Our vision for the Food Systems Policy Hub

By Professor Bob Doherty, Professor of Marketing at York Management School, University of York, and Food Systems Policy Hub Director

The N8 AgriFood Food Systems Policy Hub brings together the interdisciplinary strengths of the N8 AgriFood platform in food systems research, thinking and collaboration.

Our ambition is to be a leading interdisciplinary policy platform for food systems research at global, national, regional and local levels. We’re establishing the Policy Hub as an important go to place for independent evidence, expertise and thought leadership for policy communities working in the food system.

We bring together the expertise of 8 different universities on one unique research project and work in collaboration with industry, government, international bodies (e.g. FAO etc.), the European Union, national governments, regional/local government, the third sector (including private standard bodies e.g. Fairtrade International) and civil society.

Why now?

The shocks experienced by the global food system are unprecedented. Climate change, COVID-19, dietary health crisis and geopolitical pressures are combining to create both ripple and cascade impacts on the food system. Given this, there is a real need for a new partnership at the science-policy-practice interface to work in collaboration with policymakers across sectors to tackle evidence gaps.

In addition to this, Brexit is posing its own challenges. As the UK leaves the EU, there is raft of key policy initiatives on the agenda – the 25-year Environment Plan, Agricultural Bill, New Environment Bill and the forthcoming National Food Strategy Review, just to name a few.

These policy changes will also impact on private and third sector organisations, not just government departments. With this challenge in mind, N8 AgriFood has decided to launch the Food Systems Policy Hub to respond to this challenge.

Why food systems?

Much is expected from our global food system to meet the challenges of a growing population. However, if we simply produce more food using the current agrifood system, we will require 120% more water, 42% more land and this production alone will lead to a 2oC rise in global temperature. Put simply, we do not have the resources and we cannot afford the environmental damage.

It’s not possible for us to meet our food needs through a business-as-usual approach. Instead, we require strategies for adaptation and transformation. Our needs must be set within the context of a growing consensus that our food system is increasingly vulnerable, with rising environmental risks from climate change, soil degradation, loss of biodiversity and antimicrobial resistance among others.

Environmental risks are coupled with rising socioeconomic risks of increasing food poverty, a mounting health crisis from poor diets and poor working conditions for many employed in agrifood supply chains. These problems provide an immense challenge for policymakers – one where a food systems approach can help.

The food system incorporates all elements and activities that relate to the production, processing, distribution, preparation, consumption and disposal of food. This includes key system outcomes, including food availability, utilisation, safety, access, quality and of course waste.

The system also captures the socioeconomic and environmental drivers, including the role of the environment, people, processes, infrastructure, institutions, governance, and the effects of their activity on our society, economy, landscape and climate. Finally, it recognises the feedback loops, trade-offs/dilemmas and synergies among system activities. It’s fair to say it’s quite a complex picture.

Setting policy in the food system poses quite a challenge as we source food from thousands of producers across different geographical and temporal scales. In the UK, we are experiencing a time of change and opportunity, with a series of key policy initiatives including the 25-year Environment Plan, new Agricultural bill and new National Food Strategy.

Food systems thinking enables a more coherent interdisciplinary approach. It allows identification of the key interactions, stakeholders and points of intervention, as well as any trade-offs/dilemmas, synergies and unintended consequences of interventions. It provides a platform for a joined-up approach to food research and policymaking across industry, government, the third sector and civil society. Using food systems thinking ensures a more holistic approach and avoids silo working.

Why N8?

Responsibility for policy within the food system is distributed across different ministries and departments. There is now a growing recognition that effective change requires us to consider the overarching food system.

N8 AgriFood is in an ideal position to do just this by drawing upon our interdisciplinary expertise across the N8 institutions to bring valuable contributions to the policy community in public policy, business practice and beyond. We have been working together for the last five years and have developed effective modes of interaction.

We can provide a single platform and contact point to bring this knowledge and expertise together, which can in turn help bridge evidence gaps for policy teams, provide thought leadership and offer insights from an independent perspective. We also have a number of N8 academics who are seconded into government, parliament and business working on food system challenges and as a result have experience of how policy and evidence teams work.

What can we provide?

Due to the wide-ranging and influential expertise and resources built by the N8, we are in a position to provide bespoke policy work in a range of organisational settings. This expertise includes training in food systems thinking and methods, thought leadership and horizon scanning, food systems commissioned work and researching evidence gaps, as well as convening policy forums such as citizen assemblies, farmer learning groups and public dialogues.

In conclusion

Despite the fact that the food system faces wide-ranging challenges, through working together and developing policy based on research evidence, we can tackle them and make positive social and environmental changes that will benefit generations to come. This is the driving force behind the Food Systems Policy Hub and it’s essential that our interdisciplinary food systems research has real-world impact.

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