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Food for Thought

22 May 2020

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Reported by Kate McNeil, CSaP Communications Coordinator

What has covid-19 shown us about the UK's food strategy and food systems? How should we be thinking about the future of food in this country?

Henry Dimbleby, during his work on the National Food Strategy, has described the British food system as 'miraculous'. The food system feeds cities, supports landscapes, and prior to the covid-19 pandemic it was responsible for one in seven jobs in the UK. However, his work has also highlighted that the British food system also faces enormous challenges, including environmental degradation, food security, and the consequences of poor diets upon human health. In late May, academics and policymakers gathered for the first session in CSaP's 2020 Virtual Annual Conference to discuss these challenges, and to explore food policy and different ways of understanding the food system.

Throughout the discussion, Emily Miles, Chief Executive at the Foods Standards Agency, suggested that the covid-19 crisis has acted as a barium meal for our food systems, showing where things are working, and where the weaknesses in our systems are. She noted that while covid-19 has the capacity to unite the country with a clear common purpose, giving legitimacy to state intervention where the stakes were high. While the pandemic did result in a shock to the food supply, Ms Miles suggested that the fast recovery from these shocks has been in part a result of impressive collaboration between the state and parts of the food industry, ranging from information sharing, to food distribution. However, she highlighted that the response to this crisis was not organised to attend simultaneously to the multiple outcomes involved in a healthy food system: healthy, available, affordable, safe, environmentally sustainable food. Moreover, while the system has largely succeeded in connecting industry, she acknowledged that there has been greater difficulty in getting the voices of vulnerable consumers into the system's feedback loops.

Concurring, Professor Dame Theresa Marteau, Director of the Behaviour and Health Research Unit at the Institute of Public Health, suggested that covid-19 has shone a light on connected systems, of which food is just one. She posited that this crisis has broken some of the silos in thinking between infectious disease, non-communicable diseases, and climate change, while highlighting the importance of environmental degradation, biodiversity loss, and zoonotic transmission - with intensive agriculture playing a part in these challenges. She further noted that this crisis has highlighted the importance of tackling obesity for having a resilient population in the face of future pandemics, and that any strategy for improving our food system for both human health and planetary health will require targeted, behaviour-shifting interventions across our entire system. For example, she suggested that changing the foods that are readily available is one way of increasing the selection of healthier, more sustainable foods while reducing energy intake, tackling obesity, and combatting climate change.

Meanwhile, Professor Dame Ottoline Leyser , Director at the University of Cambridge's Sainsbury Laboratory raised the question of how the food system maps onto other complex systems, noting that there are complex relationships between producers, processors and packers, retailers, consumers, and government. She suggested that a holistic systems approach is a good way to think about challenges in our food system, but noted that doing so is complex, because there are non-linear relationships between interventions and outcomes within the food system, which is dynamic, multiscale, and feedback-driven. Consequently, interventions in this system involve working with models under circumstances of uncertainty.

As policymakers strive to manage the future of our food systems in a way that is sustainable and promotes both human and planetary health, Dame Theresa also noted that there are many powerful vested interests in the status quo in the food system, and that making change will require an appetite for state action and managing tensions between wealth and health creation.


This virtual seminar was part of CSaP’s 2020 Virtual Annual Conference Seminar Series, which will be running throughout the months of May and June. To learn more, or to register for your free ticket to attend an upcoming session, please visit our annual conference events page.

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Photo Credit: Photo by nrd on Unsplash