£5 million funding to redefine the UK’s food systems

Delivery man delivering food to customer at home

Today UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) has announced an investment of over £5 million to train the next generation of UK food system leaders who will redefine how we make, transport and consume our food.

A new centre for doctoral training will provide for 62 studentships who will engage with multiple food system organisations on interdisciplinary research and examine the problems facing our current food systems.

Heath and sustainability issues

The Health Survey for England 2017 estimates that over half the adults in England are either overweight or obese.

The attendant health issues that arise from poor diet combined with the COVID-19 crisis and concerns about the environmental impact of single-use plastics and food waste have highlighted the urgent need to transform the UK’s food systems.

These emergencies present an opportunity for the country to make our food systems more sustainable and resilient to factors such as climate change and world food price fluctuations and ensure safe, healthy, sustainable and affordable food for all.

As the UK’s largest manufacturing sector (£28.3 billion/year), our food systems provide employment and economic growth, affect our environment and shape our landscape, influence our health and wellbeing, and are of great social and cultural importance.

A new generation of leaders

The Partnership for a Sustainable Food Future – Centre for Doctoral Training (PSFF-CDT), led by the University of Greenwich, will convene well-connected food systems actors from:

  • local and national government
  • business and civil society
  • researchers with world-leading interdisciplinary skills and experience from seven leading UK universities.

Professor Melanie Welham, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC)’s Executive Chair and Executive Sponsor for the UKRI Strategic Priorities Fund (SPF) Transforming UK Food Systems Programme, said:

Our food systems are complex and interrelated, with inevitable trade-offs between costs and benefits, and competing priorities.

As the UK changes demographically, technologically and socially, and in the context of grave threats from climate change and pollution, we must train a new generation of leaders and innovators who can bring new ideas, provide evidence, and safeguard values to bring about healthy people, a healthy environment, a healthy economy, healthy animals and a healthy society.

The £5 million UKRI investment is being matched by £2 million of additional funding, meaning it will support a total of 62 studentships. Each studentship will include a placement in a food system stakeholder organisation and research projects will integrate the natural and social sciences.

Professor Guy Poppy, Director of the Transforming UK Food Systems Programme, said:

The need to transform the UK’s food system is essential as we build back better from the COVID-19 pandemic and try to ensure the health of humans and the environment. It is really exciting that more than 60 future leaders will graduate from the PSFF-CDT.

The level of engagement with key partners from across the food system fills me with confidence that those graduating will have a wonderful career ahead of them in which they can contribute to a healthier, sustainable and more prosperous UK food system.

The environmental challenge

Henry Dimbleby, Independent Lead, National Food Strategy, said:

The world is finally waking up to the fact that the global food system represents the mother of all sustainability issues. It is responsible for an estimated 20-30% of total greenhouse gas emissions. It occupies half the world’s habitable land, uses 70% of the freshwater we consume, causes three-quarters of all water pollution, and is the single biggest contributor to biodiversity loss.

At the same time, treating food-related illness is absorbing ever large amounts of capacity of the NHS – with all the personal misery that goes with that.

We need to train a new generation of leaders to haul us out of this mess, and the centre for doctoral training in food systems looks to do just that. It is a welcome and necessary part of the solution to these deep systemic problems.

At the heart of this challenge-led approach is a Food Systems Academy. It brings together representatives from organisations aiming to change the way food systems work. They will develop processes based on co-design, co-implementation and co-solution in research and action.

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