How can we make our food system more resilient against shocks, whilst building consumer trust?

20 September 2017


Reported by Nick Cosstick, AHRC-funded policy intern (September 2017- December 2017)

In order to have a food system which is more resilient against shocks, we need to know which potential shocks to scan for, how consumers and the market respond to such shocks, and which methods of horizon scanning work best.

To build consumer trust, we need to understand consumer preferences, and how consumers engage, to make the process of horizon scanning collaborative. A multitude of complex problems stand in the way of achieving these aims; can an inter-disciplinary approach bring about their solution?

In September, CSaP partnered with the Global Food Security Strategic Research Iniative, and Public Policy at Cambridge, to organise a Policy Workshop to address these issues. The workshop brought policy makers together with academics from a broad range of disciplines, and addressed a number of questions posed by the government regulator, the Food Standards Agency.

Do we need a paradigm shift away from a market-led food system?

At first glance, one might think that the food industry acts on behalf of consumers by meeting their demand for foods with high fat, salt and sugar content. But Professor Martin White, Programme Leader at the University of Cambridge's Centre for Diet and Activity Research, explained that the reality is more complex.

Food businesses often exploit our innate desires and distort demand by intensively marketing energy-dense foods. This has long term health costs. “In lower, middle and high income countries we are increasingly eating more calories than we need", said Professor White, adding "the excess calories are derived from nutritionally poor, highly processed, foods that are marketed for their convenience, taste and associated lifestyles.”

Overconsumption of nutritionally poor calories leads to obesity, which is linked to the rise in type 2 diabetes. It is estimated that, by 2025, over 700 million people globally will have type 2 diabetes. The current annual health care cost for the UK's population of 3.5 million type 2 diabetes sufferers is £13.75 billion.

How can we combat this? Professor White believes that the primary goals of the food industry (maximising shareholder value) and public health (maximising health and minimising health inequality) are poorly aligned. Maximising achievement of both goals will require a paradigm shift on the part of the food industry. We must move away from a purely market-led approach, to one that also holds health as a value.

Bhaskar Vira, Professor of Political Economy at the University of Cambridge, added that insights from behavioural economics could help in 'nudging' the behaviour of consumers down a healthier path. Small changes in the way that food choices are presented to consumers could have radically beneficial outcomes to societal health as a whole.

Is there a more substantial role for the general public to play in food security?

Dr Elta Smith, Associate Research Group Director in the Innovation, Health and Science programme at RAND Europe, argued that the challenges presented by food security present us with a unique opportunity to open up the food research system to public involvement.

Dr Smith sees this as a mutually beneficial process. Increased consumer engagement could be carried out in such a way as to increase consumer understanding of the food system, which would have net health benefits. It would also increase the trust that the consumer has in the regulatory bodies that act on their behalf.

However, consumer involvement in data gathering could also aid research. If the general public could be effectively utilised to capture real-time food system data, the result would be the achievement of more accurate and immediate data for research and regulatory purposes.

Dr Garrick Hileman, Research Fellow at the Cambridge Centre for Alternative Finance, and Dr Emily Shuckburgh, a climate scientist based at the British Antarctic Survey, both outlined technological approaches to consumer engagement which have already enjoyed success outside of the food system. They stressed that these approaches are potentially transferrable to food policy.

What methods could be used to locate, monitor and predict shocks to the food system?

Recent research by Dr Shuckburgh has focused on trying to assess risks to systems, including the food system, from climate related shocks. The insights from this research are of great value to anyone attempting to monitor and predict shocks to the food system. Her solutions to the problem of trying to understand the links between climate-related shocks and the actual impact on food systems, could be used as a tool for horizon scanning.

The first tool to utilise is local knowledge. Local knowledge is “critically important to being able to properly assess the problem”, she says. An example comes from Dr Shuckburgh’s project investigating milk supply chains in Egypt. A severe heatwave is a climate-related shock that might be expected to adversely affect milk production, but the reality proved more complex. Local knowledge led to an understanding that in times of heat stress affecting bovine milk production, Egyptian milk supplies are often sourced from camels, providing greater resilience than anticipated based on studies from other parts of the world. The aid of local citizens in gathering this insight was pivotal.

The second tool is understanding correlated risk. We need to understand the correlation between individual risks if we are to understand the aggregate risks to the system.

Dr Jon Freeman, Research Group Director for Innovation, Health and Science at RAND Europe, added that any horizon scanning project regarding the food system should aim to locate and monitor those phenomena which could cause shocks. Therefore, we should monitor phenomena such as conflict, consumer reactions to new technology and methods, disease, and surety of supply.

What role could policy workshops play in the future of food security?

A substantial role that CSaP's Policy Workshops could play in food security is in facilitating the process of the Government regulator, the Food Standards Agency, in solving food safety and security problems.

Julie Pierce, Director of Openess, Data and Digital at the Food Standards Agency, stressed that the solving of such problems is "very much an iterative process". Research questions need to be framed, then assessed, then reframed in light of expert advice. Though it is a painstaking process, Julie's years of experience have taught her that it is a necessary one: "once we get to a good, quality question, it's much easier to get to a solution". She therefore sees "a huge amount of value" in the multi-disciplinary approach to workshops taken by the Centre for Science and Policy and Cambridge Global Food Security.

To download a copy of the workshop report, click here.

Banner image by Phil Hendley, from Flickr, via creative commons license; thumbnail image by Ollivier Girard, from Flickr, via creative commons license