Improved agricultural innovation with farmer co-development

By Dr Thomas McNamara, Postdoctoral Research Engineer, Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering, University of Manchester

By recognising farmers’ knowledge and including them in the innovation process, rather than simply treating them as end testers, a more effective and efficient innovation route can be created.

The IKnowFood project

Funded by the Global Food Security Programme, the IKnowFood project aims to develop an improved and unified understanding of food system resilience through four research themes. Within this, theme one aims to identify new methods that could build the innovation knowledge and skills of farmers, in addition to creating technologies that are more fit for purpose within a farm context.

On-farm innovation is broadly seen as a one-sided process. Individuals and organisations separate to the farm create new and more effective technologies or procedures. These innovations are then checked and validated before being passed onto the farmers, who then use or action them in their day-to-day operations. What the innovation should do, what its success criteria are, and the majority of its features, are determined out of the context of the farm. This is beneficial from an innovation standpoint, as new innovations are not constrained by current practices or set-ups. Additionally, experts can deploy specialist knowledge to the farm through the innovation itself.

The problem with this model, however, is that the domain knowledge of farmers, both in terms of their agricultural and day-to-day operations, is not recognised or used. There is little opportunity for the farmers’ knowledge to contribute towards the innovation. This reduces both the likelihood of innovation adoption, due to the innovation not fitting into the farming context and results in innovations being identified as flawed at a later stage, which in turn is an inefficient use of resources. No two innovations are the same, but to not incorporate farmers into the innovation process until the point at which the innovation is largely complete, misses out on a potentially more direct and effective path.

The co-creation method

In order to involve farmers from the inception of an idea through to the testing of an on-farm innovation, we met with two groups of farmers over three years. These groups were based in North Yorkshire and the Scottish Borders. Each group had meetings with us independent of the other until the final year when they came together for a joint meeting to share and demonstrate what they had developed.

The meetings were conducted in three phases:

1. Mutual understanding and trust-building
2. Ideation
3. Testing and validation

All meetings had a facilitator and a research engineer present to represent the research team, with external specialists occasionally being invited to answer specific points previously raised by the farmers.

The first phase of mutual understanding saw us meet three times with each group of farmers to better understand them, their farms and how they operated. The farmers equally developed their understanding of how research is conducted and how new technologies and procedures are created. In addition to the cohesive benefits this stage brought, it was necessary to create a different, more balanced power dynamic, compared to what the farmers were used to. Later on in the process, one of the farmers reflected and said “I think it’s really nice and sort of strange that somebody’s made something for us as opposed to accepting whatever we usually have to purchase or get. It’s a totally different way around of thinking”.

With a shared understanding and recognition of domain knowledge, the ideation stage saw both groups create, list and prioritise issues that were pain points during farming. Some of these issues couldn’t be addressed, but after iterating over four meetings, we had a shortlist of innovations that could be created within the time available, would work from a technical perspective and would operate within the context of the farm. Rather than reaching from academia to the farm, we had met in the middle, identifying innovations that had been sense checked from both sides.

The innovations

In total six innovations were identified and progressed, with two independent issues, (one from each group of farmers) having the same root cause and so being addressed by the same innovation. The overlapping issues related to recording large amounts of livestock data, but being unable to surface the basic, useful information outdoors, such as recurring lameness, animal weights and treatments. This resulted in farmers collecting detailed livestock information, recording it in software, before re-recording ‘in-field’ livestock data on paper notes. These paper notes then became their main reference when outdoors. Apart from double data entry, these paper notes were also prone to being damaged, lost or out of date, leading to a significant amount of time being lost.

To address the problem, we created a simple application that ran on the farmer’s phones. This application records written notes and associates them with a keyword, such as an animal’s ear tag number. Simply typing in the animal’s tag number then recalls all the notes made by anyone on the farm about that animal. This provides a way to create backed-up, synchronised and easily accessible ad-hoc notes across the farm. These notes can also be easily copied from the application to the desired database, saving time transcribing paper notes.

The second application based innovation was centred around lone worker safety. During discussions, it became evident that lone working was a known and significant risk, and that it remained largely unmitigated in some scenarios. Solutions had been trialled, but none were found to be appropriate for their needs. They either didn’t work effectively due to human error or had been designed for other sectors.

One of these scenarios was lone working with livestock, late at night, in the sheds and outbuildings. The farmers had trialled solutions designed for the energy sector, but these typically required a GPS signal that could not be acquired inside a building. Others required the user to manually check-in and out, but due to the hours and workload, users often forgot and either worked unprotected or triggered false alarms.

The innovation developed to address this was the Lone Worker Safety (LWS) application. This application detects when a farmer is in an area of potential harm and automatically monitors them to make sure they are okay. Should they become stationary for too long and not respond to the audible alarms and notifications, the application sends out emergency messages to predetermined contacts that are in a position to assist.

The alarm can be manually triggered and there are numerous settings to accommodate many on-farm activities allowing farmers to customise it for their situation. It has been designed to be simple to use and only requires an Android phone and a Wi-Fi hub, with the Wi-Fi hub not needing an internet connection of its own. The Wi-Fi hub is first set-up in the lone working area, when the user’s phone then connects to the hub, the phone determines it is in the lone working area triggering it to automatically start monitoring the user. When the user then leaves the area, the opposite occurs, triggering the phone to stop its safety monitoring. We are in the final stages of making the LWS application available on the Google Play Store so that farmers far beyond the groups involved with the IKnowFood project can benefit.

Our aim is to demonstrate that when farmers are involved in on-farm innovations, as co-developers rather than end testers, very real issues can be overcome with components as available as phones and old Wi-Fi hubs. If farmers were involved in co-development much more widely, we believe that they could make a significant contribution to agricultural innovation.

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What to expect from UK agrifood trade policy after the Brexit transition

By Professor Fiona Smith, Professor of International Economic Law, University of Leeds, and N8 AgriFood Chair in Agrifood Regulation

With the UK’s imminent departure from the EU, there are four emerging trends in UK trade policy that have implications for agrifood.

On 29th October, the Secretary of State for International Trade, Liz Truss, delivered a speech at Chatham House in which she set out the UK Government’s vision for new independent trade. The UK Government intends to determine a path independent from the EU which will focus on “neither sacrificing core values of freedom, democracy, human rights and the environment, nor economic opportunities”. The speech was short on specifics and a full trade strategy document is expected. For now, it is possible to identify four emerging trends in UK trade policy that are relevant for the agrifood sector.

1. “Free and fair trade” will be at the core of UK trade policy going forward

The UK’s agrifood tariffs (import taxes), as set out in the UK’s Global Tariff (UKGT), will take effect on 1st January 2021. These tariffs will apply to imports from countries with which the UK does not have a trade deal. The UKGT largely replicates the EU’s agrifood tariffs at present, with some simplification on 10% of all agrifood tariffs.

This emphasis on free trade might signal an ambition (at least in the Department of International Trade) to gradually reduce those tariffs over time to coincide with UK farmers adjusting to the new market conditions in terms of the UK’s new trade relationship with the EU, as well as the changes to farm support set out in the Agriculture Act 2020, which came into force on 11th November. There is no indication of such a move yet, and certainly any changes in that direction should take into account what impact further agrifood tariff liberalisation might have on the UK’s farmers’ competitiveness.

2. Trade policy will be values driven

The UK Government has made it clear on several occasions that it intends to retain existing high food quality, food safety and environmental standards for domestically produced and imported agrifood products. In November, Liz Truss strengthened this commitment by placing the Trade and Agriculture Commission (TAC) on a statutory footing.

The TAC will now produce an annual report evaluating the impact on animal welfare and agriculture of each trade deal signed by the UK after the end of the transition period on 31st December, though its current remit over environmental provisions will be removed.

Whilst the TAC’s new statutory powers will head off concerns that the dreaded chorine washed chicken is headed for UK plates, it is less certain that the same kind of scrutiny will exist for concerns about pesticide residues. It should be noted though that the House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (EFRA) Committee has already indicated it intends to carry out detailed scrutiny of the impact of the UK’s new trade agreements on food quality, food safety and environmental standards. As a consequence, concerns about environmental protection can be raised before the EFRA Committee in oral or written evidence instead.

3. The UK will champion a return to a rules-based trading system under the World Trade Organization (WTO)

The WTO has experienced headwinds of its own in recent times, so the UK’s leadership on WTO reform will be welcomed by many WTO members. WTO rules did not prevent the UK-China trade war and the consequential effects for US-China agrifood trade. In July 2018, the Chinese imposed a 25% retaliatory tariff on imports of US soy, resulting in a 75% drop in US soy exports to China between 2017 and 2018. US exports of wheat to China also declined by 90% and dairy exports were reduced by 30% during the same period. There was some trade diversion as US farmers sought new markets, but trade patterns remain difficult to predict. The dispute is ongoing. These market distortions make it difficult for companies operating within global value chains on a ‘just in time’, rather than ‘just in case’ supply model, to accurately predict agrifood trade flows.

The UK’s leadership in the WTO on these and other issues might help unlock some of the WTO’s current institutional challenges. Negotiations to change the WTO’s rules to accommodate trade policies designed to combat the effects of climate change on agrifood production are stymied. President Trump blocked the appointment of the front runner candidate, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, to be the new WTO Director General in October. She was to be the first woman, and the first African to take on the role. She is a strong advocate for WTO regulatory reform that recognises the link between trade and environment, as well as the need to reform the rules on agricultural subsidies and export restrictions. President-elect Biden’s new trade policy focus is yet to be announced, but it is hoped he will withdraw the US objection to the new WTO Director General appointment, and he will also enable some movement on changes to the multilateral trade rules.

4. “Friends and family first”

The UK intends to channel 80% of all its trade through bespoke trade agreements by 2022. This is an ambitious target. As of mid-December, the UK has concluded 27 trade agreements with 55 countries. The number of agreements signed so far is impressive. These are slightly amended versions of existing agreements entered into by the EU that the UK benefited from during its EU membership, so there is no substantial change to the UK trading position with these countries.

Liz Truss made it clear in her Chatham House speech that as far as wholly new trade agreements are concerned, the UK Government intends to prioritise negotiations with “longstanding allies and nations who share [the UK’s] values”. Consequently, negotiations with the US, Australia and New Zealand, as well as a UK-EU deal will be prioritised. While the UK-EU trade deal lurches ever closer to the 31st December cliff edge without signs of a conclusion (at the time of writing), there is more hope for the US, Australia and New Zealand negotiations.

Indeed, there is a draft text “at an advance stage of preparation” for the UK-US deal, which includes an ambition to increase market access for Scottish salmon and whisky exports to the US market. The US election has slowed progress. President-elect Biden has made it clear that the US will not enter into a trade deal with the UK unless the UK resolves how it will achieve frictionless trade across the Northern Irish border. Whether the UK-EU agreement concluded on the 9th December that exempts tariffs on 98% of goods travelling across the Northern Irish border and reduces some border checks will allay President-elect Biden’s fears, remains to be seen. The UK-Australia and UK-New Zealand trade negotiations are less advanced. The second round of trade negotiations with Australia occurred in October this year and the UK only issued a formal invitation to New Zealand to enter into negotiations in July.

Where does this leave the UK trade policy after the Brexit transition?

The UK is the first major country to leave a large trade agreement with its close geographic neighbours, as well as the first to reintroduce trade restrictions. As such, the UK is writing the rulebook. There is no precedent for how the UK should craft its trade policy, particularly in relation to agrifood. Despite the political rhetoric, the initial phases of UK trade policy have focused on renegotiating many trade agreements the UK already benefitted from while an EU Member State. Rollover of these existing benefits after the end of the transition period on 31st December 2020 is not automatic, as every trade agreement is the product of a negotiation between two (or more) states.

Many of these countries – like Japan, with whom the UK struck a deal in October – are keen to renegotiate market access commitments with the UK that they had to concede to the EU. The UK seems to be pivoting away from Europe and towards Asia too. Liz Truss has already signalled the UK’s intention to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) in September this year. Whether membership of the CPTPP delivers new markets particularly for meat cuts not eaten by UK consumers, is currently unknown. The significant distances over which goods must be transported and the costs of doing so may deter some UK exporters despite the existence of a trade agreement. And, it should be mentioned that the UK will be negotiating these trade agreements with significant headwinds, including the impact of COVID-19; the call for reshoring of agrifood production; and a shift from ‘just in time’ to ‘just in case’ supply chain models.

Whether the UK can become “a major voice in global trade” once again remains to be seen. What is clear, is that the ambition to pivot the UK to being a hub for trade to create more export opportunities, provides new possibilities for UK agrifood business in the medium-to-long term.

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The economic crisis and food insecurity

By James Coe, Senior Policy Advisor, University of Liverpool

The COVID-19 crisis has made clear that the government has more latitude for fiscal intervention than had previously been assumed.

Support through furlough, business loans, schemes for the self-employed and targeted sector schemes has opened up a new sense that the government has significant capacity to maintain more income, jobs and livelihoods than the market would otherwise. Therefore, in the current economic circumstances we collectively face, there is an understanding that preserving the social safety net requires greater intervention and flexibility than was possible through previous benefit transfer schemes, particularly as rates of unemployment and business failure continue to grow.

In combination, this sets an expectation that the government will not only do the right thing for the economy in the abstract, but will make concrete social interventions to maintain a minimum standard of life. As job losses pile up, the economy stutters, and more people access government schemes and services, there is very little political clamour for a smaller government. Indeed, there is a near yearning for a compassionate form of governance. The capacity to intervene in the economy at large also means there is an expectation the government will act on a more targeted basis in the case of free school meals.

All the while, as the debate over how to provide food in the face of this unfurling emergency continues, the question of why it is necessary receives less attention. The structural causes of food insecurity can be longstanding through low income, inability to access sufficient state financial support or chronic ill health. Equally, there can be sudden changes in circumstance such as loss of income, accidents or unexpected costs. There is therefore a dual imperative. A need to tackle the structural causes of food poverty and an urgent need to provide food for those who cannot access it.

As the Food Aid Network write: “So, while we press on to fill an ever-widening gap with food parcels we must keep reminding our government that, of course, sticking plasters are no solution to poverty.

“The COVID-19 crisis shines a spotlight on the immense inequalities in our society, but funding the distribution of more emergency food parcels will never prove a real solution for those people deserving the dignity to be able to afford to buy food for themselves. And worse, this default reaction could very well embed food banking into our society for good.”


The government does not currently measure food insecurity, but a question has been added to the Family Resource Survey, which will report this data in 2021. Until then, we have unofficial counts with food banks assessing changing demand for food parcels. The Social Metrics Commission (SMC), who are compiling such data note, “SMC’s analysis of official data finds those in hardship are more likely to have poor health and lack qualifications than those above the poverty line.” In a separate report, they further note “those employed prior to the [COVID-19] crisis and already in the deepest forms of poverty have been most heavily impacted by the economic fallout.”

Therefore, within the higher education sector part of the work of alleviating food poverty is enhancing and growing the work to tackle the root causes of economic disparities. As the national financial picture worsens, the work of outreach and widening participation becomes more central. Firstly, this is because attending higher education is an effective route to increase income, but secondly, it is also a temporary way out of worklessness at a time when the economy is depressed. If this is to be most successful, this individual benefit should not come at the cost of an economy which builds in wider economic disparities for those who do not obtain a degree.

Local economies

Secondly, as we’ve all seen on Twitter there is now daily reporting of which companies have done well by their staff, customers and communities. As with after the last financial crash, we may well see a focus on local suppliers and supply chains, both as symbolic gestures of solidarity but also, as a tangible measure to support recovery. Only recently, Homebaked, a local bakery based in Anfield, talked about how this may force a revaluation of community endeavour. Universities, as huge purchasers, may take time to reflect where we buy and our criteria for doing so, as a means of bolstering local economies, and in turn alleviating poverty on our doorstep.

Ongoing crisis

Of course, while these are important interventions, we have a role in thinking about the unfurling crisis. Universities provide ongoing financial support to their students in terms of bursaries. These are likely to come under more strain, and given they rely on annualised student finance data, are less nimble in responding to the emergent crisis than government support. Therefore, a clear measure we can consider is delving into our data on bursary access, correlating that with public data to see the size of the possible gap, and planning for an increase in need for greater hardship funding. This is particular crucial at a time when university finances are under pressure.

Secondly, it’s likely students through students’ unions are already volunteering in food banks and other community outreach projects. Liverpool Guild of Students, both supports food banks through donating non-perishable food from students as part of their Leave Liverpool Tidy project, and has coordinated information on where students can provide support. Signposting and promoting these initiatives could be impactful in growing the support they can provide.

The long-term role for universities

The university sector is clearly going through significant challenge and change. In the long-term, the factors which cause food poverty are multi-variated, difficult and beyond the reach of higher education to solve alone. Practically, the work of the likes of University College London and the Child Poverty Action Group demonstrates how we can analyse the causes and impact the debate on food poverty. Civically, working with local leaders and policymakers to share data, expertise and evidence, can only support effective intervention. Locally, understanding the manifestation of the COVID-19 economic crisis on our door steps is a key to supporting our own students during this difficult time.

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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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School food has a proven track record in reducing child food poverty

By Dr Charlotte Evans, School of Food Science and Nutrition, Faculty of Environment, University of Leeds

Recently Marcus Rashford, the Manchester United footballer, took on the government again, with a petition to provide school meal vouchers in school holidays, which has now been signed by more than a million people.

The vote was defeated by 322 to 261. This was a disappointing result given the long successful history of school food policies in this country, particularly for those on lower incomes. Affordable, high quality school food is important for all children, as well as offering a way to tackle the childhood obesity epidemic, improve educational attainment and reduce inequalities. It is cheap at the price.

School food in the UK has a long history

School food programmes have been an important aspect of government policy since education was made mandatory. In Victorian times charities provided food to children in poverty and then later free and nutritious school food was provided nationally to ensure pupils were fit for war or employment[1]. Children grew taller and were better nourished and standards for school meals were introduced. After many decades of subsidy and standards, support for school food (together with other services) all but disappeared with the new Thatcher government in 1979. Standards were dropped and school meals became much more dependent on market forces. Young children were customers and were regularly served pizza, turkey twizzlers and chips at school. In 2006 after years of discussion, and as a result of the rise in childhood obesity since the 1980s, new mandatory standards were introduced. This was strongly supported by the TV chef Jamie Oliver whose campaign for better quality school meals included creating memorable scenes of carnage as he put all the unsavoury ingredients of a turkey twizzler into a blender in front of shocked 14 year olds.

The nutritional quality of school food has undoubtedly improved in the last 15 years and the food based standards are overseen by the School Food Plan[2]. Additionally, the universal infant free school meals have been introduced for 4-6 year olds in England. However, the number of older children having a school meal remains low, partly due to the cost, and is less than 50% in many schools with the majority of children having a packed lunch which is typically poor quality[3].

Free school meals don’t reach everyone they could help

The number of children in food poverty remains high in this country and not all of those children in low income households are eligible for free school meals. Whilst the proportion of children in poverty is estimated at between 30 and 40%, the proportion of children eligible for free school meals is much lower at 18%.[4]. Furthermore, the ongoing pandemic has exacerbated what was an already desperate situation in terms of the extent of children in poverty in the UK. This was summed up in the scathing report by the United Nations Rapporteur on extreme poverty [5]. Professor Philip Alston reported in his statement that “For almost one in every two children to be poor in twenty-first century Britain is not just a disgrace, but a social calamity and an economic disaster.” There are currently alarming increases in the number of households claiming Universal Credit and the number of families using food banks. Poverty negatively affects children’s health with higher levels of obesity seen in children living in more deprived households. Tragically, these differences in obesity prevalence between children in households with lowest and highest income have grown from 9% to 15% over 10 years[6]. Good quality school food can help tackle these high obesity rates.

Investments in school food improves health, equity and community

There are signs that the government may consider taking further action and extending the reach of school food in deprived communities to reduce food poverty. The recommendations recently put forward in the National Food Strategy, commissioned by the current government and led by Henry Dimbleby, state that free school meals should be extended to all those families claiming Universal Credit which would cover 30% of school children. The cost of this would be approximately £670million, a small fraction of the amount currently spent on obesity related healthcare. There is ample evidence from many countries across the globe that school food programmes are beneficial in improving education and health, and are highly cost effective. High and middle income countries where school food is free for all or heavily subsidised such as Sweden, Japan and Nigeria have shown that investment in school food leads to improvements in children’s health and equity, as well as benefitting the wider community (World Bank).

High quality and affordable school food successfully improves children’s diets and reduces inequalities. Feeding more children at school and tackling holiday hunger is therefore a priority to reduce food poverty.

The failure to secure holiday time support for those eligible for free school meals was disheartening and severely misjudged the mood in this country. Many united behind Marcus Rashford’s campaign; including hard hit councils, restaurants and cafes who offered free food for families during the October half term holiday.


1. Evans, C. and C. Harper, A history and review of school meal standards in the UK. Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics, 2009. 22(2): p. 89-99.
2. Department of Education. The School Food Plan. 2014; Available from:
3. Evans, C.E.L., et al., A repeated cross-sectional survey assessing changes in diet and nutrient quality of English primary school children’s packed lunches between 2006 and 2016. BMJ Open, 2020. 10(1): p. e029688.
4. Taylor, C., The Reliability of Free School Meal Eligibility as a Measure of Socio-Economic Disadvantage: Evidence from the Millennium Cohort Study in Wales. British Journal of Educational Studies, 2018. 66(1): p. 29-51.
5. United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Statement on Visit to the United Kingdom. 2018.
6. Public Health England (PHE), Statistics on Obesity, Physical Activity and Diet, England – 2020 [NS]. 2020.

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Working together to create a better food and farming system in the North

By Dr Rachel Marshall, N8 AgriFood Knowledge Exchange Fellow, Lancaster University, with insights shared by the Northern Real Farming Conference team

The inaugural Northern Real Farming Conference (NRFC) saw farmers, food producers and others with a stake, or interest in, regenerative food systems in the North of England and Scotland gather online for two weeks of inspiring discussions, talks and virtual tours in October 2020.

With over 65 sessions to choose from, the themes explored were diverse and covered the breadth of the food production systems in our region, from upland landscapes to our urban areas.

There were contributions from right across our food systems from farmers, vets, conservation groups, ecologists, food activists, nutritionists, food hubs and more. Across this wide range of subjects and perspectives, some clear themes emerged from the conference.

Firstly, there was a strong emphasis on the importance of creating and being part of farming and food systems that work better – for us as farmers, conservationists, activists, communities, citizens. We heard from farmers who had set up new online shops during COVID-19, about urban opportunities and land ownership options, and gained an insight into the benefits of community supported agriculture models.

We explored seed saving and also looked at the urgency, and difficulties, of producing for local needs rather than commodity markets, and how questions of land ownership in particular are entangled with the viability of creating ‘small farm futures’.
Understanding strength in diversity also emerged as a key theme – from diversity in crops, business models and supply chains, to the people working on the land.

Right from the opening session, we were reflecting on the question of which voices were not included in the event, and how could we bring them in. A socially just farming and food system requires us to ensure that all voices are heard and we all, collectively, need to do more to ensure that this happens throughout our processes and systems, as well as to enable new entrant farmers from a range of backgrounds.

There is a need for collaboration and dialogue as we work to create a better food and farming system in the North. The importance of sharing perspectives and knowledge, both within the farming community and beyond, came through strongly in the sessions that focussed on upland farming and landscapes. The need to create space for conversation and dialogue arose in many other themes; from discussions around land access and ownership to the value of connecting urban communities more closely with the people producing their food.

After two weeks immersed in this community of 500+ conference participants, I feel inspired by this growing movement calling for people, rather than corporations, to shape and change our food system for the better. Given my involvement with the N8 AgriFood Food Systems Policy Hub, I started to question what policies are needed to create an enabling environment for the ideas and innovations shared at NRFC to flourish.

Defra’s Environment Land Management scheme (ELMs) and the potential for farmers to be paid to manage their land for public goods (for instance, clean air, clean water and biodiversity) was a subject of a number of sessions. This included a session looking at what this approach meant in practical and economic terms for farmers around Pendle Hill, a well-known feature in the Lancashire uplands. Another session explored an innovative approach to ELMs, which showed how permaculture design provides a pathway to farmers looking to diversify their land, improve soil and biodiversity, and generate income.

However, there were also concerns that ELMs might not offer much to support smaller scale farmers and growers in their key role in producing nutritious food. There is also the ongoing wider debate around UK agriculture and trade policies, in particular the risk that new trade deals might result in markets being dominated by cheap food, produced to lower standards undermining UK producers.

We should instead be taking this opportunity to rewrite our relationships with trading partners to put nutritious, healthy food, produced using regenerative methods, at the heart of our policies.

The word innovation is often used across the policy and research sectors and there was much to be learnt from innovators within this real farming community. There were sessions that looked at innovative business models, land ownership and routes to market, as well as a fascinating session sharing approaches taken by Japanese farmers to address the decline of their marginal hill farming businesses and communities.

Innovation can be about learning and adapting existing approaches; we have much to learn from other farming and cultural practices around the world, as well as the potential to uncover lost wisdom. We need to design policy and research that supports not just technical innovation, but socio-economic innovation, whilst enabling the sharing of knowledge between different communities of practice.

Despite the inaugural NRFC being an online event, with limited opportunities for those free flowing, often late night conversations that put the world to rights, the importance of the growing movement in the North is key. Building on these past two weeks, the NRFC team have secured funding for regional networking events over the coming year in addition to a second NRFC.

For those of you who missed out and are looking for some inspiration for your next research project, policy discussion or even your own farming journey, all the conference sessions are being made available on the NRFC website.

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Procuring food for the future

By Dr Neil Boyle, Research Fellow, School of Psychology, Faculty of Medicine and Health, University of Leeds

Public food procurement is increasingly promoted at a national and local level as an instrument through which a better UK food system can be advanced.

Due to their size and purchasing power, large public sector bodies or so called ‘anchor institutions’ – such as hospitals, schools and prisons – have the potential to wield significant influence on the local food systems in which they are embedded.

Public procurement practice that incorporates sustainability principles can make a strategic contribution to local food systems by prioritising food that is produced, processed, distributed and disposed of in ways that contribute to local economies and livelihoods, provide social benefits, are protective of flora and fauna, and maximise usage and minimises waste.

N8 AgriFood researchers at the University of Leeds (Diane Ryland and Sonja Woodcock) and Lancaster University (Dr Rachel Marshall and Dr Rebecca Whittle) have collaborated with practitioners from their local sustainable food partnerships (Lucy Antal from FeedBack and Anna Clayton from FoodFutures: North Lancashire’s Sustainable Food Partnership) to examine the procurement practices of anchor institutions in Leeds and Lancaster from a sustainability perspective.

We conducted interviews with food procurement managers for schools, hospitals and university catering to gain insight into how sustainability is being incorporated into practice. Alongside this, researchers from the School of Law at the University of Leeds conducted an analysis of current UK and EU food procurement law to map out the existing legislative landscape, and glimpse over the parapet at the post EU exit terrain.

We found examples of positive steps towards the use of public procurement to promote sustainable local food systems in both cities. The concept of social value – the additional value to the wider community created by procurement activity – is being incorporated into practice.

For example, working proactively with local suppliers to meet procurement contracts directly benefits the local economy in terms of investment and employment. Procuring local, seasonal food reduces environmental impact by cutting ‘food miles’. Food is distributed locally, to feed school children for example, ensuring the availability of food of high nutritional quality for the local population.

However, whilst there is a convergence of interest in using procurement as a force to drive positive change, significant barriers restrict the abilities of institutions to procure food with sustainability in mind. Firstly, there is very little regulatory steer on sustainability in procurement practice. Neither UK nor EU procurement law actively mandates sustainability.

In the absence of clear regulatory directives on sustainability, small-scale sustainable food suppliers find it difficult to engage with and compete for tenders. Cost and capacity remains a major issue for small-scale producers who struggle to compete with economies of scale. Dynamic procurement systems as being piloted by Crown Commercial Services show promise of an innovative route by which small suppliers can access procurement contracts.

Another challenge is matching the values and ambition of a sustainable procurement strategy to the values of the businesses procured from. For instance, greater transparency is needed around the sustainability criteria and food miles associated with large scale distributors.

It is clear that more action is needed if the sustainability promoting potential of anchor institutions is to be fully realised. Procurement has an important role to play in supporting a more local, sustainable and resilient UK food system. As the UK leaves the EU, there is an opportunity to better enshrine principles of sustainability into public procurement law to promote social and economic value, as well as prioritise the sustainability of agricultural systems and landscapes on which we depend.

A full list of actions we consider necessary to promote sustainable procurement practice in anchor institutions can be found in our full report, which will be published in October 2020. Find out more about the review of procurement regulation at both EU and national level.

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‘Bouncing back better’ from COVID-19 requires overcoming systemic lock-ins

By Professor Tom Oliver, Professor of Applied Ecology, University of Reading and Senior Fellow, Defra Systems Research Programme

What will the impacts of COVID-19 be on the environment?

As I write this blog, analyses of UK datasets since lockdown from March 2020 to the current day have shown major reductions in greenhouses gases and significant improvements in air quality in terms of nitrous oxides. (However, levels of fine particulate matter showed less change.)

There have also been many reports in popular media of wildlife benefitting from the lower human activity levels. These benefits were always going to be short-lived during the lockdown. They demonstrate what is possible, but unfortunately they are not worth celebrating as a sustainable achievement for environmental protection.

To do so, would be a bit like holding your breath and suggesting it proves you don’t need oxygen. As governments struggle to get national economic sustainability back on track, these environmental sustainability gains are quickly lost. We have seen this with the gradual creeping up of air pollution levels since lockdown has lifted.

What about in the longer term? What might happen to environmental quality as we recover from the pandemic? There is lots of talk about transformative responses to the coronavirus crisis, as this European Joint Research Centre report discusses.

Beyond optimistic rhetoric though, it is quite possible that our socioeconomic system could return to a broadly similar configuration. The graph below shows what happened with global greenhouse gas emissions after the 2008 financial crash.

Even though the system was perturbed and CO2 emissions temporarily reduced, certain factors ensured the return of the globalised socioeconomic system to its previous structural configuration.

Of course, let’s not be all doom and gloom; some aspects of our socioeconomic systems may well get better after COVID-19. The lockdown seems to have seen increased public engagement with nature.

Analysis shows strong links between access to greenspace and both physical and mental health during lockdown, further reinforcing our previous understanding of the important relationship between greenspace and well-being. And, if these higher levels of nature engagement stick that will be a great thing.

Graph showing what happened with global greenhouse gas emissions after the 2008 financial crash

Equally, however, some things could get worse than before the COVID-19 pandemic. One worrying issue for the environment sector is the economy. The environment can end up near the bottom of the priority list during economic recession when it gets seen as a ‘luxury’.

That seems to be happening again, at least in some countries where economic stimulus packages have not been very ‘green’ and have instead propped up environmentally harmful industries. For example, China has relaxed environmental rules and the USA has allowed companies to break pollution laws.

Therefore, it’s crucial to articulate the importance of a healthy environment. This is especially pertinent in the UK because the compounding urgency to strike trade deals after Brexit could mean food sustainability standards are lowered. Hence, the UK environmental footprint risks getting even bigger.

How can this be tackled? One important aspect is to better understand the factors that keep socioeconomic systems locked into unsustainable trajectories. A first step is developing common language to allow the essential crosstalk between different academic disciplines around system transformations.

A recent study from an international workshop I was involved in found that many different terms are used to describe when a system is stuck in a ‘bad’ trajectory with these including ‘inertia’, ‘socioecological trap’ and ‘perverse resilience’. The term ‘lock-in’ was most broadly understood across disciplines.

‘Lock in’ mechanisms, often comprising negative feedback loops, ensure the return of the socioeconomic system to its previous configuration even in the face of perturbations. They can be structural, regulatory or legislative factors, knowledge constraints, vested interests influencing power dynamics, sociocultural factors, or all the above and more. Understanding these diverse lock-in mechanisms is key to being able to transform systems, as we have found for overcoming undesirable resilience in the global food system.

To enable a genuine green recovery from COVID-19, lock-ins that need to be overcome include structural factors, such as the perverse subsidies we pay for farming. In addition to this, significant lock-ins also occur at the level of individual mindsets and attitudes. These are fundamentally important, as ultimately it is people’s mindsets that support or disrupt the prevailing socioeconomic structure and set the ‘rules of the game’, as systems thinker Donella Meadows puts it.

In a global recession, the dominant policy and media discourse is often about economic growth, yet we need to convey how environmental sustainability is essential to underpin economic stability, as well as human health.

Such arguments lend weight to the narrative of why we need transformation to a new post-COVID-19 food system that is both environmentally and economically sustainable whilst at the same time provides nutritious and affordable food. Focussing on mindsets and attitudes also allows us to understand and influence how dietary choice and consumption patterns are key factors that must change to enable positive system transformation.

There is no doubt that COVID-19 presents a window of opportunity for a more sustainable future. Reconfiguring our socioeconomic systems for lasting positive change, however, needs more than pretty words. It needs to be a substantial coordinated effort on lock-in mechanisms at both structural and deeper psychological levels.

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Herbicide resistance and tackling the challenge of sustainable food production

By Bárbara Pinho, MSc Science Communication Student, University of Sheffield

The sustainable production of food is a challenge yet to be accomplished. Agriculture uses 70% of all fresh water and produces a third of all greenhouse gas emissions, as well as leads to biodiversity loss and soil degradation.

Producing food sustainably is a challenge we must tackle in order to feed the generations to come. According to the United Nations, the world population is expected to reach an astonishing 9.7 billion by 2050. Putting it simply, more people means more mouths to feed in the future.

However, with no new land to explore, increased urbanisation and a rising sea level (which reduces land availability), growing food to feed almost 10 billion people is far from an easy task. This is where science may be of help.

For decades, scientific research has been developing tools and strategies to grow increasing amounts of food in shorter periods of time. One particular discovery revolutionised how farmers grow food worldwide: herbicides.

Research and herbicides

When herbicides were created amid the Second World War, they provided farmers with cost-effective and quick methods to kill invasive species, commonly known as weeds. However, as years went by, these chemicals stopped being as effective due to a process called herbicide resistance.

Weeds that are exposed to the same type of herbicides, sooner or later, resist said herbicides. They can resist due to genetic alterations (such as mutations) or multiple molecular strategies to counteract a herbicide mode of action. This ultimately leads to weeds surviving and damaging entire crops while jeopardising yield production.

This is a global issue. At the time of writing, there were 262 species resistant to herbicides worldwide. In the UK, 20,000 farms have resistant black-grass, the most common weed in the UK. This is estimated to cause the loss of 0.82 million tonnes of wheat which in turn costs £0.38 billion in lost income to farmers.

These costs are not limited to just farmers though. If we don’t find solutions to guarantee a stable wheat production, we may eventually experience price spikes in certain products. In addition to this, the consequences of herbicide resistance threaten achieving the objective of feeding almost 10 billion people by 2050. What was already difficult, just got considerably more complicated.

Solving herbicide resistance

To address this issue, current research is exploring multiple strategies. At the University of Sheffield, Professor Robert Freckleton, who teaches Population Biology, described herbicide resistance as a “very difficult” issue to solve:

“It may be that the evolution of resistance to herbicides – or any biocide including antibiotics, fungicides, insecticides or cancer drugs – is inevitable.”

Most research at the University of Sheffield has been focusing on gauging the impact of herbicide resistance on farmers.

The Black-Grass Resistance Initiative

Wheat in fieldBetween 2014 and 2017, researchers from Sheffield together with other academics from Rothamsted Research, the Zoological Society of London, Newcastle University and the University of York launched the Black-Grass Resistance Initiative.

Among other goals, this project aimed to “unravel herbicide resistance in black-grass from gene to field”.

Through this project, the researchers were aiming to understand how some resistance mechanisms develop in weeds.

They also monitored black-grass in fields and interviewed farmers to design new management strategies to tackle resistant weeds.

In addition, this research estimated how herbicide resistance impacts both the economy and the environment.

These impact assessments lead the multi-institutional team to develop new management strategies in conjunction with farmers. The suggestions were mainly designed to delay herbicide resistance, through non-chemical techniques, as Professor Freckleton later explained:

“The best tactic is to slow or delay [herbicide resistance] and that can be done by relying on a diversity of control tactics. ‘Cultural control’ includes using tillage, crop rotation and other forms of weed control. Vigilance with monitoring and testing is important though. In many cases, it is too late to do anything by the time the problem has emerged and got out of hand.”

Crop science and new herbicides

While the obvious solution to tackle herbicide resistance would be to use fewer herbicides, this may be an unrealistic scenario. Farmers have been using herbicides and pesticides for decades to grow more food, as fast as possible. While it would be ideal to stop using chemicals in farming practice, Professor Ari Sadanandom from Durham University doesn’t think it’s feasible to ask that of farmers:

“I don’t think [stopping the use of herbicides] is a good way of moving forward; otherwise, how could you control weeds? Unless you clear all the soil of all the weed seeds, it’s not plausible, I think.”

At Durham University, research to bring solutions that tackle herbicide resistance reaches many different areas.

“Some people are working on fundamental plant science involving crops and they could generate new solutions. Other researchers are working with barley whilst others are working on cold stress and heat stress. The knowledge they get from these tests could be used to control weeds. The Chemistry Department is also working with new herbicides and focusing on making new products,” described Professor Sadanandom.

His research is more focused on studying fungal diseases in crops via cell biology. Still, he believes this to be a transferable area into herbicide-resistant yields. “I may start working with black-grass in the future because we may be able to bring some techniques that we’ve learned in the fungicide resistance world.”

Whether it be through new management strategies or making new herbicides, research is playing a key role in tackling a major threat to food security.

If we’re to feed 9.7 billion people by 2050 and even more in the decades to come, new strategies and techniques to complement farming practice may soon become the norm for farmers worldwide.

This blog was written as part of ‘The Path of Leaf Resistance’ project, which aims to raise awareness of herbicide resistance. Both this blog and the website are part of an MSc in Science Communication project conducted by Bárbara Pinho and supervised by Professor Robert Freckleton at the University of Sheffield.

All data collected for the project will serve the purpose of research on public engagement with the topic of herbicide resistance. This YouTube video has been created as part of the project to raise awareness and develop understanding of the issue of herbicide resistance.

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