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We need to talk about food

When it comes to global food security, policy matters, and science has a central role to play. How can we fix our food systems?

April 17, 2018

Earlham Institute’s Dr Padhmanand Sudhakar played his part in a recent BBSRC funded Early Career Researcher Policy Lab organized by the Global Food Security programme - a UK cross-government programme on food security research, where he joined a multidisciplinary group looking to tackle the most important issue of all: how to feed 10 billion healthily and sustainably by 2050.

Talking to Paddy in the EI kitchen, he was enthusiastic about the outcomes of a workshop that looked at how science can inform policy making over one of the most pressing issues facing all of us.

“The food system has a lot of holes to be plugged in terms of environmental impact and burden on public health - so how do we fix it?”

I spoke at length with Paddy about the need for accountability and diversity within our food systems, and how remedial measures in the form of interventions need to be carried out. Paddy was one of 20 people selected for the Policy Lab who came together from a range of backgrounds: biology, mathematics, sociology, psychology, economics and more, as he puts, “to solve complex challenges which need expertise from multiple disciplines”.

At the policy lab

At the Policy Lab, Paddy and his team were given the task of formulating such interventions based on evidence to be presented to policy makers. His team focused on “double-duty” interventions, as the name suggests, aimed at multiple levels of the food system and addressing both health and sustainability issues.

Does any single intervention have an entirely positive impact taking into account its effect on different parts of the food system or are there potentially negative impacts for a given intervention? Paddy and his team developed a multi-indicator based assessment framework to provide objective and measurable parameters for evaluating interventions.

What sparked your interest in food systems?

Coming from India where the food culture changes every 20 kilometres, it was not just the food, but also the people, the culture and the natural sources forming the engine of food production which attracted my interest.

My experiences living in diverse cultural settings abroad have only enriched this perception and enthusiasm. At the same time, from a scientific perspective, working on Inflammatory Bowel Diseases like Crohn’s Disease reinforced my conceptions about how the food we eat affects us directly and indirectly via the gut microbiome - which is considered in scientific circles as an “organ” in itself.

Besides, the manner in which we grow and produce our food contributes heavily to the consumption and degradation of our natural resources. Our food systems indeed have a large footprint be it on public health or the larger ecological environment.

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Sadly, recent practices have degraded the once flourishing diversity in our food systems. It is high time we brought it back.

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What is the importance of diversity for the resilience of our food systems?

In the face of pressing issues like climate change, an ever growing population, pests and diseases etc., it is vital for our food systems to be robust and resilient. One of the hallmarks of functional natural ecosystems is the high level of diversity. When it comes to food systems, “diversity” translates into both nutritional and genetic diversity - which consequently contributes to both food security and nourishment.

Sadly, recent practices have degraded the once flourishing diversity in our food systems. It is high time we brought it back.

How can food diversity be expanded from a genetic and nutritional perspective? And how can this be tackled scientifically?

Expansion of diversity in the food system requires a broad portfolio of sciences to re-discover and commercialize new and existing varieties and breeds of crops and livestock. State of the art sequencing technologies combined with powerful bioinformatics approaches such as those developed at the Earlham Institute help us understand the genetic basis of nutritional characteristics, while cutting-edge molecular biology techniques aid in establishing them in our food.

The natural progression into commercialization of these varieties needs to involve the socio-economic sciences as well as understanding the wider aspects such as acceptance in the market, promotion of behaviour change, effects of subsidies etc. All of this has to happen in consultation with the main stakeholders including farmers, industry, restaurant chains, chefs, retailers and consumers.

Why is it important to establish multidisciplinary teams to tackle such large challenges?

One of the experts during his talk at the Policy Lab referred to the food system as a “complex adaptive system”. Like biological systems such as cells or organisms, the food system is intricately complicated with a large number of stakeholders with different motivations and objectives. Consequently, the food system dynamics are determined by a range of social, economic, biological, cultural and environmental factors.

Hence, tackling challenges related to such “complex adaptive systems” requires a concerted and co-ordinated effort from stakeholders belonging to different disciplines of not only science but also industry and the public.

Earlham Institute was recently awarded a grant for carrying out such a composite research programme involving the interdisciplinary sciences to enhance biodiversity in Colombia, thanks to the Global Challenges Research Fund.

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The nature of the workshop also highlighted the need to bring in more interdisciplinary depth and imagination at a wider scale in today’s scientific paradigms aimed at solving global challenges.

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What was your favourite aspect of the workshop?

One of my favourite aspects was being able to work and network with people from diverse disciplines. It also came with its own challenges in terms of communication and to be able to synthesize and transmit ideas in layman terms.

The nature of the workshop also highlighted the need to bring in more interdisciplinary depth and imagination at a wider scale in today’s scientific paradigms aimed at solving global challenges.

What are the simple policy interventions that we can make now?

There is no single answer to fixing the food system, which is why we need multiple interventions. However, the need of the hour is to re-inforce existing beneficial interventions (we don’t always have to reinvent the wheel) by using the levers of regulation and funding while at the same time synthesizing and evaluating new ones.

There is also room to encourage shorter and simpler food chains which harness the tastes and preferences of local communities, increase the social interface between consumers and producers, enhance food diversity and reduce the ecological footprint. With any intervention, identifying and engaging with stakeholders while coming up with interventions is as important, if not more, as formulating the intervention itself.

Thought for Food Challenge

If you’re interested in how to feed 10 billion people by 2050, you might want to consider taking part in the Thought for Food challenge, which hosts a global competition that encourages next generation thinking to innovate and strengthen our food networks.

The Global Summit and final will take place in Rio de Janeiro in the summer of 2018, with final submissions for pitch ideas on 4 May.

You can read all about the competition here, including the experiences of Earlham Institute teams from years gone by.

What are “double duty” interventions, and why do we need robust and objective frameworks to move forward?

Due to the highly interconnected nature of the food system, the points of impact of any intervention can often be intentionally distributed across multiple-levels. Such interventions are often termed “double-duty” interventions.

However, we not only need imaginative interventions but also quantitative, measurable, and communicable assessment indicators and metrics which take into account the multi-dimensional intended positive or unintended negative effects of any such intervention. Our team synthesized a framework to assess such “double-duty” actions using a recently published collection of indicators and metrics designed to capture both the health and sustainability aspects of the interventions.

Such frameworks provide policy makers with justifications to make informed objective decisions. Besides that, they widen the scope for the argumentative potential among policy makers or between stakeholders and policy makers.

Article author

Peter Bickerton

Scientific Communications & Outreach Manager