be no longer than 15 pages. Previous winning groups have presented their findings directly to programme partners, including the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC), Department of International Trade (DIT), Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) and partners in UKRI.

In order to be eligible, researchers should:

  • Be a current PhD student or post-doctoral researcher at a UK higher education institute, research institute, or independent research organisation that is eligible to receive grant funding from UKRI. Students and post-doctoral researchers based outside of the UK are not eligible.
  • Post-doctoral researchers must have completed their PhD within the last five years. Applicants are therefore eligible if they have completed their PhD after 30th August 2014.

Application deadline: 12.00pm Monday 7th October

Policy Lab dates: 6-8th November 2019

Scientific rationale

Food trends come and go; some last only a few years, whereas others become incorporated into the mainstream and change our food environment. Coconut oil for example boomed in popularity between 2011 and 2015, yet after reports countering the claims that it was healthier than alternative oils accumulated, sales of the product dropped significantly and the trend was labelled a ‘fad’. On the other hand, environmentally-minded millennials and members of ‘Generation Z’ are more likely to have flexitarian, vegetarian or vegan diets; a trend which The Economist claims will become mainstream this year[1]. These changes in demand can have a huge impact on our food system, and understanding this impact for all stakeholders is essential in order to minimise food system shocks, maximise benefits and mitigate unintended consequences.

Several trends have arisen in recent years for environmental reasons, including preferences for plant-based diets and non-dairy milk alternatives. These trends have huge potential to benefit both our health and the environment; livestock production is responsible for ~14.5% of all anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions[2] and uses considerable natural resources (80% of global agricultural land is used for grazing or to grow crops for animal feed), and high consumption of red meat has been linked to increased risk of cancer. However, the value of total UK livestock output in 2018 was £14.8 billion[3] and reductions in demand could negatively impact the economy, the livestock industry and farmer livelihoods. Furthermore the growing trend for veganism in wealthy countries has been blamed for rising rates of malnutrition and micronutrient deficiencies due to poorly managed diets. Other recent trends such as food halls, zero-waste and ‘ugly’ fruit and vegetables, heritage grains, local produce, fermented food and drink and low alcohol could also have impacts across the food system, with the potential to promote health, biodiversity and the circular economy[4].

Understanding the implications of emerging food trends is necessary in order to develop a policy, research and regulatory framework that minimises any negative impacts and maximises the benefits across the food system. This might include research and policies to promote the resilience of farmers and the supply chain, to facilitate adaptation to change, to protect the environment and protect the health of consumers. Understanding trends is also important for the development of regulations around the use of new technologies, such as the roll-out of lab-grown or ‘cultured’ meat, expected to be commercially available by 2021. This Policy Lab will delve further into these issues in order to gather and synthesise evidence to inform policy and practice.

Specific research questions to be addressed during the policy lab are:

  • How do we identify emerging trends?
  • How can trends impact the food system, including but not limited to the environment, health, farmers, food manufacturers and processors, retailers and consumers?
  • How can these stakeholders be resilient and/or adapt to emerging food trends?
  • What are the implications of food trends for policies in government and businesses, and how do these trends shape the future research agenda?

You do not need to be an expert in any of these issues. We are looking for people from any discipline currently researching part of the food system with an interest in influencing policy and practice.

Application process

Applicants will be expected to demonstrate evidence of skills relating to the person specification, which is outlined below. GFS will assess candidates based on this whilst ensuring a spread of disciplines at the Policy Lab.

In accordance with The Concordat, researchers are encouraged to undertake Continuing Professional Development (CPD) activities, which can be beneficial for both the researcher and institution. GFS would like applicants to consider whether they would be able to designate adequate time for writing the report as a part of a team. We therefore encourage applicants to seek permission from their supervisor to participate in the workshop, and to develop the subsequent synthesis report.

Person specification

Applicants should highlight the following skills in their application:

  • Team-working
  • Communicating research to non-experts
  • Ability to synthesise information
  • Leadership skills
  • Innovative thinking
  • Understanding of the global food system

How to apply

The 3-day workshop will take place on the 6-8th November 2019 in London, and applicants must be available to attend on all of these days. We are able to cover reasonable costs of childcare or other caring responsibilities to enable your participation at this workshop and travel costs to and from the event. Accommodation and subsistence during the workshop will be provided.

Please answer the following questions in no more than one side, using Arial 11pt font.  Please note that your academic publication or research track record is relevant but not of primary interest. Of greater interest is evidence of how you might approach interdisciplinary challenges, and demonstrating skills associated with the person specification.

On one page:

  1. Please write down your name, institution, and the funder of your PhD or post-doctoral position. Please also clearly identify your research area (For example biological sciences, economics, engineering, environmental sciences, physical sciences, or social sciences)
  2. Please provide a brief summary of your professional background (no more than half a page). (Please note that if you are selected as a participant, information under this question will be made available to other participants to facilitate networking at the event).
  3. What expertise do you bring that is relevant to this Policy Lab, and how does this fit within the overall challenge being addressed? (no more than half a page)

Please send your completed application to policylab@foodsecurity.ac.uk. The deadline for applications is 12.00pm on Monday 7th October 2019. Those invited to attend the workshop will be notified by week commencing 14th October 2019.


[1] https://worldin2019.economist.com/theyearofthevegan?utm_source=412&utm_medium=COM

[2]Gerber, P.J., Steinfeld, H., Henderson, B., Mottet, A., Opio, C., Dijkman, J., Falcucci, A. & Tempio, G. 2013. Tackling climate change through livestock – A global assessment of emissions and mitigation opportunities. Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), Rome