By Samuel Eze (University of Lincoln) and Andrew Dougill (University of York), both formerly University of Leeds

Soil degradation and climate change are major threats to food system resilience across Africa that require sustainable land use and management practices to reduce their impacts. Various land management practices are being promoted by both government and non-governmental organisations globally with the promise of boosting food production without degrading the environment. However, recommended land management practices are often not widely adopted partly due to a lack of a site-specific evidence base. To address these challenges, it is important to encourage and strengthen the researcher-farmer relationships as part of efforts to achieve a resilient food system and food security.

 

Landslide on a farm in the East Usambara Mountains, Tanzania.

As part of the soil science component of the recent AFRICAP project, we sought to build evidence base on the impacts on soils of various land management practices that are being promoted in sub-Saharan Africa. These included evaluation of Conservation Agriculture in central and southern Malawi and of Soil and Water Conservation practices in the East Usambara Mountains of Tanzania. Findings from our conventional soil testing, e.g. in this paper, show that conservation agriculture is a promising strategy for improving the resilience of the agricultural system to environmental stress but maximum benefits depend on a combination of site-specific factors including soil type and availability of crop residues.

Impacts of CA on soil structure and hydraulic properties in Malawi

Implementing Conservation Agriculture without accounting for the environmental factors such as soil type that influence its impacts will lead to disappointing results. This was the case of a farmer in Malawi who had implemented conservation agriculture on ‘heavy’ soils (soils with high clay content) and had low crop yield as the field got waterlogged. We also conducted interviews with farmers to understand their perspectives on soil health and their land management decisions. As shown in this paper, it was very clear that farmers use various characteristics of plants and soils as indicators of soil health. This influenced their choice of land management practices. For example, the farmers we interviewed in the East Usambara Mountains of Tanzania added organic manure where they see a change in soil colour from black to red.

Our findings (e.g. in this paper) suggest that farmers draw from their experiences in making land management decisions. An effective communication between farmers and researchers will: 1) help researchers to understand farmers’ experiences and design their research accordingly; and 2) give farmers a better access to research findings, which can explain their observed farm outcomes. More effective communication between all stakeholders in the agri-food system will help to ensure that locally-appropriate land management practices are implemented to achieve maximum benefits in terms of system resilience to climate change, without degrading the environment.

 

Lead image: Farmer discussions on terracing, crop residue management and soil health.

By Dr Charlotte Hardman, Department of Psychological Science, University of Liverpool

Last week, we (Charlotte Hardman, Bethan Mead, and our Cranfield University colleague Dan Evans) had the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to attend Glastonbury Festival to showcase our research on urban food growing. We were one of several science stalls in the brand-new Science Futures area in the Green Futures field, where festival goers can explore how science shapes our daily lives in new and exciting ways.

Our ‘Can You Dig it?’ stall aimed to communicate the findings of our UKRI-funded research, Rurban Revolution, which focuses on the transformative potential of urban food growing for people and planet. One of our research outputs showed that, if we used all the green spaces in towns and cities for food growing, we could grow 8 times as much fruits and vegetables as are currently grown on farms in Great Britain. This is enough for all residents to achieve the 5-a-day recommendation for fruit and vegetable consumption.

Inspired by this, our stall featured a future town where urban spaces are food growing places. Festival goers were invited to place wooden blocks representing different fruits and veggies onto the town to create their own vision for urban food growing, considering things like where are the best spots for growing and are there any areas to avoid. There were some great ideas from growing on rooftops to underground carparks, and even a suggestion that maybe one day we could grow on the moon!

We also displayed a selection of urban soils, taken from a range of locations within one UK city, and festival goers were invited to vote for which soils they thought would be best for food growing. And via ‘Ecosystem Services Top Trumps’, participants were challenged to play the classic card game with a unique spin to learn about the various services (e.g. increased pollination, biodiversity, wellbeing and social benefits) that food growing in different urban spaces can deliver (based on our recent systematic review).

We couldn’t resist the opportunity to collect some research data so we ran a live study in which participants learned about different methods for growing food in urban areas, from more traditional growing in gardens through to high-tech hydroponics and aquaponics. Using magnets and a whiteboard we captured opinions about foods grown via these different methods, for example would you eat a lettuce which had been grown vertically without soil? The data will contribute to our ongoing research on consumer perceptions of urban-grown food (funded by UKRI’s strategic research priority Transforming UK Food Systems).

Highlights over the 5 days included speaking to hundreds of people about our research, whose ages ranged from 1 month to 82! We all learned new things and the quality of conversations with members of the public was on a par and often exceeded those at academic conferences giving us lots to think about. We appeared on the Laboratory Stage for a Q&A session on sustainable food, and were even interviewed by a Radio 1 DJ. And after work, the whole of Glastonbury Festival beckoned, Paul McCartney’s Saturday night set was particularly memorable.

Public engagement is so important and one of our favourite parts of the academic role. After a rest (and several showers!), Team Can You Dig It will be back.

By Dr Ulrike Ehgartner, University of York Management School

Our food system is in crisis. UK consumers are facing a serious hike in food prices, with 7.3 million adults and over 2.6 million children in the UK experiencing food insecurity. This number indicates a rise of UK household food insecurity by 57%, just from January to April this year, leading to a situation that the Bank of England recently described as “apocalyptic”. Data shows that over the past two years, prices of hundreds of popular items hiked by more than 20 per cent. Also affected are basic staple foods: just over the past year, prices of the UK’s cheapest supermarket rice and bread items have risen by 15%, and for the cheapest pasta by 50%. Also generally, not choosing the cheapest product of a category has become less affordable: in one study, for over two-thirds of the items monitored, the next item was at least 20% more expensive. Given these facts, it comes as no surprise that recent consumer surveys show that 92% of adults state their grocery bill has increased and 39% of adults report they have recently cut back on quantity and quality of the food they consume to be able to afford other essentials.

Policy reforms driven by austerity, which were more recently accelerated by Brexit and the Covid pandemic, have created a highly insecure situation for everyone. How this situation, which has come to be commonly labelled as ‘the cost of living crisis’, will further develop is uncertain with the impact of climate change and the Ukraine war on harvests still unfolding, and the full impact of the inflation yet to be felt. While many industries are affected, our food system is deeply interlinked with many areas, and particularly vulnerable to these uncertainties. Food supply chain and labour shortage issues due to Brexit and the Covid pandemic have caused ongoing challenges. Global fuel and gas shortages come with various direct and knock-on effects on the food industry, for example through increases in fertiliser prices. 

Yet, already long before this crisis unfolded, consumer demand for cheap food was identified as the reason for the food industry’s failure to address its severe negative impact on the environment, farmer incomes and animal welfare. Compared to previous decades, we are paying much less for our food and are far removed from the true cost of food. In order to be able to feed ourselves, will we have to abandon plans to decarbonise the industry and exploit farmers, animals and our soils even more? Currently, short-term actions are taken, which indicate this is the only way forward. Decisions of major supermarkets to keep consumers and protect their market share by keeping prices low for consumers, will pass on the rising costs to manufacturers and farmers. Government decisions to delay the introduction of restrictions of multi-buy promotions and advertising of unhealthy food and drink, will not only come with an environmental cost, but will continue putting a strain on our National Health Service. 

Over the past decades, we have become accustomed to the notion that such crises can solely be dealt with in ways that either squeeze the consumer or the farmer. However, there are also diverse examples of initiatives, often on a small-scale and local level, which show that another way is possible. Alternative business models such as cooperatives, food hubs, community farms, pantries and other initiatives for affordable food, create more balance in the food supply chain, whilst still making profits. Their models are often based on pursuing sufficient rather than maximised profits and on accepting smaller returns in the short term with the aim to continue and thrive on the long-term. Distributing their food outside the mainstream supply chain, they also introduce means of true cost accounting, which can help reformulate guidelines on an organisational level, inspire investors and set examples for policy makers in applying policy tools such as taxes, mandatory reporting, business investment loans and other incentives to drive improvements in human and planetary health.

Around the globe, partnerships between civil society and stakeholders from public institutions and businesses have trialled and supported the growth and long-term viability of such alternative food systems, enabling new food markets to emerge and food policies to change on a local level. So-called Food (Policy) Councils, or Food Boards, commonly emerge locally, often in cities, and involve various delegates from the different parts of the food system, for example consumers, members of community organisations, representatives of local authorities, farmers and other producers, civil society organisations, activists, retailers and educators. They create active dialogues and collaboration between actors from diverse sectors in order to discuss, coordinate, and influence the transformation towards a more equitable, sustainable and resilient food system and inform and empower citizens to become agents of change. Having emerged in the US in the 1980s, with numbers increasing both in the US and Canada comparatively since, they are a rather recent phenomenon in Europe. First to introduce the concept to Europe was Brighton and Hove in 2003, followed by various cities across Europe, such as Bristol in 2011. As members of Sustainable Food Places, a programme led by three national sustainable food organisations (the Soil Association, Sustain and Food Matters), there are currently 80 Local Food Partnerships in the UK, eight of which are based in Yorkshire, with more to establish in the near future.

The view that the cost of living crisis will inevitably make more and more people dependent on food banks and halt any efforts to decrease the negative environmental impact of food production and the exploitation of farmers, seems inevitable if we deal with issues in siloes. With people operating only within their own institutional boundaries and work areas, it seems as if, for example, climate security and food security are competing goals. Siloed, disjointed policy is increasingly becoming recognised, and was also singled out as a key concern in FixOurFood’s 3 Horizons local economy workshop series with key actors from the food system community in Yorkshire, including representatives of local food partnerships. 

Food Policy Councils around the globe have in common that they break siloed thinking and take a systems approach instead, by putting food at the centre, and by supporting the creation of spaces in which alternatives to the mainstream food system work. As such, they provide avenues for transformation towards a food system that allows access to healthy food for everyone, without compromising fairness for farmers, animal welfare or the environment. They can encourage cross-sectoral initiatives and food policy that addresses issues in multidimensional ways and inspire owners of major food businesses to take long-term approaches that prioritise supply chain resilience over short-term returns. An inspiring example that we can learn from is the Cologne Food Council. Founded in 2016 as the first of its kind in Germany, today it coordinates a Network of Food Councils from across Germany and neighbouring countries. Alongside encouraging the establishment of individual Food Councils to impact the food system on the level of their cities or rural places, it also promotes the cooperation between them on a regional and national level. The seeming tension between fair access to food for consumers and fair conditions for farmers and the natural environment constitutes an open topic of discussion within this network, practising food democracy through efforts to bring the question of the true price of food into a citizen assembly context.

It is vital, now more than ever, to foster shared learning across these place-based networks. An approach that focuses on Yorkshire as a region allows to locate local resources and to improve coordination between existing initiatives and programs. The establishment of localised routes to market can enable fairer conditions for regenerative farmers and small-scale producers who operate on sustainable business models. If such routes become more accessible for suppliers and reach consumers of different backgrounds, for example through localised food procurement in schools, the provision of food from such suppliers becomes normalised. This can allow consumers to access healthy and sustainable food, without having to trade off their own livelihoods against those of farmers. 

by Mark S Reed, Gavin B Stewart, Anthonia James and Ged Hall

The need for robust evidence to inform policy has never been greater, as countries around the world grapple with issues of unprecedented complexity. However, it is rare to find individual studies that conclusively resolve a major knowledge gap or controversy, whose findings are consistently reproduced by others. Instead, knowledge tends to accumulate incrementally via successive studies using different methods in different contexts, often leading to apparently contradictory findings. This can make it difficult to identify clear, evidence-informed policy options.

But there is a problem. Research funders regularly ask the teams to develop policy briefs, based on the single projects they have funded, despite the fact that the projects may have only considered a single system in isolation, under experimental conditions or based their findings on case study research. Researchers are also under increasing pressure to get their findings published in top journals, and in many disciplines, the more generalisable and internationally applicable the findings are, the more likely they are to be deemed as academically significant enough to warrant publication in top-flight journals. Even if researchers resist the temptation to over-claim, the editors and reviewers of many applied journals increasingly expect authors to discuss the implications of their work for policy and practice, and request revisions that may inadvertently encourage authors to over-generalise the relevance of their work beyond the contexts in which they collected their data. Your findings might be of international significance to other academics, but are you sure they are relevant to policy and practice in different national jurisdictions?

This is an important problem for at least two reasons. First, the policy options might not be sufficiently robust, and so might lead to unintended consequences. Although it might feel tempting to claim otherwise, if the evidence for a policy intervention is mixed or inconclusive, a clear finding from a single new study does not change the nature of the evidence base overall; there are still multiple studies with findings that contradict yours, as well as those that point in the same direction as your new study. Second, if changes in policy or practice are based on single studies, it is only a matter of time before a new study will come along with contradictory evidence, forcing a policy U-turn, and potentially undermining the trust of policymakers and the public in research.

A new approach

Evidence synthesis methods have been developed to resolve these tensions, showing where there is robust evidence across multiple studies and context to inform policy and practice, and where more research is needed, if the evidence is mixed or inconclusive. However, the typical systematic review takes many person-months of time and is therefore costly and may miss time-limited windows of policy opportunity. Moreover, few researchers have the skills to conduct robust evidence synthesis, and there are few post-graduate programmes that provide this training to early career researchers.

For this reason, Policy Leeds and N8 AgriFood teamed up with evidence synthesis methodologist, Dr Gavin Stewart and Professor Mark Reed, a visiting Professor at Leeds and N8 AgriFood Chair at the time, now at Scotland’s Rural College (SRUC), to deliver a training programme funded by N8 AgriFood and Research England (QR-SPF). Gavin created the evidence synthesis training programme, which aimed to give early career researchers, from across the N8 institutions, skills in evidence synthesis, whilst the rest of the team leveraged links in the policy world. The programme provided an opportunity to produce both peer-reviewed publications and policy briefs that could address policy challenges identified by the policy community. The model is not only incredibly simple – it delivers evidence synthesis for policy-makers in a fraction of the time and cost of traditional systematic reviews by facilitating production of rapid review and other evidence synthesis products.

This is the process:

  1. Identify evidence needs from policy colleagues in a thematic area (food and farming, in our case, via teams in Defra, Natural England, Environment Agency and Food Standards Agency in England and equivalent departments and agencies in devolved administrations)
  2. Offer training to early career researchers in rapid evidence synthesis and writing policy briefs
  3. Support trainees to write paper and policy brief
  4. Policy colleagues get evidence and early career researchers gain new skills and potentially publications.

One study calculated that a typical systematic review costs about £100,000 and takes between 6 months and 16 months assuming five co-authors devote 10–20 hours per week to the review, and another estimated 1–2 years for to complete a full systematic review. In contrast to this, despite a number of authors dropping out due to challenges posed by the pandemic, our whole programme worked out at £2336 per review, and in the case of the cohort who were able to attend the residential training, the majority completed a first draft of rapid reviews in one week. This included the training costs, the residential element and open access fees for two of articles, but did not include project management costs for N8 AgriFood.

Challenges

Our plans were however significantly disrupted by COVID, leading to one of the two planned residential training courses running online, and the majority of these researchers requiring support over a 6-12 month period after the online training, which was not budgeted for. Although the programme could have been delivered without this additional support, had both trainings operated as residential courses, about one person month of additional time was required between two staff.

Having said that, only 11 of the researchers completed evidence syntheses and/or policy briefs out of 28 who attended the original training. Had 20 of these researchers completed their work, the cost per synthesis/brief would have halved. There were a number of reasons why researchers did not complete the work:

  • The main reason for the high attrition rate was disruption to the planned residential training programme caused by COVID (five out of eight attending the residential course completed their work). The online provision for the second planned residential was spread out, and in hindsight, finding a way to generate the sustained focus of a residential course in the online world may have produced better results.
  • Linked to this, due to the delays caused by COVID, some participants reached the end of their contracts and started new roles that were no longer linked to the evidence synthesis or were too demanding for them to complete their work. A more intense online design may also have helped to alleviate this issue as we may have been able to complete the programme earlier.
  • A few participants hadn’t understood the commitment required of them, or the fact that they had to choose from a list of pre-determined policy-relevant review questions. Advertising for such a course should in future emphasise the responsibilities and commitments required for participants as much as the benefits of applying to join the programme.
  • In one case, a participant dropped out of the programme because they had terminated their PhD. In other cases, it was difficult to determine the reason why people did not complete the work, and because the programme did not have responsibility for line managing any of the participants, it was not possible to see or negotiate other competing responsibilities, which ultimately led to attrition. Ensuring that participants are clear regarding expectations and that there is strong alignment with ongoing work programmes fully understood by supervisory teams or PIs is an important learning point.

As a result of the delays to complete the programme, many members of the policy community who had posed questions had moved on. In future, more regular dialogue with policy contacts would be desirable, to ensure continuity as staff move on. As a solution to this, the team are planning policy webinars on themes that link a number of the reviews, to ensure recommendations reach the policy community. In addition to policy briefs, future programmes might also consider the production of videos, interactive online media or infographics as alternative modes of communication to policy colleagues. More work could also be done to follow up with policy colleagues to determine the long-term policy impacts of the programme.

Does it work?

Overall, despite the challenges posed by the pandemic to this programme of work, it was possible to provide a cohort of early career researchers with skills in evidence synthesis that they will be able to use elsewhere in their careers. The fact that the programme led to the publication of ten evidence syntheses and/or policy briefs addressing evidence gaps identified by the policy community, for such limited resources, represents remarkably good value for money. The potential speed with which this can deliver outputs to the policy community is also important, given that the programme was designed to be completed within three months from identification of policy questions through to production of papers and briefings. Although many participants didn’t produce outputs, they did benefit from the training and skills development (some conducted their review but just didn’t produce a final synthesis paper or briefing).

With some tweaking and a fair wind (that doesn’t carry a pandemic), it should be possible to replicate this model to achieve rapid turn-around times for policy colleagues whilst continuing to build evidence synthesis skills in the research community. See for yourself by reading the outputs here: https://policyhub.n8agrifood.ac.uk/portfolio-items/rapid-evidence-synthesis-training/

Acknowledgements

This programme of work was funded by Research England’s QR-SPF fund and the N8 AgriFood programme. The work was managed by Ged Hall for University of Leeds, and Anthonia James for N8 AgriFood. Initial training and support was provided by Gavin Stewart, with project management by Anthonia James, policy brief graphic design by Belinda Morris and additional support from Mark Reed. Thanks to Professor Eric Jensen for useful suggestions for this blog.

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.

References

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

Dimbleby, H. (2021). National Food Strategy. The Plan. National Food Strategy. Retrieved from https://www.nationalfoodstrategy.org/

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

 

 

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

If at the start of October, you had proposed to me that genome-edited crops were a key to solving sustainable agriculture, I might have acknowledged their potential, but also offered up some of the challenges that have surrounded genetically modified crops since the 1990s. My time as a plant science PhD student has exposed me to various narratives of this history.

After having spent the last 13 weeks as a Postgraduate Fellow at the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST) talking to experts across academia, industry, government and civil society, I now realise that genome-edited crops present a situation beyond the lab that is vastly more complex.

Researching a POSTnote

In October 2021, I embarked on a 3-month Fellowship in Westminster at POST, supported by N8 Agri Food Policy Hub. The aim of the Fellowship is for PhD students to produce a 4-page policy briefing (a POSTnote) to provide MPs and Peers with a concise, balanced and independent overview of a policy topic.

My topic, “Genome-Edited Food Crops” was further shaped in my first week to address the recent Government response to their consultation on the regulation of genetic technologies (including genome editing). The scope of my POSTnote was large. I was not only researching and interviewing experts on the science of genome editing, and its potential to address sustainability issues such as climate change – I was also looking at how genome-edited food crops interplay with trade, detection, traceability, public choice and public acceptance. The 27 experts I interviewed were extremely helpful in this regard.

Perspectives from COP26

I took a week off POST duties after my interviews to be an official observer for the University of Sheffield at COP26, which gave me a greater international perspective on the topic of my POSTnote. There, I attended a number of events on how agriculture can lessen its impacts on – and be more resilient to – climate change. To my initial surprise, the topic of using any form of agricultural biotechnology as a solution to tackle climate change at the panels I attended was touched on lightly (if at all). Speaking to various panellists afterwards provided me with some insight. There was a general feeling that, given the already enormous challenge of reaching international agreements on climate change, it might be difficult to present solutions that might be potentially polarising, such as biotechnology crops.

(Indeed, biotechnology in agriculture is highly contested and is often not included in national plans for “climate-smart” agriculture.1  Furthermore, there is currently no intergovernmental organization that oversees regulation on genome-edited crops.2 Possibly then, nations may currently anticipate greater progress by agreeing on more unified approaches for climate mitigation targets and outcomes – such as through co-creating solutions with farmers.)

Writing a POSTnote

The real challenge was condensing everything into 4 pages for MPs and Peers to understand: stating simply and concisely the pertinent facts from the literature; highlighting the diversity of views from ~20 hours of interviews impartially; and integrating further feedback from internal and external reviewers. Having so many people contribute has reaffirmed to me the true value of POSTnotes.

Looking back and forward

For pandemic times, my experience in Westminster was one of privilege. Video interviews, lateral flows, and COVID restrictions were a staple. However, I also managed to enjoy lunch on the terrace, getting lost in the palace and watching Prime Minister’s Questions. I had wanted to do a POST Fellowship since I heard about it when I started my PhD. Like many previous POST Fellows, my experience did not disappoint. I am so grateful to POST and N8 AgriFood for giving me such an amazing opportunity.

I hope this POSTnote will inform the discussion on genome-edited food crops for MPs and Peers, as well as inform future potential POSTnotes. Genome-edited farmed animals is one closely-related topic that is receiving particular attention.3 Now my Fellowship has come to an end, I will be writing up my PhD for submission in 2022. I will look back fondly on my time at POST, meeting new people and taking a break from my PhD. I look forward to pursuing the interplay between science and policy in my future.

You can read the published POSTnote here: https://post.parliament.uk/research-briefings/post-pn-0663/

  1. Lipper, L. et al. (2018). A Short History of the Evolution of the Climate Smart Agriculture Approach and Its Links to Climate Change and Sustainable Agriculture Debates. in 13–30.
  2. Friedrichs, S. et al. (2019). An overview of regulatory approaches to genome editing in agriculture. Biotechnol. Res. Innov., Vol 3, 208–220.
  3. Nuffield Council on Bioethics (2021). Genome editing and farmed animals: social and ethical issues. 124.

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/

Share this news!

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.

 

Share this news!

POST Fellowship reflections

By Megan Tresise, PhD student, School of Biology, the University of Leeds

I’m Megan, now a 3rd year PhD student at the University of Leeds and I am one of the two PhD students in the second cohort of the N8 AgriFood funded Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST) Fellowship.

This Fellowship has been one of the most interesting and career-shaping opportunities presented to me during my PhD. I have gained skills that complement my professional development goals, that I hope will improve my employability down the line. For three months between October and December 2021, I was given the chance to research and write my own POSTnote on Restoring Agricultural Soils. This POSTnote is the product of a highly topical area of both research and policy right now, with Defra highlighting ambitions to manage all of England’s soils sustainably by 2030 and talks of a new Soil Health Action Plan for England (SHAPE).

From drafting up my first Scope to making the final edits ready for the sign-off, this opportunity has been a great challenge, and I feel lucky to have been given the chance to do this. I chose to work hybridly during my Fellowship, which N8 AgriFood and POST supported and made arrangements for me to work like this. It was fun getting to go into an office environment and work around other POST Fellows and advisors, it also gave me a taster of London living having been in Leeds for 6 years. I would say that one of the biggest challenges I had to overcome was communicating with key stakeholders, including academics, NGOs and government departments. Due to the topic of the POSTnote, I found myself interviewing people that I have been referencing throughout my PhD and meeting new people to learn about their research in soil science. One of the main lessons I learned during the Fellowship was that the academic style of writing is completely different to writing for policymakers. It’s important to keep in mind that the audience is likely non-expert and the writing should be impartial, reflect what the evidence says and not what you think. This is a useful skill I can bring back to my academic role if I choose to pursue further policy-based reviews.

Additional opportunities presented themselves whilst I was on the Fellowship, such as attending the UKRI Net Zero Parliamentary Reception to talk with academics and industry leaders about their net zero research and technology. Additionally, a meeting was arranged by another POST Fellow between the Fellows and the POST Board, where we could discuss the impact of our POSTnotes on policy and how best to contribute as researchers. Career development was another strong highlight of the Fellowship, with sessions created to enable Fellows to talk to the POST advisors and members of the civil service more informally about progression into a policy career.

I would like to thank N8 AgriFood for funding this excellent opportunity and the POST team for their continuous patience and support during the Fellowship!

Share this blog!