Sheffield researchers set out food security agenda

In an agenda-setting paper published in the journal Food Security, a group of University of Sheffield researchers have presented their vision for agri-food research to encourage the sustainable production of sufficient healthy and nutritious food to meet the needs of all of the world’s people, now and in the future.

The research was carried out by Peter Horton, Peter Jackson, Duncan Cameron and Richard Bruce, all members of the Grantham Centre management group, and Grantham Scholar supervisors Lenny Koh, Dan Brockington, Jurriaan Ton and Michelle Holdsworth, with Steve Banwart, formerly of the University of Sheffield’s Department of Civil Engineering, and Garrett Brown from the Department of Politics.

This ambitious paper demonstrates the power of interdisciplinary thinking, involving the work of seven departments in three faculties, brought together via the Sheffield Sustainable Food Futures (SheFF) group.

Described by the journal’s editor as a “tour de force”, the paper, ‘An agenda for integrated system-wide interdisciplinary agri-food research’, advocates a system-wide approach that integrates our thinking about all aspects of food production and consumption.

After providing a holistic model of the agri-food system and showing how it necessitates research in many areas, the authors propose two specific ways forward:

  1. a method for analysing and modelling agri-food systems in their totality, enabling the complexity to be reduced to its essential components, allowing its investigation by Life Cycle Assessment and related methods;
  2. a method for analysing the ethical, legal and political tensions that characterise such systems using deliberative fora.

The paper concludes by proposing an agenda for research that combines these two approaches.

Past research has focused on different parts of the system in isolation: for example, considering agricultural production only in terms of genetic improvement of crops whilst ignoring environmental impacts of unsustainable practices or the effect on human health. Making connections between these domains suggests that what is good for the environment is also good for our health.

Reform of the way we produce and consume food is vital if we are to achieve just and sustainable outcomes, and Sheffield is leading the way in demonstrating how to carry out the interdisciplinary research needed to achieve this objective.

SheFF Director Peter Jackson, said he was delighted with the reception received by the paper, which has already been downloaded 2,900 times. He said: “Food research can no longer be confined to disciplinary silos. Moving forward, we need to face the challenges of interdisciplinary working. Our paper makes an important step in that direction.”

Read ‘An agenda for integrated system-wide interdisciplinary agri-food research’