Healthier food, healthier planet: transforming food systems

green cornfield ready for harvest

Projects seeking to transform the UK food system by placing healthy people and a healthy natural environment at their centre received a £24m boost today.

Four interdisciplinary research projects have received funding through the UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) Strategic Priorities Fund (SPF). These five-year programmes will address issues such as:

  • obesity
  • sustainable agriculture
  • global warming.

Each will focus on:

  • innovations from hydroponics and better supply chains to trialling interventions through action research
  • helping communities and individuals to make better, healthier food choices
  • transforming food systems in cities, regions and nations including communities encountering multiple health and environmental inequalities.

Innovative interdisciplinary projects

The four projects to have received funding are:

Transformations to regenerative food systems, Professor Bob Doherty, University of York

A vision for a Yorkshire food system constituting regenerative and equitable healthy eating for young children, supported by regenerative hybrid food economies and regenerative farming.

This project will look at interventions in food retailing and farming to address issues such as childhood obesity, sustainability in agriculture and global warming.

Professor Doherty said:

Transformations to Regenerative Food Systems (TReFS) led by the University of York brings together a world leading interdisciplinary consortia of six universities (Universities of York, Leeds, Manchester, City, Oxford & Cranfield) and 21 partner organisations  who are committed to shifting our food system to one which prioritises dietary health in young people, and builds a more diversified hybrid food economy which sources produce from farmers that promote increased soil health, carbon sequestration and biodiversity.

TReFS will do this by a set of innovative interventions in Yorkshire schools and nurseries to change food environments and menus, scaling-up new community businesses, new models of regenerative farming, new measures and new policies.  Working with our national and international partners, we will catapult our transformations beyond Yorkshire to impact the broader UK food system.

Healthy soil, healthy food, healthy people (H3), Professor Peter Jackson, co-Director of the Institute for Sustainable Food, University of Sheffield

Bringing together world-class researchers from Sheffield, Leeds, Bristol, Cambridge and City universities, this project seeks to transform the UK food system ‘from the ground up.’

It will use an integrated programme of interdisciplinary research on healthy soil, healthy food and healthy people (H3).

The project will:

  • use well-known in-field measures to protect soils
  • use innovative methods such as hydroponics and biofortification
  • consider consumer demand, public acceptability and affordability.

Professor Jackson said:

The H3 consortium draws on the combined strength of researchers from Sheffield, Leeds, Bristol, Cambridge and City universities and a wide range of stakeholders from government, business and civil society.

Focusing on arable crops, horticulture, hydroponics and hybrid farms, and on the health benefits of biofortification and increased fibre consumption, the H3 consortium will identify practical paths towards food system transformation, delivered via a series of interventions: on farm, in food manufacturing and retail, and in terms of the health implications associated with food consumption in UK homes and communities.

This is an exciting, once-in-a-lifetime, opportunity to use cutting-edge research to have a genuinely transformative effect on the health and sustainability of the UK food system.

Co-production of healthy, sustainable food systems for disadvantaged communities, Professor Carol Wagstaff, University of Reading

Preliminary work has shown that people living in disadvantaged communities have the desire to eat a healthier diet and are aware that good nutrition is closely linked to good physical and mental health.

This project will focus on sharing knowledge and learning from working with:

  • people from a variety of disadvantaged communities
    • Whitley-Reading
    • Brighton & Hove
    • Tower Hamlets
    • Plymouth
  • small and large food businesses
  • policy-makers.

This will help develop solutions that will provide people living in disadvantaged communities with improved access to fresher food and a balance of desirable, sustainable, affordable and healthy products.

It will identify opportunities to prevent food loss from ‘mainstream’ supply chains and identify where increased sustainable production of primary food ingredients is needed.

Professor Wagstaff said:

People who are currently struggling to put healthy, sustainable food on their tables each day are at the core of this new project. Many struggle, not because they lack aspiration or knowledge about food, but because of the real impact of financial or time poverty.

The project, which brings together expertise from the Universities of Reading, Cranfield, Sussex, Plymouth and Kent, plus numerous partners from the food industry, civil organisations and policy makers, will give a voice and power to those who are so often left behind when food systems, food policies and novel products are designed.

The work will be jointly carried out between our researchers, people in disadvantaged communities, policy makers and food producers to find new ways to tackle systemic issues around food inequalities.

Together, we will help to give everyone access to a diet that meets their health needs and which is produced in a way that is good for our planet.

Transforming urban food systems for planetary and population health (The Mandala Consortium), led by Professor Martin White, Professor of Population Health Research in the MRC Epidemiology Unit, University of Cambridge

Focusing on the city of Birmingham, this consortium brings together internationally renowned teams from the universities in:

  • Cambridge
  • Birmingham
  • Warwick
  • Exeter
  • London.

It aims to transform the urban food system and its relationship with its regional economy in the West Midlands.

Mapping of the local food system will determine the most powerful levers for system change. These are likely to include new ways of procuring healthier and more sustainable foods in the public sector, and developing online systems to help businesses find and use more locally grown food.

Interventions will be evaluated to demonstrate how food can be made healthier, more affordable and less harmful to the environment, but still profitable.

Professor White said:

The COVID-19 pandemic quickly revealed the fragility of our food systems in the UK.

Recognised as a wake-up call in part 1 of the National Food Strategy (published in July 2020), we urgently need better understanding of how to transform future food systems so that they are more resilient and provide fairer access to healthier and more environmentally sustainable food for everyone.

Our research will focus intensely on the city of Birmingham and its 1.2 million residents to generate new evidence on how such system transformation can be achieved. 80% of the UK population lives in towns and cities, and Birmingham offer a uniquely diverse microcosm for our experiment.

Working with a distinctive group of partners from all sectors, and scientists from a wide range of disciplines, we will work together to identify how the food system works, and what changes can be made to achieve greater fairness, healthiness and sustainability, while maintaining economic viability.

The research will test a number of flagship interventions across the system to provide new evidence that can inform changes across the UK. We will work close with policymakers throughout to ensure the findings have maximal impact across the UK.

Food system is centre stage

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

Never before has the role that the food system plays in both environmental and human health been so centre-stage. Major issues facing humanity such as addressing climate change and building back better post-COVID will be essential in improving health and wellbeing.

I am really excited by the ambitious and transformative projects we have selected for funding – every single person in the UK could benefit from this research and we will ensure that the best evidence is generated to answer and offer solutions to the questions which matter and the decisions which need to be made in Transforming the UK food system.

Further information

The £47.5M Transforming the UK Food System for Healthy People and a Healthy Environment SPF programme is delivered by UKRI in partnership with:

  • the Global Food Security Programme
  • Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC)
  • Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC)
  • Medical Research Council (MRC)
  • Natural Environment Research Council (NERC)
  • Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra)
  • Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC)
  • Public Health England (PHE)
  • Innovate UK
  • Food Standards Agency (FSA).

It aims to fundamentally transform the UK food system by placing healthy people and a healthy natural environment at its centre, addressing questions around what we should eat, produce and manufacture and what we should import.

It takes into account the complex interactions between health, environment and socio-economic factors.

By co-designing research and training across disciplines and stakeholders, and joining up healthy and accessible consumption with sustainable food production and supply, this programme will deliver coherent evidence to enable concerted action from policy, business and civil society.

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