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Balancing act (Nonesuch autumn 2016)

9 November 2016

With a changing climate and growing pressure on resources, global food security is a complex balancing act. Nonesuch finds out how the University is addressing this key challenge.

How can we produce enough nutritious food that everyone can access, and do so sustainably? Addressing global food security at the University of Bristol’s Cabot Institute, Professor Michael Lee cautions against relying on a single metric for evaluation as Dr Patricia Lucas looks at the social science of sustainable, healthy food systems.

The danger of a single metric

Feeding an increasing global population raises complex questions about using animals in future farming. Efforts to improve sustainability have up to now focused solely on the environmental impact of livestock, overlooking economic factors and the social viability of food production systems. Professor Michael Lee, an expert in ruminant nutrition and grassland systems, explains how relying on a single metric of evaluation
for sustainability can lead to inconsistent strategies which are ultimately unsustainable.

‘Assessing systems using only a single metric can push farmers towards a production system that doesn’t deliver the other necessary areas of sustainability,’ says Lee. ‘For example, minimising methane emissions at all costs can shift farming towards more intensive systems, where animals are kept in housed conditions with tailored – often imported – feed for more efficient production. This cuts methane carbon, but exports the pollution issues to other countries that export protein-rich feed. It also causes a nutrition imbalance for return of nutrients via livestock faeces and urine.’

The actions and decisions of local farmers have a critical impact on food security globally, and on the feasibility of future livestock production. Lee emphasises the importance of treating farms as businesses which need to make a profit as a vital part of economic sustainability.

‘Any decision that we make or science we develop ultimately has to be economically viable,’ he adds. ‘It’s one of the three pillars of sustainability, along with social and environmental factors. We cannot develop a system that lowers greenhouse gases but yields significantly less milk and leads to farmers unable to adopt the system economically. These issues are not going to go away – and the people who will resolve them are the farmers. The science communities’ role is to take risks the farming community cannot afford to take, to find the correct balance of social, environmental and economic need.’

Understanding the impact of individual purchasing decisions on the food production system will be key to finding that all-important balance.

Consequences for health

The social aspect of sustainability covers everything from consumer food choices to the impact of food poverty on health. Dr Patricia Lucas, Reader in Child Health Research in the School of Policy Studies, sees it as a complex and interwoven set of factors.

‘The global food chain means that changes to purchasing patterns here in the UK can affect what food is available in producing countries, too,’ says Lucas. ‘While producers worry that consumer decisions are driving unsustainable food production, social scientists know that food price, availability, and marketing influences on our food choices.’

Lucas is principally concerned with the health implications of childhood poverty and how changes to food pricing impacts on people’s diets, both locally and internationally. Lucas continues: ‘Food poverty is not just about hunger. When you don’t have enough, how do you decide how you spend your money? It makes sense to buy cheap, highly palatable, long-life food that everyone in your family is certain to eat – which has obvious consequences for health.’

Again, it comes back to balance. The factors which influence consumer food choices go beyond identifying the healthiest option, and psychology also has a significant role to play. ‘Your own circumstances, ideas about how much food you need, what products are best for you, and your attitudes toward the environment all impact on food choice,’ adds Lucas. ‘If our food systems are to be wholly sustainable, we must also ensure good, healthy food is within physical and financial reach of everyone. Some of the interventions aimed at protecting environmental sustainability may significantly change the pattern of food costs and access, limiting some people’s choices.’

The best start in life

One step towards social sustainability is through national intervention; fresh or frozen fruit and vegetables among other health foods are available free of charge for low income families through the government-commissioned Healthy Start scheme. Healthy Start provides eligible families with vouchers to spend on fruit, vegetables, vitamins and some varieties of milk. Vouchers vary in value from £3.10 per week for pregnant women and children over one and under four years old to £6.20 per week for children under one year old.

In 2013, Lucas led a review of the scheme, which provided evidence of its high uptake by eligible families, analysed the scheme’s strengths and shortcomings, and offered recommendations for its further improvement. However, since that review, the scheme exists in the same form – providing low-income families with vouchers for fresh fruit and vegetables, milk and vitamins.

‘The value of the vouchers has not increased in line with inflation, meaning the actual purchasing power of that money has also been eroded,’ says Lucas. ‘Policy interest in the scheme remains ongoing, but requires funding for any further implementation or improvements.’ Political changes led to Healthy Start being placed in a holding position, where it will be decided if it should be included with Universal Credit.

Further information

The Cabot Institute, the University of Bristol’s first flagship crossdisciplinary research institute, conducts world-leading research on the challenges arising from how we live with, depend on and affect our planet. You can find out more about the Cabot Institute and its research by visiting its website.