By Christopher Yap, Centre for Food Policy, City University London

Issues of food and land are inseparable. And yet the relationships between land, space, planning, and food systems are too-often marginal within food systems debates. In this piece we consider the role of land in leveraging change towards fairer and more sustainable food systems and reflect on the role of land in the forthcoming National Food Strategy.

Over the past decade, food systems approaches – which emphasise the interconnected nature of food system actors, processes, resources, and outcomes – have gradually been adopted by mainstream institutions, exemplified by the UK government’s commitment to produce a National Food Strategy White Paper that addresses the social and environmental dimensions of food systems. Recognising that food systems are complex and multi-scalar, and that interventions made in one part of the food system impact across the whole system, it is curious that important issues such as land remain at the margins of the conversation.

Food and land are inextricably linked, not least because food is produced on land. Around 70 percent of the UK is used to produce food. But the connections between land and food systems are multi-layered; unpacking this relationship can point towards under-addressed opportunities to transform food systems.

First, it is important to recognise that the land that feeds the UK’s population is distributed around the world; around 45 percent of food is imported, with many products passing through multiple countries before they arrive. In this sense, the UK’s food footprint is embedded within and across multiple jurisdictions and territories. The food system, then, is intricately connected to a diversity of food production practices, policy frameworks, and land management strategies, beyond the territory of the UK government. This represents a challenge of governance; recognising that national policy can only go so far to influence the relationship between land and food systems. But it also draws attention to the potentials of a normative approach to food purchasing in the UK; the idea that principles of equity and sustainability in food procurement, for example, can be invaluable for influencing land management strategies both in the UK and globally.

Second, Henry Dimbleby’s Independent Review for the National Food strategy (2021) indicates that 85 percent of the land that is used to produce the UK’s food – both in the UK and around the world – is used for animal rearing, including for pasture and growing animal feed. Meat production contributes directly to agricultural carbon emissions, but also indirectly through the opportunity cost of using land for grazing rather than woodlands or other forms of rewilding. As Dimbleby (2021, p.92). argues, “the biggest potential carbon benefit of eating less meat is the opportunity to repurpose land to sequester carbon.” This suggests that dietary choices have a pivotal role to play in determining the contribution of land towards mitigating climate change.

Third, the relationship between land and food systems extends far beyond agriculture and land management. Food production, processing, and distribution require labour and infrastructure. For this reason, the UK’s food system is intricately connected to every aspect of planning, infrastructure, and housing policy. However, decisions regarding housing and infrastructure development are made frequently without consideration of their impacts on wider food systems beyond environmental impact. This suggests that planning and infrastructure development can be key mechanisms for reshaping the UK food system, and also that food systems can be a productive organising principle for planning decisions. How, for example, might building a new supermarket in a small town influence the local and regional food system?

Food systems transformation demands an integrated land use strategy that engages with urban and rural contexts, and the connections between them. In the UK, this engagement with the urban is especially important (Dimbleby’s 290-page report includes the word ‘urban’ just seven times). 83 percent of the UK population lives in urban areas; decisions made by and for urban populations disproportionately affect food systems. Moreover, specifically urban policy frameworks regarding green and blue infrastructures, urban agriculture, and ecosystem services, for example, could all contribute to the aims of the National Food Strategy in ways that are not sufficiently recognised. It is often said that urban contexts represent spatial concentrations of the most intractable challenges, but also the political and financial capital necessary to address them.

Fourth, household food insecurity, the prevalence of food banks, and unhealthy eating practices all reflect socio-economic inequalities in the UK, which have been “brutally exposed and exacerbated” (Amnesty International, 2021) by the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2020, 18 percent of the UK population lived in relative poverty (meaning on less than 60 percent of the median national income). At the same time, land is the most valuable asset in the UK, accounting for more than half of the UK’s total net worth, approximately £5 trillion in 2016; between 1995 and 2017, the value of land in the UK increased by 412 percent. And yet, half of England is owned by less than 1 percent of the population.

The French economist, Thomas Piketty (2014), evidenced how, in the absence of policies that explicitly advantage labour, rates of return on capital wealth, such as land and property, always exceed rates of income growth, leading to “an endless inegalitarian spiral” whereby wealth is concentrated in the hands of those who already have it. This trend has been exacerbated by the increased financialisation of land and the rise of what has been termed “land banking”, contributing not only to a national housing crisis, but also preventing many small scale agroecological food producers from accessing land. This suggests a close relationship between the political economy of land in the UK, economic inequality, and food poverty, as well as the potentials of inheritance and capital gains tax reform to redress this relationship.

Finally, political ecologists have urged us to recognise the material “flows” of water, carbon, nitrogen, and pathogens, amongst many others, that are shaped and mobilised by social and market forces. Food systems play a key role in these circulations, whereby materials and nutrients physically move through space across rural and urban areas, within and between nested territorial levels. This suggests that food economies are directly related both to the material production of land, most obviously productive soils, and the social production of space, whereby “the countryside”, “cities” and everything in-between are continuously reshaped and remade by socio-ecological circulations. In a very literal sense, food systems are constitutive of land.

Building on Henry Dimbleby’s Independent Review, the UK’s forthcoming White Paper setting out the National Food Strategy is likely to adopt a far more limited approach to the issue of land that aims to balance and maximise the contribution of agricultural land to food production, biodiversity, and carbon sequestration; mobilising what has been termed, “the three-compartment model”, whereby a combination of sustainable intensification, agroecological production, and rewilding has been modelled to lead to the greatest net benefit. Such an approach represents an important step forward in UK land and food policy. But it overlooks the more complex relationships between the political economy of land in the UK and food systems, as well as the potentials of planning, amongst other mechanisms, to actively redress socio-economic inequalities in the UK.

There can be little doubt that food system transformation is necessary to achieve improved health outcomes, environmental sustainability, and a fairer and more inclusive economy. The UK’s National Food Strategy represents a once in a generation opportunity to institutionalise a food systems approach at the national and local levels that brings together these too-often disparate policy mandates. Land has a key role to play in this transformation as a vital resource, a point of leverage, a site of impact, and a site of struggle. For these reasons, land, space, and planning must be central to the National Food Strategy and wider food systems transformation.


Amnesty International. (2021). Amnesty International Report 2020/21: the state of the world’s human rights. London: Amnesty International Ltd. Retrieved from

Dimbleby, H. (2021). National Food Strategy. The Plan. National Food Strategy. Retrieved from

Piketty, T. (2014). Capital in the Twenty-First Century. Harvard University Press.



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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Accelerated automation and digital advances in the world of food retail

By Abbie Winton, Alliance Manchester Business School, Faculty of Humanities, The University of Manchester.

The COVID-19 pandemic prompted consumers to buy food online, which meant that food retailers had to adapt quickly, making changes that may have long lasting consequences for the sector.

Supermarket shopping of old has, perhaps, changed forever. For most food retailers, trading online has long lacked appeal due to the low margins which it offers, making it less profitable than operating from brick-and-mortar stores.  However, the coronavirus pandemic triggered an unforeseen shift as many consumers moved to buying food online (growing 25.5% in 2020 compared to the 8.5% previously anticipated). This prompted retailers to expand their dotcom offering almost overnight to both meet demand and stay competitive during a time when customers were restricted in their ability to do their shopping in-store. Alongside expanding their in-house logistics services, five of the big-name supermarkets started to use external delivery services provided by Amazon, Deliveroo and Uber Eats.

A surge in supermarket employment

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.

Research has shown that women are more likely to rely on public transport to get to work and thus tend to take jobs which are closer to home/schools. However, the location of distribution centres tends to be in harder-to-reach areas, making these jobs less accessible to women. Therefore, provisions would have to be made to improve transportation routes to these areas (both in terms of accessibility and safety). Secondly, the ‘pick rates’ which dictate dotcom work can often be challenging for disabled and older workers to sustain. Reasonable adjustments will be required where necessary to accommodate for these groups. Finally, moving from a customer service to a logistics-oriented role might not be preferable for all workers. Accounting for this, further measures may have to be put in place for workers choosing to leave the sector, such as extending the reskilling bootcamps already provided.

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.

Characteristics of new retail work

Attempts to outsource labour are becoming more common throughout the sector. In a recent case, it was brought to light that outsourced drivers at Sainsbury’s were being paid up to £12,000 less than direct hires. However, prompted by the demands of the crisis, many more have opted to outsource delivery to third-party platforms to avoid the costs associated with developing their in-house infrastructures. Partnership agreements with platforms such as Deliveroo, Uber Eats and Amazon have allowed food retailers to make use of the low-cost delivery services offered by these providers, which rely on a network of bogus self-employed couriers to fulfil deliveries the same-day.

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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Using intermediaries to bridge the gap between government and farmers

By Dr Ruth Little, Lecturer in Human Geography at the University of Sheffield

There is a crucial role for skilled intermediaries to play in supporting farmers throughout the post-Brexit agricultural transition, as well as the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on farmer engagement.

This is a period of significant uncertainty for farmers. Even before the pandemic, the period between 2021 and 2028 represented significant uncertainty and change for farmers within England, due to policy changes and post-Brexit trade deals. The Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) is currently moving towards piloting and rolling out environmental land management schemes (ELM), starting with the Sustainable Farming Incentive and followed by Local Nature Recovery and Landscape Recovery. Recognising the importance of utilising farmers’ experiential knowledge in policy development, Defra has committed to engaging farmers and other land managers in the ‘co-design’ of the new schemes.

For the successful delivery of ELM, it is vital that farmers who have traditionally been Harder To Reach (HTR), or ‘easy to omit’, for Defra and the wider Defra group are included in the co-design and piloting of the new schemes. This will ensure that the policy fits with farmers’ needs.

When we spoke to individuals and organisations working with farmers we found that the pandemic had increased social isolation due to the closure of places where farmers normally socialise, and created uncertainty in planning ahead, exacerbating farmers’ mental health and wellbeing problems.

Our research findings have highlighted the diversity of business factors and emotional states that make some farmers HTR for Defra, as well as the challenging policy context within which engagement with HTR farmers takes place. The findings also emphasise the important role of locally- embedded skilled intermediaries in helping Defra engage HTR farmers throughout the co-design and delivery of ELM.

Locally-embedded skilled intermediaries offer an incredible resource that can be utilised by Defra to engage HTR farmers. These actors are able to use their pre-existing relationships with farmers to provide a range of support to assist farmers through this agricultural transition. By utilising their experience and knowledge of the farming sector, they can facilitate knowledge exchange in multiple directions, supporting HTR farmers while also feeding back into Defra on specific challenges facing farmers on the ground.

If Defra is able to utilise this locally-embedded resource effectively, it will be possible to overcome some of the barriers associated with distrust, thereby helping HTR farmers become ‘easier to reach’.

Successful implementation will require effective communication and engagement strategies – for Defra to engage with both skilled intermediaries and HTR farmers. However it is also important to recognise not all farmers will be able to adapt, prepare and plan for future changes at the same rate as others. HTR farmers in particular may be more vulnerable to changes, while also having less capacity to prepare and adapt. One of the biggest concerns raised during our research by interview respondents was the lack of clarity and detail about the ELM schemes, which they said is preventing farmers from being able to plan and adapt for the future.

Unless Defra itself becomes easier to reach, any progress made may not be sustainable over the long term. Defra should, therefore, work to overcome the widespread distrust and suspicion of government bodies within farming communities.

Our research has clear policy implications, providing a framework with which Defra policy teams can think through engagement with HTR stakeholders. Whilst previous research, as well as Defra itself, has recognised the importance of using trusted individuals when engaging with farmers, this research has gone further, by bringing practical and implementable findings on skilled intermediaries to the forefront. Our work has identified who these trusted individuals are, as well as the benefits they can bring to engagement with HTR farmers. It has also put Defra’s engagement with HTR farmers in the context of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, a challenging but important lens through which Defra should plan future co-design activities

Defra needs to take all this into account when designing the implementation of the ELM scheme. They need to mobilise a network of intermediaries that understand the individual needs and circumstances of farmers and land managers at this challenging time, and can facilitate the involvement of these groups in the co-design of pilot implementation schemes. Without this, we believe Defra will see a low uptake of the ELM scheme resulting in a reduction in the delivery of environmental goods and climate change targets not being met.

This blog post has been produced from extracts taken from a White Paper (Engaging ‘harder to reach’ farmers: the roles and needs of skilled intermediaries), produced by Dr Ruth Little in collaboration with colleagues from the University of Sheffield and the University of Reading.

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Policy making in food systems

By Food Systems Policy Hub Director Professor Bob Doherty, University of York; N8 AgriFood Academic Lead Professor Katherine Denby, University of York; Professor Lisa Collins, University of Leeds

In January 2021 the Office for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) published its report ‘Making better policies for food systems’. Here three N8 AgriFood academics jointly review its findings and respond on behalf of the N8 AgriFood Food Systems Policy Hub.

It has become something of a truism in food policy to describe food as constituting a ‘system’ (Doherty et al, 2019; Ericksen, 2008; Kneen, 1993 ; Sobal et al., 1998 ; Tendall et al., 2015 ). Yet this concept is invoked far more often than actually applied satisfactorily. A notable exception is the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) new report on Making Better Policies for Food Systems which was presented by the OECD at our recent N8 Policy AgriFood Policy Hub webinar. Highlighting the “triple challenge” of food security/nutrition, livelihoods, and environmental ] sustainability, it raises a fundamental question for food policy in the 21st century: How to “simultaneously make progress on these three dimensions?” It’s not an easy question to answer.

Taking a genuinely food systems approach (see Figure 1) is the first step incorporating all elements and activities that relate to the production, processing, distribution, preparation, consumption, and disposal of food. This includes key system outcomes, such as food security, availability, utilization, safety, access, environmental outcomes, livelihoods and of course food waste. In addition, the system also includes the socioeconomic and environmental drivers – the role of the environment, people, processes, infrastructure, institutions, governance and the effects of their activities on our society, economy, landscape and climate. Finally, it recognises the forward and backward feedback loops, trade-offs, synergies and unintended consequences among system activities.

Setting policy in the food system is complex as we source food on different geographical and temporal scales, and from thousands of producers (570 million farmers globally). 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 just to name a few. So what can policy makers learn from the OECD report?

First, the Making Better Policies for Food Systems report outlines the shortcomings and associated negative costs of our current food system including dietary ill health which is responsible for one in five deaths globally, 73% of all global deforestation, 80% of biodiversity loss and 21-37% of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. At the same time, 570 million farmers are reliant on the food system and in many countries is a key economic sector, for example in the UK food and drink manufacture is the largest manufacturing sector at £120 billion employing 4.3 million people.

Second, the report shows that good policymaking needs to be coherent and should consider the interlinkages between food security/nutrition, environment and livelihoods and potential spill over impacts of an individual policy into other parts of the system. For example, incentivising the
production of more fruit and vegetables in the UK to facilitate improvements in dietary health requires a multi-policy framework and should consider:

  • Demand side interventions, public information, digital interventions to encourage fruit and
    vegetable consumption which is affordable
  • Firmer regulations e.g. on promotion of unhealthy foods
  • Fiscal measures such as taxes on unhealthy foods or incentives for fruit and vegetable promotion
  • Preferential Business loans for new innovative companies focused on interventions to transform to a healthy food system for people and planet

The N8 Food Systems Policy Hub recommends we should also consider any implications for resource use in production, e.g. increased demand for water and chemical inputs, the need for skills and training in horticulture coupled with stimulating via favourable business loans new food business models aiming to supply more healthy produce into current food desert locations. The pandemic has provided a window of opportunity to initiate change as the importance of dietary health has been amplified. This coherent policy making requires increased collaboration across government between Defra, BEIS, the Department of Health and Social Care, Ministry of Housing Communities and Local Government amongst others.

Third, creating policy coherence is not easy and in some areas there is friction on debates regarding trade-offs e.g. between reduction in greenhouse gas emissions and productivity/livelihoods, and in the use of genome editing and ensuring the technology is used for public good. To manage this
friction it is important to prioritise balancing the different interests and engaging all stakeholders. Policy makers in these circumstances need to gather independent robust evidence, identify diverging interests which need reconciliation, identify differences in values which need creative solutions and also identify a range of policy options as ‘silver bullets’ are rarely available. Debates between conventional and alternative are not always helpful and more integrated approaches are required. Useful approaches in these contested policy areas include independent accountability mechanisms e.g. carbon budgets from the IPCC, guidelines, building new coalitions from stakeholders with differing values coupled with the role of innovation. There is also a growing need for deliberative approaches such as public dialogues and citizen assemblies to develop societal consensus when tackling complex policy decisions.

It is clear that the food system needs to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions and requires a range of policies which reduce synthetic nitrogen fertilizer use and promote green fertiliser use e.g. cover crops and leys, carbon profiling of farms to promote carbon sequestration, low emissions slurry technology, and new regulations on manure management. Animal products provide an important source of protein to consumers globally, with low intakes associated with malnutrition and health consequences (FAO 2018). They also represent a significant source of income on a global scale, representing 40% of the global value of agricultural output worldwide. However, there is a recognised need to address the key issue of greenhouse gas emissions in these production systems, particularly for ruminants (cattle, sheep, goats and buffalo) but also, albeit to a lesser extent, for monogastric species (pigs, poultry). The global scale of the issue is significant: approximately one third of the earth’s surface is used either for grazing, or for feed-crop production for livestock (Herrero et al 2013). There is no single identified ‘silver bullet’ to fix these issues. Instead, the multifaceted perspectives on, priorities for, and values surrounding the livestock sector mean there are multiple alternate versions of solutions for healthy, sustainable future livestock production systems. Examples include farming approaches that move towards greater circularity in production economies and integration of crop-livestock systems offer one avenue to driving down emissions as
well as improving soil health, and water and air quality. Other key solutions could lie in genetic selection and breeding for methane reduction, finding alternative, efficient sources of protein for animal diets, and reducing losses through endemic disease. Reflecting the multitude of approaches to reducing greenhouse gas emissions and more broadly, improving the environmental footprint of the livestock sector will require the support of a network of interlinking and complementary policies; there are numerous examples of such a multi-levered policy innovations being adopted in a range of different countries.

A thriving and innovative plant breeding sector is critical for maintaining crop yield gains made over the last 50 years in the face of climate change and the dynamic nature of pests and diseases (enhanced by changing climate and international trade). New traits are also needed, for example, for new farming systems, to help reduce GHG emissions from livestock or to extend growing seasons. Genome editing offers the potential to develop traits more quickly than conventional plant breeding and help address a number of challenges in the UK food system including environment, nutrition and
livelihood goals but policy changes are required to drive use of the technology for public good. The costs associated with current regulatory processes for genome-edited crops mean only “blockbuster” economic traits in major arable crops are likely to progress, despite the importance of fruit and vegetables in healthy diets and a realisation of the need to increase UK consumption of fruit and veg, and benefits of growing more fruit and vegetables within the UK. Different genome editing approaches carry different environmental and food safety risks. Many traits can be tackled with genome editing without incorporation of foreign DNA (resulting in an outcome that could be achieved with conventional breeding, albeit more slowly) and specific approaches need to be
distinguished both in policy-making, risk assessment and public information.

The OECD report provides some excellent international and UK examples of how we can expand the range of different tools for more coherent policy making in food systems. From the comprehensive citizens involvement in the development of the Canadian Food policy and its food systems council, the Future generations act in Wales where policy making decisions take into account the wellbeing of future generations, the Nutrient Score labelling system in France and Spain, farmer incentives for carbon sequestration in New Zealand and food in all policies by the London Food Board just to name a few. It’s clear our collaborative interdisciplinary food systems work across N8 AgriFood provides an important foundation for supporting policy makers in developing food system policy interventions. To this end, we launched the N8 AgriFood Food Systems Policy hub in November 2020 to tackle these crucial food system policy challenges.

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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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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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Producing a POSTnote: exploring food system resilience during COVID-19

By Joe Llanos, N8 AgriFood Policy Fellow, Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, and fourth year PhD student at the University of Sheffield

N8 AgriFood teamed up with the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST), which runs a Policy Fellowship process, offering a three-month placement to doctoral students with the chance to gain valuable policy experience. The placement was awarded to Joe Llanos, a fourth year PhD student at the University of Sheffield. Here, Joe looks back on his time working in Westminster.

In January, I began a three-month placement with POST, funded and supported by N8 AgriFood. The objective of the placement is for PhD researchers like myself to gain first-hand experience of working with policymakers, including producing a briefing note for MPs and Peers on a current topical issue.

These briefings, called POSTnotes, are concise, independent and balanced reports that enable policymakers to take evidence-based decisions on current topical issues. The POSTnote I have been working on looks at the issue of resilience in the food system. I aim to outline how resilience is defined, why it is needed and what a more resilient UK food system could look like, as well as possible ways to achieve it.

I have been asked to reflect on my time working with the excellent team at POST. When I first applied for N8 AgriFood’s POST fellowship scheme, I was excited by the chance to learn new things, meet new people and get a taste of life in Parliament and the policy arena. However, I can safely say I had no idea how valuable the experience would prove to be.

As well as having the opportunity to work inside Parliament and witness first-hand the response to the unprecedented crisis of COVID-19, I’ve also been able to work with some amazing people, improve my skill-sets and gain valuable experiences for my career going forwards.

How it all began

After moving to London, the first few weeks of my placement were all about getting to grips with working in Westminster, learning the ins and outs of Parliament and delving into my topic of food system resilience. As a final year PhD student at the University of Sheffield, my research looks at soil biodiversity and agriculture, so I had some experience of working on a small subsection of the wider food system.

Having the opportunity to look at the broader context of my research was fascinating, and I suddenly found myself grappling with unfamiliar papers and new terms covering all the different aspects of food from across the environmental, socioeconomic, health and political spheres. This early deep dive into the topic was essential for me to get to grips with the complexities involved in the food system, and I was supported by my advisor from POST along the way. There were a number of other POST Fellows working on different topics who started at the same time, and we benefited from collective training on how to effectively conduct literature reviews, find good sources of information and shape our writing for policymakers.

Getting lost in Westminster

Alongside getting to grips with our topic, we were encouraged to get out into the Parliamentary estate and immerse ourselves in the goings on of Parliament. We were given a tour of the two Houses, where we learnt all about the incredible history of democracy in the UK. For example, did you know that the Government and opposition benches in the House of Commons are two sword lengths apart? I didn’t either.

Attending meetings and events with MPs and Peers, watching Prime Minister’s Questions from the balcony and getting lost in the maze of corridors and staircases between the House of Commons and House of Lords became regular activities. POST also arranged training and meetings with staff from Select Committees and other Parliamentary departments, so we could learn about the structures of Parliament and how scientific evidence is used when building policy.

Meeting the experts

In February, I began the next phase of my placement. This involved interviewing experts from academia, industry, NGOs and the Government to shape the content of the briefing and delve into the resilience of the food system further. I spoke with more than 20 experts and our conversations covered all different aspects of food.

They ranged from discussing specific technologies used in the food system, to broader questions about its moral responsibilities – and everything in between. I feel very lucky to have had so many insightful conversations on such an important and timely topic. Having seen some of the amazing research taking place outside of London, I was keen to get contributions from across the country, and I’m very grateful for all the experts who gave up their time to talk to me, including those involved in the N8 AgriFood programme.

The arrival of COVID-19

Towards the end of February, cases of COVID-19 began to rise here in the UK. Parliament began to offer new guidelines on working and talk of a ‘virtual Parliament’ began, something unprecedented in its 700-year history. It was around this time, when I developed mild symptoms of COVID-19 and followed the instructions to self isolate.

During my self isolation, the decision was taken for POST staff to move to remote working and all the necessary arrangements were quickly put into place. After completing my self isolation and with only a few weeks left on my accommodation contract, I boarded an almost empty coach back to Sheffield just before the lockdown to continue the rest of my placement from home.

Despite the unexpected conclusion of my placement, the experience has really highlighted the important behind-the-scenes work that goes into making sure Parliament runs smoothly and can perform its duties. Under normal circumstances there are thousands of staff working hard to achieve this, and this was even more evident with the rapid switch to remote working and establishment of a virtual Parliament.

The POST team have also responded quickly to the COVID-19 crisis, putting together a database of relevant experts and producing a number of quick response briefings that summarise the current evidence available. Getting reliable, accurate and timely information to policymakers is crucial, and so POST’s work is needed now more than ever.

What’s next?

I have now finished writing my POSTnote on resilience in the food system, which is going through an extensive process of review before publication. The outbreaks of panic buying in supermarkets and the difficulties of securing workers to harvest domestic produce have shown that COVID-19 is posing significant challenges to our food system. The issue of food system resilience and therefore the POSTnote have never been more relevant. I hope that when it is published it will be a helpful review, which enables policymakers to make important decisions that promote a more resilient and sustainable food system.

For me, it will be back to finishing my PhD and writing up my thesis. Although my time working in Parliament has come to an end, the things I have learnt, experiences I have had and the brilliant people I have met along the way will stay with me for a long time.

You can read Joe’s POSTnote entitled ‘A resilient UK food system’ here. For more information about POST and to view their current work, please visit the POST website.

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The current situation: COVID-19, urban agriculture and the need to change the food system

By Jacob Nickles, N8 AgriFood Knowledge Exchange Fellow, Department of Animal and Plant Sciences, University of Sheffield

We are living in one of the most challenging times many of us will have had in our lives. While COVID-19 is wreaking havoc on our day-to-day lives, it has highlighted just how delicate our food system is.

In my role as not only a researcher, but a small food business operator, I have seen multiple indicators of just how sensitive the system is, with fluctuations in price and stocking uncertainty. COVID-19 has really emphasised the need to not only change the food system, but also how quickly changes in behaviour can immediately affect the environment.

This situation has provided us with the evidence to reinforce the message that we need to focus on looking at how we can produce more of our own food, to do it sustainably and to do it securely. We have the capacity to produce much more of our own food within cities, bringing food security home to local areas by harnessing the idea of urban agriculture.

Over the coming months, as the UK comes to terms with the new distanced way of life, I expect we’ll come to understand some of the broader implications to our current food system, especially when we look at farm labour and its availability or lack thereof. Now is the time to embrace urban agriculture through optimising labour, resources and space, to bring experts together to discuss their challenges, as well as work out constructive solutions and implement substantive change. We need to be able to build resilience into the system, so that in times of crisis we can all afford to eat without facing price fluctuations or reduced product availability.

One way we can help with this, is by providing the public with the tools and knowledge to grow their own food, by simplifying non-traditional growing systems and encouraging the boosted community spirit. Two current projects with these aims in mind run by the University of Sheffield’s newly-launched Institute for Sustainable Food are the Tinsley Urban Farm Knowledge Market and the Resilience Food Project.

The Tinsley Urban Farm Knowledge Market will continue to build on the success of the urban farm within the old junior school in Tinsley. Some questions have been raised about the future of the site given recent problems, particularly around the availability of government and local funding. However, the University of Sheffield has agreed to support the future direction of the Urban Farm, shifting forward towards an educational facility for local school children, undergraduates and apprentices.

In the coming months (COVID-19 safety dependent), the team will be working on the launch of a local market onsite, where local artisans, craftspeople and experts will be invited to sell goods and deliver training. During the course of this launch event, the site will play host to a number of workshops, intended to cover many areas from entry level gardening, to cooking with home grown produce and everything in between.

The event will also focus on building partnerships, with the University of Sheffield facilitating links between community and commercial organisations and local government. The aim of the event will be to bring life back into the former Victorian school and increase access to food for local residents, whilst developing future urban agriculture plans to meet commercial demand.

The Resilience Food Project will see the creation of financially self-supporting aquaponic micro-farms in unused or under-used urban spaces of Sheffield that offer a localised high tech intensive food production method. The micro-farms, designed and manufactured in Sheffield (including the electronics!), draw on the very latest research from the University’s departments of Computer Science (Internet of Things, control systems and data analytics), Animal & Plant Science (microbiome control) and Chemistry (novel substrates for soil-free farming), as well as a number of local commercial, council and community partners.

Furthermore, the Department of Geography and The Urban Institute are working on widening our connection into stakeholders, community groups and city initiatives including responses to the recently declared Climate Emergency and the Sheffield City Region Energy Strategy.

The project aims to address some of the big questions around aquaponics and urban agriculture such as financial viability and cost, resource-efficiency, and environmental impact relative to conventional agriculture and supermarkets. The intention of the project is to gather evidence that could be used to stimulate investor confidence in the new technology. It also aims to evaluate ‘rainbow revenue streams’ to ensure financial sustainability, for example supplementing income from food production with other sources of income, as well as explore ways to involve communities in the co-production of farms and food particularly in more disadvantaged areas. In addition to this, it aims to understand the benefits to communities and individuals of involvement in urban agriculture in terms of health, wellbeing, community cohesion, prosperity and employment.

When considering the role urban agriculture can play in the food system, there are so many questions to be answered. How much food could feasibly be produced in the UK’s cities? What are the most efficient methods to use? How much would it cost? What resources would be needed? What are the regulatory and policy implications? There are barriers to the uptake of urban agriculture and its potential for food production on a significant scale. High among them is a lack of research in this field.

At the University of Sheffield, we are looking at food security through multidisciplinary lenses. We are also seeking to work alongside city councils, entrepreneurs, social enterprises, farmers, big business, other institutions and the general public, in order to significantly change the food system. To create the changes needed, the whole system must be considered, and this means moving well outside our siloed comfort zones and building relationships within the wider community to co-design solutions in order to achieve successful outcomes.

You can find out more on the Institute for Sustainable Food website. Updates will be added as the projects progress.

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