Child of the North: Physical activity, obesity and food insecurity
By Dr Marie Bryant, University of York; Dr Alison Fildes and Professor Jason Halford, University of Leeds; Professor Caroyln Summerbell, Durham University; Dr Calum Webb, The University of Sheffield.
Examining physical activity levels, food intake, and levels of food insecurity, and the prevalence of obesity in children living in the North of England since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Before the pandemic, these outcomes in children were generally worse in the North compared with the South of England (except for some inner parts of London).
These geographical differences can, in part, be explained by relative levels of deprivation. But that’s not the full picture. Even after adjusting these outcomes for deprivation, a substantial divide remains, suggesting more deep-seated structural issues. The COVID-19 pandemic has had a profound impact on the daily lives of children. Among the most significant changes were opportunities to be physically active, and access to food and different types of food.
Given that these factors determine growth and body fatness, it is important to ascertain whether the pandemic has also had an impact on levels of childhood obesity. Sadly, the evidence suggests that the pandemic has exacerbated North-South inequalities in physical activity levels, food insecurity, and obesity, for children.
While the legacy of these changes is yet to play out, there is real risk of short-term impacts translating to longer-term effects on health, and widening inequalities. There is some good news from initiatives tackling physical activity and food insecurity, helping to ‘level up’ children in the North, but there is little confidence in the sustainability of these efforts. If no child is to be left behind, plans must be upscaled and sustained.
Policy response and the need for whole system actions
The North-South variation in the prevalence of childhood obesity in England is certainly fuelled by poverty. Policies that aim to reduce food poverty and food insecurity, as outlined above, and investment in early years services are key to realising the Government’s ambition to halve the prevalence of childhood obesity by 2030, whilst also reducing health inequalities. It isn’t that the existing Government Obesity Plan is wrong – all of the strategies within it are sensible, evidence-based, and theoretically effective. However, they rely on an individual’s ability and will to make healthier lifestyle choices – including what food and drink they buy and consume – and on their access to appropriate health services in their local area.
A recent study sampling local authority obesity programmes found that the overwhelming focus was on changing individual behaviours rather than changing the environments in which people live. Alone, therefore, the Obesity Plan is likely to have limited impact.
The research suggests that reducing child poverty is a pre requisite to reversing and reducing the overall prevalence of, and inequalities in, childhood obesity across England. Beyond this, we need a whole system approach, with a broader set of initiatives targeting, in particular, educational settings, town planning and industry. Strategies must ensure access to health services according to need, with an appropriate balance of prevention and management of childhood obesity within emerging integrated care systems.
The elephant in the room is what this would cost. In the challenges of operating in a pandemic recovery economy, will local authorities and industry have the financial resource and political will to invest in tackling inequalities in childhood obesity in England, above other pressing priorities?
Policy Hub POSTNotes set for publication following three-month fellowships
Two POSTNotes produced by the Food Systems Policy Hub’s Policy Fellows covering soil management and genome editing are to be published in the new year following the completion of the second fellowship scheme between N8 AgriFood and the Parliamentary Office for Science and Technology (POST).
In October David Rapley from the University of Sheffield and Megan Tresise from the University of Leeds began a three-month fellowship at POST, working in Westminster to produce a POSTnote from start to finish. Their work has included scoping the topic, conducting interviews with senior stakeholders from across academia, government, industry and the not-for-profit sector, then drafting, editing and finalising the document.
The fellowships were open to applications from doctoral students registered at one of the N8 Universities (Durham, Lancaster, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Sheffield and York) working in an area of agrifood research, and marked the second collaboration between the N8 AgriFood Food Systems Policy Hub and POST in offering the placements following the inaugural joint fellowship in 2020.
Ahead of the publication of David and Megan’s POSTnotes in the new year, we caught up with them to find out more about their work:
David Rapley, The University of Sheffield
What do your current studies at The University of Sheffield involve?
My PhD focusses on the genetic and epigenetic mechanisms behind rice resistance to the parasitic weed, Striga. Striga causes devastating cereal crop yield losses of 40-100%, and causes economic yield losses up to USD 7 billion, affecting the poorest subsistence farmers in sub-Saharan Africa.
How does your Fellowship at POST fit in to the current food policy landscape?
My Fellowship at POST is on gene edited food crops. With UK (and EU) regulation on genetically modified organisms (GMOs) under review to exempt plants developed by certain types of gene editing, the potential for crops is huge. My POSTnote will explore the development of gene edited food crops, and examine a range of issues surrounding this, including specificity, traceability and public perceptions.
In September 2021, the UK Government published a response to their recent consultation on the use of genetic technologies, saying that regulation is changing for plants with genetic changes that could have been achieved by traditional breeding, or which could have occurred naturally. These plants will become exempt from GMO field trial regulations in England by the end of 2021. Also, the Government is looking to bring forward primary legislation to amend the existing definition of a GMO and exempt certain crops.
The Government is also looking at how these products might enter the market. This aligns with several strategies such as:
The UK Innovation Strategy 2021 which mentions the use of biotechnology to drive a new
‘bioeconomy’ and to tackle challenges to food security, climate change and biodiversity.
The National Food Strategy 2021 which forecasts the use of modern science, such as for crop genetics.
This is a complex regulatory area as gene edited crops are regulated differently across the world. Some countries for example exempt certain gene edited crops from GMO regulation (including Argentina, Brazil, Canada, USA), while other countries tightly regulate all gene edited crops as GMOs (including EU countries and New Zealand).
The EU has published a report in 2021, saying the regulatory definition of a GMO for new genomic techniques is ‘not fit for purpose’, and is planning a consultation for 2022.
What do you hope your work with POST will achieve?
I hope that this work will provide MPs and Peers with an overview of gene editing in plants, gene edited products in development and the specificity and traceability of the gene editing technology.
I am also exploring the implications of gene edited food crops on social, economic, environmental and health factors. I hope for my work to help inform the discussions surrounding detection of gene editing in food crops, domestic/international trade, intellectual property, transparency, labelling, consumer choice, and public perceptions.
Megan Tresise, University of Leeds
What do your current studies at the University of Leeds involve?
My PhD research at Leeds focuses on understanding and mitigating agricultural emissions under the net zero by 2050 target. I use Life Cycle Assessment techniques to account for farming emissions and estimate the global warming impact of management practices. I then use that data to model mitigation options for farmers, such as reducing fertiliser usage or switching to organic.
How does your Fellowship at POST fit in to the current food policy landscape?
My POSTnote is a synthesis of the evidence of the threats to England’s agricultural soils (e.g. carbon loss), which impacts the wider system benefits that soils provide, including food production, climate regulation and biodiversity. It also explores soil stewardship options to restore soil systems that land managers are increasingly using, as well as monitoring of soil health indicators and policy initiatives in this area. My POSTnote is highly relevant to the current food-policy landscape in a few ways. Soil underpins the food system, yet many intensively farmed soils are depleted of organic carbon and biodiversity, and are at risk of erosion and compaction. This affects the benefits that soils provide us, including food production, and wider ecosystem functions, such as water and climate regulation.
Agriculture is currently faced with a somewhat uncertain and difficult transition period away from the EU Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and into new UK-based Environmental Land Management schemes. The standards that make up the Sustainable Farming Incentive ELM scheme have a strong soil focus, especially soil health, and Defra have already set a target of managing soils sustainably by 2030.
There is an increasing body of research into innovative methods of measuring soil health, e.g. Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) and spectroscopy, to build our understanding at both farm and national scale. Research evidence for soil stewardship practices that reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and put organic material back onto the land, e.g. cover cropping, biochar and manure, is developing and will give us a better understanding of how to cope with the spatial complexity of farming in the UK (i.e. across soil types and farm enterprises).
What do you hope your work with POST will achieve?
I hope that this POSTnote is useful to the researchers and policymakers tackling the soil health challenge. It will be the product of several weeks of invaluable and interesting interviews and reviews with key academics and stakeholders, so I look forward to seeing it published and available for use. On a professional level, I think this opportunity has given me the skills to impartially translate research evidence into material suitable and useful for policymakers, so I hope that I can use these skills in a research-policy career after my PhD.
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Six N8 projects feature in new report outlining policy messages for food security
The findings from six research programmes, brought together under N8 AgriFood, have fed into a new report outlining key policy recommendations to help to identify and develop interventions to strengthen UK food security.
The ‘Resilience of the UK Food System in a Global Context’ (GFS FSR) research programme has released its Programme Report, outlining multiple approaches to enhancing resilience.
The Report contains general recommendations as well as tailored messages for a range of stakeholders in government, agri-food businesses, NGOs, and investment and research sectors.
The major £14.5 million, five year research programme, launched in 2016 by the Global Food Security programme, comprised 13 interdisciplinary research projects based in UK institutions. Six of these programmes were established from bids put together by colleagues working collaboratively across N8 AgriFood and the N8 universities; IKnowFood, PIG Sustain, Resilient Dairy, Rurban, Re- Phokus and SEEGSLIP.
Summarising five years of research, the report also contains messages based on findings by each of the 13 Projects and focused on specific stakeholders. These messages are intended to lead to further exploration and actions by those aiming to enhance food system resilience.
One of the key messages from the report was that discussions on how to enhance food system resilience need to be framed by the answers to four key questions:
o Where do we need to increase resilience?
o What do we need to build resilience against?
o From whose perspective is enhanced resilience needed?
o Over what time period is enhanced resilience needed?
The report also contained important messages for specific stakeholders including:
Government policy formulation should take a whole food system approach across government departments and agencies and spatial, temporal and jurisdictional levels
Industry should proactively address the negative relationship between food price on one hand, and food system sustainability and resilience on the other
NGOs covering multiple agenda should play a more substantial, evidence-based role in holding government and business to account
Finance and investment sectors should include short and long-term financial stress testing of their portfolios to a wide range of exposures
Researchers and funders will have an increasingly important role in helping to enhance the resilience of the UK food system.
Dr Riaz Bhunnoo, Director of the Global Food Security programme, said: “The recent pandemic has underlined the importance of a resilient food system. With climate change coming down the line, it is more important than ever that we drive interdisciplinary research on food system resilience into policy and practice. The FSR programme has been instrumental in driving this agenda forward.”
The full report can be viewed at www.foodsystemresilienceuk.org/fsr-messages
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