Sugar consumption and ways to reduce it are current hot topics in the policy arena. Professor Jason Halford (Chair of Biological Psychology and Health Behaviours at the University of Leeds), was pleased to co-host a summer school course “Sweeteners: health, obesity, safety and sustainability” in San Sebastián Spain in late June, alongside local hosts J. Alfredo Martínez, S Navas Carretero and fellow Prinicpal Project Investigarors J Harrold and A Raben.

The course focused on the SWEET project, a European Commission Horizon 2020 funded, 5 year multidisciplinary initiative with a consortium of 29 pan-European research, consumer and industry partners, focused on reviewing and developing evidence on long term benefits and potential risks involved in switching over to sweeteners and sweetness enhancers (S&SEs) in the context of public health and safety, obesity, and sustainability.  Stakeholders from across the food chain — consumers, patients, health professionals, scientists and industry partners — have been working together in the project to understand and assess  the roles of sweeteners in weight control, and potentially move viable products to market.

The hybrid course, which was offered face to face at the beautiful Palacio Mirimar and online to registered delegates within the University of the Basque Country higher education system, began with a look at evidence on the role of sweeteners in appetite and metabolism emerging from systematic reviews and a review of the current research around the role of alternate sweeteners in body weight regulation and glycemic control, and discussion of the inaccuracies that surround this issue. We then looked at sweet taste and its hedonic impact on food intake, on human microbiota and metabolic health.

The course also looked at synergies within high impact sweeteners using sweetness receptor analysis and the production, efficacy and safety of novel plant based sweeteners and sweetener blends. Participants heard about the challenges of substituting alternate sweetener products for sucrose in baking, and in food and beverage products.

After learning about the role of social media and masse media in shaping and sharing sweetener risks and benefits and looking at ways of communicating accurately about scientific work using digital media platforms, we heard about the fascinating — and complex area of sustainability in switching to alternate sweeteners.

Professor Halford said “The SWEET summer school course was well received, and of course it was wonderful to gather the consortium for a face to face General Assembly meeting for the first time since January 2020, when we met at the University of Surrey (UK) at Roehampton. We are rightfully proud of the progress made by the consortium in spite of the COVID19 pandemic. Thank you to our local hosts and to all of the course faculty and delegates for an excellent educational experience and project meeting.”

Professor Bob Doherty, School for Business and Society, University of York. Director of the FixOurFood Programme and the N8 AgriFood Policy Hub.

In July 2021, Henry Dimbleby was commissioned by the UK Government to publish an independent review of England’s food system to produce recommendations for a National Food Strategy. The UK Government, led by Defra, has just published its White Paper response.

Food and drink is the UK’s largest manufacturing sector worth £114b and employs nearly 4 million people with world-class farmers, food businesses and a world leading research base. However, our food system causes terrible damage to both human and planetary health. Our food system is the number one contributor to biodiversity loss, river pollution and deforestation. One in three people over 45 suffer from a dietary related disease and about 6 in 10 UK adults live with overweight or obesity. This costs the UK economy a staggering £74 billion in NHS costs, loss productivity and early retirement. Also, obesity quickly emerged as a leading risk factor for Covid-19 mortality. We have one of the worst diets in Europe dominated by High Fat Sugar Salt foods (HFSS) and do not eat enough fruit and vegetables.

Furthermore, due to the significant reduction in working age social security and the increase in precarious work (zero hour’s contracts etc.) we have a rapidly growing problem in the UK with food insecurity, compounded by the pandemic and the current geopolitical situation. In 2008, the UK only had 60 food banks and now we have over 2,400! In March 2022, 14% of UK families still reported being going hungry, skipping meals etc.

The plans outlined by the UK Government include incentives for industry and investment in research.  One example of how this will be used is to support farmers to harness innovation to boost home-grown fruit and vegetable production. We welcome the £270m investment in horticulture to drive sustainable farming techniques and increase the production of fruit and vegetables. However, there is no point increasing this production without being able to harvest this produce so we welcome an independent review to tackle labour shortages and review the seasonal worker scheme. We also support the plan to consult on an ambition for 50% of public sector expenditure on food procurement to be on food either produced locally or to higher standards. We also welcome the new partnership between the public and private sector to provide consumers with more information about the food they eat. However, this puts responsibility to consumer to make healthy choices, rather than tackling the issue of the huge array of high fat salt and sugar foods. We also fully support the continued funding of the Holiday Activity Food Programme for a further 2-years announced by the Chancellor in the Autumn statement.

However, the Governments White Paper lacks ambition on improving our diet and food security- failing to listen to Henry Dimbleby’s Independent National Food Strategy. First, on dietary health there is no mention on market interventions to tax those companies producing HFSS foods. This tax on companies was going to be used to fund fruit and vegetable subsidies for those experience food insecurity. . This is surprising bearing in mind the economic cost to the UK of dietary ill-health. The Government says it’s going to deal with this in the Health Disparities White Paper later in the year but we need urgent action now! Dimbleby’s review also called for action on Free School Meals and there is no action in the Governments White paper to extend the provision of Free School meals or to review the current combined income eligibility threshold for Free School meals which is a £7,400 per year. Furthermore, there appears to be no mention in the White Paper on protecting UK farmers in international trade agreements on imports from countries with lower food and animal welfare standards. In summary, the UK Government is failing to use the full range of policy tools to both improve the Nation’s Health and tackle household food insecurity in the UK. We call on the Government to implement the recommendations of the National Food Strategy in full!

Milking the environmental benefits of private investment

The Resilient Dairy Landscapes project was funded by the Global Food Security Programme and officially came to an end recently, with the exception of some activities being completing during this year due to covid delays. The project was a collaboration that came out of the original N8 AgriFood programme which explored the trade-offs between farmers’ livelihoods, the natural environment and a stable supply of reasonably priced dairy products.

You can read a recent press release here and their publications can be found on their website.

In addition their latest policy brief on hedgerow soil carbon can be read here.

Regenerative agriculture survey

As part of their research into regenerative agriculture for the FixOurFood programme, the University of Leeds is leading a project to understand the current opinions, activities and challenges associated with regenerative agriculture in the Yorkshire area.

The team is capturing data via a survey which can be found here: https://leeds.onlinesurveys.ac.uk/regenerative-agriculture-survey-leeds

The team is also launching a Yorkshire RegenAg farmer network to bring farmers together, guide research efforts and understand how the University of Leeds can support Yorkshire farmers in the area, through activities such as sharing information, building a network, testing ideas, designing experiments and taking measurements.

The results and information from the survey will be shared with the farmer network and fed into the wider FixOurFood programme to guide policy and practice using Yorkshire as an example system. If you want to find out more please contact Dr Ruth Wade r.wade@leeds.ac.uk or sign up to the FixOurFood mailing list https://fixourfood.org/

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Sustainable consumption in the global South – trends, practices and influences

The final report of a three year ESRC funded research programme into the current and potential roles of consumption in the global South has been published.

The study, led by Prof Alex Hughes at Newcastle University, places the spotlight on the growing middle classes in the global South – exploring issues of ethics and sustainability regarding food consumption, choices, values and practices.

The research examines these issues in Brazil, China, and South Africa, offering comparisons of the potential of different drivers of sustainability in particular political, commercial and cultural settings. The cities of Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, Guangzhou in China, and Johannesburg in South Africa are used as case studies.

Findings from the three cities show that sustainability and ethics are not only about organics or addressing climate crisis but involve everything from food safety to working conditions for farm workers, to healthy soils, zero carbon, strong local economies, reducing waste, robust local food cultures, and animal welfare and its role in preventing disease transmission. Sustainable and ethical food systems also need to be resilient to economic downturns or weather events and responsive to social, economic, and cultural issues.

A number of key issues and trends were unveiled by the research, which are useful for policy makers in private, third and public sectors.

As well as Newcastle the research collaboration involved three of the other N8 universities – Durham, Sheffield and York and built on work funded by a N8 AgriFood pump priming award. You can read the full report here.

 

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Megan Tresise from the University of Leeds and David Rapley from the University of Sheffield bring us two new POSTnotes.

Megan and David have have recently completed 3 month fellowships with POST, which were sponsored by the N8 AgriFood Policy Hub.

Restoring Agricultural Soils
Megan has published a POSTnote which summarises the state of England’s agricultural soils and evaluates soil stewardship opportunities. It also examines how changes to the management of agricultural soil could contribute to improving the ability of soils to produce crops, as well as to wider benefits including mitigating future climate change.

Genome editing food crops
David’s POSTnote describes genome editing technology and identifies which food crops are currently undergoing editing and why. It also describes the regulation and registration of genome-edited food crops, discusses issues around trade and describes stakeholder views about the technology.

You can read more here from Megan and David where they tell us about how their work fits within the current policy landscape and what they hope to achieve through their work with POST.

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Policy Hub POSTNotes set for publication following three-month fellowships

Two POSTNotes produced by the Food Systems Policy Hub’s Policy Fellows covering soil management and genome editing are to be published in the new year following the completion of the second fellowship scheme between N8 AgriFood and the Parliamentary Office for Science and Technology (POST).

In October David Rapley from the University of Sheffield and Megan Tresise from the University of Leeds began a three-month fellowship at POST, working in Westminster to produce a POSTnote from start to finish. Their work has included scoping the topic, conducting interviews with senior stakeholders from across academia, government, industry and the not-for-profit sector, then drafting, editing and finalising the document.

The fellowships were open to applications from doctoral students registered at one of the N8 Universities (Durham, Lancaster, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Sheffield and York) working in an area of agrifood research, and marked the second collaboration between the N8 AgriFood Food Systems Policy Hub and POST in offering the placements following the inaugural joint fellowship in 2020.

Ahead of the publication of David and Megan’s POSTnotes in the new year, we caught up with them to find out more about their work:

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Six N8 projects feature in new report outlining policy messages for food security

The findings from six research programmes, brought together under N8 AgriFood, have fed into a new report outlining key policy recommendations to help to identify and develop interventions to strengthen UK food security.

The ‘Resilience of the UK Food System in a Global Context’ (GFS FSR) research programme has released its Programme Report, outlining multiple approaches to enhancing resilience.

The Report contains general recommendations as well as tailored messages for a range of stakeholders in government, agri-food businesses, NGOs, and investment and research sectors.

The major £14.5 million, five year research programme, launched in 2016 by the Global Food Security programme, comprised 13 interdisciplinary research projects based in UK institutions. Six of these programmes were established from bids put together by colleagues working collaboratively across N8 AgriFood and the N8 universities; IKnowFood, PIG Sustain, Resilient Dairy, Rurban, Re- Phokus and SEEGSLIP.

Summarising five years of research, the report also contains messages based on findings by each of the 13 Projects and focused on specific stakeholders. These messages are intended to lead to further exploration and actions by those aiming to enhance food system resilience.

One of the key messages from the report was that discussions on how to enhance food system resilience need to be framed by the answers to four key questions:

o Where do we need to increase resilience?

o What do we need to build resilience against?

o From whose perspective is enhanced resilience needed?

o Over what time period is enhanced resilience needed?

The report also contained important messages for specific stakeholders including:

  • Government policy formulation should take a whole food system approach across government departments and agencies and spatial, temporal and jurisdictional levels
  • Industry should proactively address the negative relationship between food price on one hand, and food system sustainability and resilience on the other
  • NGOs covering multiple agenda should play a more substantial, evidence-based role in holding government and business to account
  • Finance and investment sectors should include short and long-term financial stress testing of their portfolios to a wide range of exposures
  • Researchers and funders will have an increasingly important role in helping to enhance the resilience of the UK food system. 

Dr Riaz Bhunnoo, Director of the Global Food Security programme, said: “The recent pandemic has underlined the importance of a resilient food system. With climate change coming down the line, it is more important than ever that we drive interdisciplinary research on food system resilience into policy and practice. The FSR programme has been instrumental in driving this agenda forward.”

The full report can be viewed at www.foodsystemresilienceuk.org/fsr-messages

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Policy Hub experts have their say on what needs to happen to make the National Food Strategy vision a reality.

Food Systems experts from the N8 Universities have contributed to a unique response to the National Food Strategy – advising Government how to implement key policy measures to ensure a healthy and sustainable food system in England.

The report from the N8 AgriFood Food Systems Policy Hub brings together expertise from the eight most research-intensive universities in the North of England, matching relevant experts in their field to each of the 14 recommendations made in the National Food Strategy’s final report.

Written by Henry Dimbleby, and published this summer, the National Food Strategy was the first independent review of England’s entire food system in 75 years. It aimed to lay out measures for transforming the food system we have today into something better for the future, with a focus on health, the environment, agriculture, resilience and sustainability and the economy.

The Food Systems Policy Hub’s Response document will now be delivered to the white paper team working within Defra, who have been tasked with co-ordinating the official Government response to the National Food Strategy. The Response will also be presented to the National Food Strategy All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG), overseen by The Food Foundation.

Within the Response experts from across the N8 Research Partnership have backed important calls for action made in the National Food Strategy, as well as highlighting several key factors missing from the strategy, and suggesting best practice for introducing policy to support the 14 Recommendations made by the National Food Strategy team.

It is the first independent response to the National Food Strategy to combine analysis from multiple institutions, with the Food Systems Policy Hub seeking to ensure a full food systems approach is given to any Government action arising from the National Food Strategy’s recommendations.

The N8 AgriFood Food Systems Policy Hub was a created from the N8 AgriFood Project, and works to translate research and expert knowledge from across N8 AgriFood into policy impact, supporting a food systems approach to food related policy at regional, national and international levels within governments, the private sector, charities and NGOs.

Read the document here

Our Review of the National Food Strategy Final Report

Read the document here

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