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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Looking for Food Systems Transformation at COP26
By Dr Stephen Whitfield, Associate Professor of Climate Change and Food Security, University of Leeds, and COP26 Fellow
Attending COP26, as a representative of the University of Leeds, was a real privilege, in both the positive and negative connotations of the word. It was two jam-packed weeks of meeting people from all over the world, attending mind-opening events, and having close-up peeks into important negotiations. But the criticisms levelled at the organisation of the conference and its exclusive nature, could not, and should not, be ignored.
For all the diversity of campaigns and climate solutions being promoted in Glasgow, the void left by those perspectives and voices (often from regions of the Global South most directly impacted by climate change) not present, or not permitted, in the vast UNFCCC-controlled delegates area (the Blue zone), was ubiquitous. When it comes to food and agriculture, the relatively (and some have argued disappointingly) small sub-sector of the conference on which I focused my attention, there was an uncomfortable combination of inspiring ideas and notable imbalances.
Shared ambition, but no shared vision, for sustainable agriculture
Agriculture has clearly risen up the UNFCCC agenda in recent years, perhaps catalysed, to some extent, by the Koronivia Joint Working Group on Agriculture. This was initiated in 2017, described at the time a landmark initiative to mainstream agriculture within the convention. There were numerous initiatives and agreements at COP26 that move the agricultural sector much more towards the centre of global climate action. At Glasgow the joint working group were finalising summary of the Koronivia roadmap, a series of international consultations and workshops on sustainable and climate resilient agriculture that concluded this year. But COP26 also saw the launch and endorsement of new ambitious initiatives, such as the Policy Action Agenda for Transition to Sustainable Food and Agriculture and the Global Action Agenda for Innovation in Agriculture, as well as new commitments on reducing deforestation, methane emissions and more.
Carefully constructed and well-briefed panels, usually composed of representatives of agricultural research, industry, donors, banks and an allied farmer organisation, were assembled for the numerous launch and discussion events centred around these ambitious initiatives. The narrative of these was a common one, largely oriented around the scaling up of agricultural innovations. Granted, the importance of participation and context-specificity was usually emphasised, but ultimately these initiatives support a conventional top-down technology-transfer model of agricultural change.
This vision of a growth-oriented, and largely corporate-controlled, sustainable agricultural future fits comfortably in the modernity of the Blue Zone, but is less palatable to those emphasizing and advocating for just transitions, de-growth, food sovereignty, and agro-ecology. These advocates had a limited presence, and likely lack the resources needed to hold physical exhibits and events within the Blue Zone. But the passion and energy behind them sounded loudly nevertheless. Some of the most energising moments that I experienced at COP were the, all too brief, occasions when different perspectives and visions for a future agriculture, were in the same room and debated. That said, I felt somewhat disappointed that the closely-aligned calls for justice and agro-ecology – which, in contrast to the Blue Zone, were very evident in the public protests and fringe events around Glasgow – haven’t yet sufficiently cut through to make it into formal texts of the UNFCCC.
Much more agriculture than food
Whilst agriculture may have arrived at COP26, many people felt that food and diets were missing. Dietary change is certainly political and evidently too thorny, or perhaps too threatening of the status quo, to yet make it on to the discussion table at COP. However, there are important interlinkages between climate and diets, which go beyond the carbon footprint of meat consumption (on which debate tends to be centred). Food must necessarily be higher up and more integral to the UNFCCC agenda – not just in relation to mitigation, but also adaptation, loss and damage and more. The Agri-Food Transition summit, a parallel event held in the Climate Action zone in Glasgow, argued that next year’s COP27, Sharm El-Sheikh, ‘must be a food COP’… and perhaps under an Egyptian presidency, given the acuteness of the relationships between climate and food security on the African continent, it will be.
To find meaningful dialogue around food (beyond polite conversations about the labelling of food- related emissions in conference catering facilities), again it was necessary to step outside of the Blue Zone. Yet, even in the more public spaces and protests around Glasgow, I was left wondering whether the loudest voices, arguing for radical shifts towards plant based diets and localisation, were diverse or nuanced enough to be inclusive and foster dialogue. That said, some forums and actions felt more productive than others. The FAO’s Agri-Food Transition Summit had some genuine moments of constructive dialogue around alternative visions of food systems transformation, and elsewhere there were also some nicely nuanced presentations of pastoralism and diverse livestock production systems that emphasized the importance of contextualised and complex system dynamics when it comes to the footprint of our food.
There is still a long way to go when it comes to acknowledging, let alone achieving, a just transformation in agriculture and food systems. I remain undecided as to whether Glasgow has helped make progress towards this. However, despite understandable public frustrations with the ‘blah, blah, blah’ of COP, I believe that there is a real need for ongoing, meaningful and equitable dialogue. In this regard, whilst we might take away from COP the positive headline-grabbing commitments made by the parties, we should also take away some humbling lessons from what went wrong and work towards greater inclusivity and representation in future summits, which will hopefully have food higher up the agenda.
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Policy Hub experts have their say on what needs to happen to make the National Food Strategy vision a reality.
Food Systems experts from the N8 Universities have contributed to a unique response to the National Food Strategy – advising Government how to implement key policy measures to ensure a healthy and sustainable food system in England.
The report from the N8 AgriFood Food Systems Policy Hub brings together expertise from the eight most research-intensive universities in the North of England, matching relevant experts in their field to each of the 14 recommendations made in the National Food Strategy’s final report.
Written by Henry Dimbleby, and published this summer, the National Food Strategy was the first independent review of England’s entire food system in 75 years. It aimed to lay out measures for transforming the food system we have today into something better for the future, with a focus on health, the environment, agriculture, resilience and sustainability and the economy.
The Food Systems Policy Hub’s Response document will now be delivered to the white paper team working within Defra, who have been tasked with co-ordinating the official Government response to the National Food Strategy. The Response will also be presented to the National Food Strategy All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG), overseen by The Food Foundation.
Within the Response experts from across the N8 Research Partnership have backed important calls for action made in the National Food Strategy, as well as highlighting several key factors missing from the strategy, and suggesting best practice for introducing policy to support the 14 Recommendations made by the National Food Strategy team.
It is the first independent response to the National Food Strategy to combine analysis from multiple institutions, with the Food Systems Policy Hub seeking to ensure a full food systems approach is given to any Government action arising from the National Food Strategy’s recommendations.
The N8 AgriFood Food Systems Policy Hub was a created from the N8 AgriFood Project, and works to translate research and expert knowledge from across N8 AgriFood into policy impact, supporting a food systems approach to food related policy at regional, national and international levels within governments, the private sector, charities and NGOs.
To meet the excess demand, all of the major retailers took on additional workers. Some were hired permanently in areas which were expanding for the first time, while others were hired temporarily as retailers tackled the uncertainties presented by the national lockdown. Online recruitment mobilised vast numbers of potential workers, many of whom had been furloughed or made redundant from their previous jobs. Highly precarious contracts were offered in large numbers, meaning employees could be more easily let go when demand eased. Some were hired temporarily to minimise the effects of panic buying on stock, yet the majority of new jobs were in warehousing and logistics (including picking, packing and driving) to service the move to online shopping.
The gendering of retail work
Retail work has historically been gendered in terms of the roles which men and women carry out. For example, the move online and growing use of self-checkouts in-store have in part helped facilitate a reduction in the need for checkout staff. These jobs have long been disproportionately filled by women who needed the ‘flexibility’ to manage work alongside caring responsibilities. In contrast, there has already been an expansion of new roles in warehousing, logistics and fulfilment which have traditionally been filled by men and demand hours less likely to suit the needs of the household.
Although there have been some improvements in the occupational segmentation of retail roles in recent years, changing demands mean the future of work in food retail is likely to be somewhat gendered if current patterns persist. To avoid exacerbating these gender inequalities, measures are needed to ensure women are equipped to enter into logistics and distribution; for example, employee-led flexible working arrangements and parental leave would allow for an easier transition into these roles.
High versus low tech models
While online shopping was stimulated during the crisis, the method for fulfilling these orders remained heavily reliant on labour instead of technology. Although some retailers have begun to expand into semi-automated warehouses to fulfil orders, most of the picking and packing is carried out on the shop floor or in centralised distribution centres by members of staff. Predicting a sustained move online, food retailers have made their plans to open new regional dotcom distribution centres across the country public. If these jobs are to be accessible to all, additional considerations will have to be made.
Within the sector, Ocado is the only major exception to the human labour approach. As a leader in warehouse technology, Ocado already has a portfolio of hi-tech fulfilment centre which uses propriety-design ‘bots’ to pick and pack orders. This is likely to be a desirable model to pursue in the longer term for those retailers with the capital to do so. However, for those who do not, they may approach the Ocado-model with some caution. Ocado had to temporarily suspend new orders as they were unable to expand capacity in the same way as other retailers, yet others were able to expand capacity by taking on a large hyper-flexible pool of workers to pick up the work which technology could not. If this approach to organising labour is deemed more convenient to retailers post-crisis, it could detrimentally impact the quality of work available in the sector in the future.
The longevity of this approach beyond the crisis remains unknown, yet it is a concerning development for the future of employment relations in that growing segment of the sector. The quality of work available within the sector could deteriorate as mentioned, but the quantity of work available could also decline if some choose to adopt an approach, similar to Ocado, which relies on longer-term investments in ‘big-ticket’ automating technologies. However, there is little evidence of yet that either approach is likely to dominate regardless of what certain predictions suggest. Therefore, policymakers should ensure that the jobs which remain do not reinforce the existing inequalities which are endemic to service work and have been further exacerbated by the current crisis.
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Youth involvement in our food sustainability crisis: Empowerment or Responsibility?
By Dr Maria Bryant, Department of Health Science and the Hull York Medical School, University of York; Chair of the Board of Trustees for the UK Association for the Study of Obesity; Director of Diet, Nutrition and Obesity research at Born in Bradford.
I have had the pleasure of engaging with a number of young people over issues of food sustainability, climate change and food poverty over the last year and am always stirred by their passion and commitment to build a better world.
Perhaps spurred on by people such as Greta Thunberg, many young people are standing up to significant world issues and calling for major transformations to protect the planet that they will grow up in and reduce inequalities. While I am inspired by their dedication and activism, I am often left wondering “whose responsibility is this?” and “should we be advocating that its ‘up to young people to make
a change’ or ‘fix our mess’?”.
Food sustainability is an area that is capturing the attention of young activists. It encompasses both issues of climate impact and food poverty. It is also accessible, given that many of the solutions relate to areas that feel ‘changeable’ even on an individual basis. We can stop using plastic and move towards a more plant-based diet. These are also subjects that can be lobbied and the voice of young people is often persuasive for politicians. And, these are important key issues that urgently need addressing. While our current global food supply is more than enough to feed the worlds population, a tenth of people go hungry every day. 30% of climate change relates to the food system, 10% of the global population live with food insecurity and this is worse in families with children.
In the UK, we have recently seen the launch of a new National Food Strategy, which proposes 14 recommendations needed to make a radicalchange to the food system. It is a compelling read and advocates for change spanning from reductions to intensive farming to extension of the school holiday food provision. In the time between its launch and government White paper setting out its response to support spending review decisions, there is a growing sense of the need to continue to build momentum via strengthening the evidence and through advocacy. Our own research has had to gather pace to support this work. We no longer have the time it has traditionally taken to provide evidence if we want our findings to inform decision making. We are frantically collecting implementation and impact data from school holiday activities and school programmes and analysing existing data to be ready for the White paper. But, is it this that will have the biggest chance of influence, or our work with young people to empower them to stand up for change? Activism in this area in particular was a key part of the initial pledge for additional government funding, through campaigns led by young people such as Christina Adane (the young person pioneering the petition to support families in receipt of free school meals when schools are closed) and others from the Food Foundation Young Ambassadors and the Bite Back team; built upon by celebrities including Marcus Rashford.
The Food Foundation has been instrumental in delivery of the new Food Strategy. They have gathered evidence for the paper and pioneered the work involving young people. Their young ambassadors all have experience of food insecurity and have engaged with national policymakers (including the Children’s Minister, Keir Starmer, and officials from the Department for Education); sharing their experiences of food hardship during lockdown. They have worked endlessly to deliver campaigns advocating the alleviation of hunger in families, speaking to media, creating podcasts and contributing their lived experience to Rashford’s social media campaign. I have recently had the pleasure of attending a Food Foundation event aimed at empowering young people to get involved in activism and encouraging them to support priority setting for both the Food Strategy recommendations and wider global food systems. It was inspiration (and often emotional) to hear, first hand, the experiences of young people, including those with a lived experience of food insecurity and those who have been successful in their advocacy work. There was a sense of urgency and energy in the room and I have little doubt that many of these young people are going to go on to do great things, from local change to world leadership!
Learning about their lived experiences and food poverty and witnessing their positive energy has inspired me to reconsider my own research strategy and I am excited by what prospects our partnership with young people in research will bring. There is no doubt in my mind that, in addition to encouraging advocacy, it is essential that we work alongside young people and other stakeholders to support decision making in research; without which much of what we do would likely by meaningless or wasteful. Children and young people are at the heart of everything we do with our work on food within our early years and school-based settings through the CONNECTS-Food study, and the Fix Our Food project. This moves beyond a simple level of involvement or engagement to a model which fosters innovation and systems transformations; from priority setting to development of new curriculum. And, throughout this process, they will be key players on our pathway to impact, including having a seat around the table with our discussion decision makers. Without them, our powers of persuasion are likely to be weaker.
I would urge everyone working in food systems or policy research to engage with young people; paving out clear objectives to support advocacy, research and/or policy development. Given the heightened engagement and passion in this area, it feels like there has never been a better time to move this agenda forward. There were increased opportunities for involving young people in improving our food systems at the UN Food systems submit in September 2021, with more leading towards COP26. However, I am left wondering if we overly place the responsibility on the heads of young people and am mindful that if we truly want to transform our food systems, we need the decision makers to step up and make a change. This is where the true responsibility lies. Empowerment of young people may play a vital role to support decisions, but lets not put the burden of responsibility on individuals who are ultimately the victims of the crisis. We need strong leaders to deliver policies that have the potential to out-live their terms in Office and revolutionise food production, trading decisions, marketing and planning policies and the welfare systems to deliver a food system in which healthy, affordable, tasty food is the default for all children and young people. Without this, the chances of us meeting our UN Global Food Sustainability goals for end malnutrition, address nutritional needs throughout the life course, and provide access to safe, healthy and sustainable food are unlikely.
FAO, I., UNICEF, WFP and WHO. 2020. In Brief to The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2021. Transforming food systems for food security, improved nutrition and affordable healthy diets for all. Rome, FAO. 2021. Available from: https://doi.org/10.4060/cb5409en[.
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Mapping the extent of adult food insecurity in the UK
By Dr Megan Blake and Dr Adam Whitworth, University of Sheffield and Dr Angelo Moretti, Manchester Metropolitan University
Food security is the ability to consistently afford, access and utilise the food needed to maintain good health and wellbeing. When we think of food insecurity, we tend to think of it in relation to low-income countries. More recently, however, as a nation, we are beginning to recognise that a significant proportion of the UK population is not food secure. Much of this awareness-raising has been as a result of efforts by food charities and campaigns such as that spearheaded by Marcus Rashford.
While this awareness-raising has been welcome, the focus has been on those who are at the sharpest end of food insecurity; those who are skipping meals for a whole day not out of choice. Food banks have been set up in communities where people have recognised this problem of hunger with the intention of meeting immediate food needs. Hunger is understood as having been hungry at least once in the previous month but were unable to get food. This is our first measure.
We identify two further measures:
Those who struggle include people who have cut back on food or skipped meals. In addition, they have received support from their community with food essentials, or they indicated they could not get to the shops, could not get a delivery, or were too ill to get food. Those who experience these additional indicators of food insecurity are not typically included in the statistics, which tend to focus on financial reasons for food insecurity.
The last measure are those who worry about being able to adequately supply the food they need for themselves and their families. This latter group are typically considered marginally food secure because they have enough food. However, they may have traded down on the nutritional quality of the food they purchase. We have included this category because there is firstly mental stress associated with food worry. Secondly, these are people who are at risk of having low or very low food security, for example, through an unexpected expense, illness or relationship breakdown. We have seen many people over the period of the pandemic who have fallen from this group into the other types of food insecurity.
The burden of these forms of food insecurity includes immediate threats to health and wellbeing. This burden includes the stress of trying to manage a budget that may not extend sufficiently, the worry about providing adequate nutrition, and the mental load associated with trying to navigate limitations imposed by transportation, inadequate equipment, cost, physical ability and household food preferences.
Trading down on food quality and nutrition extracts a price to physical health in terms of diet-related illness, but it also results in narrower diets and the loss of understanding about what certain foods are and how to cook them. Finally, research demonstrates that those who struggle to access food are also isolated, which has an impact on quality of life and wellbeing.
Food insecurity is concentrated into places. What this means is that cumulatively the effects of food insecurity include reductions in the ability of a community to be resilient in the face of crisis because community-based social networks have been lost. Local foodscapes have become food deserts because the demand for and the supply of healthy food is not present in the place where people live at a price they can afford. The burden of food insecurity also means that people in these communities struggle to see how they can contribute to achieving wider social and environmental goals that shape life in the UK today and help define us as a society.
Many local governments have spent considerable time and resources enabling access to food by supporting food banks whilst also moving those using food banks onward. Many are also looking at ways to support those who are moderately food insecure and those who are worried about being able to purchase food that contributes to their health, social and local economic wellbeing.
Until now, however, there has not been an estimate of these three levels of food insecurity at the local authority scale across the whole of the UK. The UK Local Government food security estimates were developed to help provide local level benchmarking. The purpose is to inform the types of services and support that are needed to achieve food security for everyone and to move beyond a focus on food banks.
For those interested in seeing the overall patterns of food insecurity across the UK an interactive map is available. Users are able to turn on and off the individual layers to investigate patterns of food insecurity across the three measures or leave all the levels visible to get an overall visual impression. We highlight that there is evidence of food insecurity in every locality across the UK, however, there are some areas that are more food secure compared to others. Across the whole of the UK, approximately one-third of local authorities fall into the two quintiles with the least food insecurity in all three measures. These are largely concentrated in the east of England. Conversely, more than half of the localities have at least one measure of food insecurity that ranks among the highest two quintiles, with high concentrations of these being in Wales, Northern Ireland, the North of England and the Southwest of England.
Although we plan to apply the estimations to ongoing work, we recognise that it could be of considerable benefit to other researchers, policymakers, and analysts and have thus made the estimations freely available via the Food Foundation. We encourage researchers and policymakers to:
– Consider ways to provide support that extends beyond addressing the immediate food needs of the severely food insecure and use these data as a benchmark to demonstrate improvement over time.
– Use the data to inform local and national policy debates that have implications for either exacerbating food insecurity or increasing food security across the UK.
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Uniting UK and South African research to support food systems policy
A new collaboration has been forged between the Food Systems Policy Hub, the British High Commission in Pretoria and the Department of Science and Innovation (DSI) in South Africa that aims to aid innovation and food security through supporting coherent food systems policy making.
The N8 AgriFood Food Systems Policy Hub hosted a roundtable in collaboration with the British High Commission, to discuss shared challenges in the agritech sector, and opportunities to work together to collectively solve them.
Participants at the meeting included experts from both the UK and South Africa. From the UK, the group heard from Professors Katherine Denby, University of York, and Tim Benton and Caroline Orfila, both University of Leeds, who shared their research spanning crop selection, nutrition sensitivity and policy support.
South African speakers included Dr Maneshree Jugmohan-Naidu, from the Republic of South Africa’s DSI; Professor Lisa Korsten, University of Pretoria, DSI/ NRF Centre of Excellence Food Security, and Professor Albert Modi, College of Agriculture Engineering & Science, University of KwaZulu Natal. They stressed the importance of utilising technology to improve nutrition, addressing both consumer and environmental health, and retaining local knowledge in relation to both farming, trade and linking production directly with markets.
Professor Bob Doherty, director of the N8 AgriFood Food Systems Policy Hub, said: “We discussed interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research involving communities and the private sector, and the connections throughout the food system, as well as trade, the diversity of farmers, and formal and informal markets, which is a really important distinction to make.
“As a result, we’ve identified three key areas for future collaboration, and I’m sure there will be more to come post this exemplary round table. It is really exciting and there is real opportunity here for this to be the start of something special.”
The three areas being taken forward for future collaboration are knowledge platforms to support further deliberation on the following:
– Technologies for niche, indigenous crops and underutilised crops to support smallholder farmers with food and nutrition security
– Agritech supporting expansion UK/South Africa agrifood trade
– Coherent policy making through a food systems approach with an emphasis on innovation and practical solutions.
Aidan Darker, from the British High Commission in Pretoria, said: “The agri-tech sector is a high priority not just for South Africa but for the UK. We wanted to hear about the challenges and the issues that we face in this sector and how we can address them and work together to collaborate even further.
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