6 ways we're building resilient food systems for a healthier future

Close-up of water droplets on a leaf

Over the coming decades, a changing climate, growing global population, increasing food prices and environmental stressors will have significant yet uncertain impacts on global food security.  

At the University of Leeds, we’re delivering high quality, challenge-led, interdisciplinary research, with the aim of overcoming this urgent challenge both in the UK and abroad.   

Our researchers span multiple disciplines across environment, biological sciences, social sciences and food sciences. For World Food Day 2023 we give you a taste of what we're doing to build a healthier future for all.

1. Water is life, water is food

Water bubbles

This year’s World Food Day theme is water. Covering the majority of Earth, it makes up over 50% of our bodies, produces our food, and supports livelihoods.

But water is not infinite. We need to ensure that our water is managed properly. It is affected by the food we eat and how that food is produced.

Supported by water@leeds, the University hosts over 300 water researchers whose projects run across all disciplines. Together, they’ve published over 2,000 publications since 2020.

The work at water@leeds has supported 16 of the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals, including No Poverty, Zero Hunger, Good Health and Wellbeing, Gender Equality, and Clean Water and Sanitation.

The directors of water@Ieeds recognise the important role water plays in achieving net zero.

We are confident that water@leeds will continue to play an important international part in this effort, working with our global collaborators. We are always open to welcoming new members, collaborators and partners.
Water@Leeds directors quote from forthcoming annual report

Read how water@leeds are collaborating to find solutions to global water-related challenges.

2. Accelerating sustainable agriculture

Rows of crops in soil on a farm

Our Global Food and Environment Institute is transforming its 317-hectare commercial arable and livestock farm into a digitally-enabled testbed for transformative agricultural innovations.

The smart farm incorporates technologies that monitor conditions in real time. This multi-systems approach means the farm can be used to deliver data-driven solutions across the whole food system – from the farm, through the supply chain, to the consumer. 

Tackling the effects of animal agriculture

According to the Environment Agency, animal agriculture is the biggest cause of river pollution in the UK. One reason it’s so damaging is the high levels of phosphate and nitrate found in animal waste, which ends up in local waterways. This is why researchers at the University of Leeds have partnered with Entocycle, to research the circular use of insects in farmed animal feed to address significant environmental challenges, such as waste management, food sustainability and climate change.

And our National Pig Centre is the UK’s largest and most advanced facility for research into pig nutrition, behaviour, welfare and health and production systems. View a webinar by Dr Katie McDermott on its facilities and ongoing research.

Strengthening the benefits of soil

Regenerative agriculture is a farming system and grazing that limits soil disturbances and keeps soil covered. This helps rebuild soil organic matter and restore degraded soil biodiversity, which helps strengthen the many benefits of soil. 

These include:

  • storing carbon to help reduce the impacts of climate change
  • improving water infiltration and storage
  • storing nitrogen and phosphorous nutrients and supplying these to plants
  • filtering out chemical pollution in drainage water
  • maintaining habitat to support farm biodiversity

The global impact of agriculture

An Innovation Fellowship supported by the Priestley Centre for Climate Futures enabled Dr Nicole Nisbett to look at agricultural subsidies to farmers throughout Africa, and how these are being future-proofed for the changing climate. Along with colleagues at Clim-Eat she suggests that public action might be able to champion the use of green subsidies to support environmental outcomes, diversified farming for improved nutrition, and agroforestry to build soil resilience.

As well as this, research by Dr Rebecca Sarku and Professor Stephen Whitfield reveals important gaps in the efforts of the Koronivia Joint Work on Agriculture to promote a socially and environmentally just transformation of agriculture.

Our researchers in sustainable agriculture are also exploring how plants respond to temperature (vernalization), how plant cells communicate with each other using special channels (plasmodesmata), and the importance of plant root angles in growing crops.

3. Delivering net zero

Children eating their school meals at a table in a canteen

Our researchers have been exploring ways to reach net zero through changes to the food system.

University of Leeds scientists are transforming plant-based proteins from gloopy and dry substances to a more juicy and fat-like texture, by just adding water, through a process called microgelation

And data scientists have developed a calculator which could reduce the level of carbon emissions generated by food production and consumption. The calculator is being trialled by Leeds City Council’s school meals provider. Researchers have also been engaging with young people in local primary schools through special food data science lessons, workshops, and even creating an interactive and educational Planet Plates game by Leeds City Council’s school meals provider.

Other research supporting the journey to net zero includes:

4. Enabling equal access to food

Supermarket shelves full of vegetables

In the UK, 18 percent of households are unable to access an adequate supply of nutritious, affordable, culturally suitable food, or are uncertain about their next meal. Around 4 million children are living with this insecurity.

Food insecurity's impact is not felt equally nationwide. for example, the North East is the most severely affected area, with nearly 28 percent of households dealing with food insecurity.

Professor Bernadette Moore and Dr Charlotte Evans have called for action from the government and local authorities to reduce reliance on emergency food provision, improve the uptake of eligible financial support, and develop sustainable food system resilience in diverse communities across the UK.

The cost of living crisis has exacerbated the situation for those experiencing food insecurity. Food hubs have been relied upon to provide support to communities through the cost-of-living crisis, including through offering food, providing training in food skills, fostering community involvement, operating food pantries and social supermarkets, and offering business guidance and support.

Ultimately, access to an adequate, safe, and healthy diet is a fundamental human right. Clare James provides an overview into the right to food in her blog Resilient food systems and the right to food. Hear more from Dr Effie Papargyropoulou and Professor Sara Gonzalez in our how to fix….food poverty podcast.

5. Securing our global food supply

Five people working in a field of crops

Food supply is a global challenge. Shocks to the food system such as climate, Brexit, COVID-19 and war can disrupt the supply of food. Researchers at Leeds are working to understand how these shocks disrupt our food supply system and what we can do to mitigate against this disruption or even prevent it.

During the pandemic, farming was classed by the government as ‘essential’ work, yet farmers struggled to recruit workers to help with seasonal work. The Feeding the Nation project explored the work conditions and policies for seasonal migrant workers through the lens of farming being essential work.

FSNet Africa

The University of Leeds, University of Pretoria and FANRPAN are leading a project called FSNet Africa. These lead partners were selected in part due to their strengths in food system research. This project ‘aims to design and implement food systems research in partnership with stakeholders to identify solutions that can bring about sustainable change in African food systems’.

6. Building a food secure Leeds

Bridgewater Place in Leeds on a sunny day

Researchers at Leeds have been examining the Leeds food system – to understand how it works, how resilient it is to shocks, to map it and, ultimately, improve how the local food system works and to support the delivery of the Leeds Food Strategy.

And Growing a resilient food system in Leeds by Dr Paola Sakai is a policy brief that was produced following a workshop with a range of stakeholders from the City region. The brief advises policymakers to be ‘strategic and bold, to increase the climate resilience of its food system while promoting health, sustainability and food security’.

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