skip to content

Cambridge Global Food Security

An Interdisciplinary Research Centre at the University of Cambridge


The Global Food Security IRC Symposium 2023 Towards a Better Food System: challenges and opportunities was an opportunity to reconnect, share knowledge and stimulate ideas within a sustainable, equitable and resilient context. 

The major themes of the day included sustainable food productionresilient supply chains and healthy consumption. Our plenary speaker, Professor Tim Benton, Chatham House set the tone with a talk entitled Food System Futures and How to Achieve Them.  

The Symposium challenged us to consider ways to reduce global agricultural intensification and frame policies for more sustainable and biodiverse local and regional production systems. We also considered the means to improve crop security, as well as roles for alternative production systems (vertical farming, shellfish, algae, legumes) and how healthier consumption systems might be generated. Additional key questions related to the control held by global commodity suppliers, the sustainability of such production systems, and the threat of extreme climatic conditions and epidemics.  

In addition to proving the importance of face-to-face meetings for cross-disciplinary interactions, the Symposium provided a focus for our future interventions.  Opportunities and challenges identified include: 

  • Support interdisciplinary funding initiatives, particularly those involving novel nutritional solutions arising from neglected crops
  • Integrate biodiverse and sustainable cropping systems
  • Understand the intersection between local and global supply chains 
  • Support healthy consumption actions
  • Raise awareness of future climatic and geopolitical impacts on food supply and demand
  • Refocus funding models to evaluate the resilience and sustainability of smaller scale production and supply systems for both rural and urban communities 
  • Continue our outreach programme of early career research talks to encourage the broadest base for engagement across the GFS constituency

Finally, through the insightful reviews, summaries of research and policy papers presented by our speakers, the Symposium helped to consolidate and unify IRC goals; providing a stimulus for initiatives which will shape the future global food security agenda. 

Professor Howard Griffiths
Co-Chair Cambridge Global Food Security


Please click on the menu items below for links to slides and summaries of the presentations given at the Symposium.

Professor Tim Benton: Food System Futures and How to Achieve Them

Please find Professor Benton's slides here.

Professor Tim Benton, Chatham House, University of Leeds opened the Symposium with an overview of the grand challenges facing the global food system; most importantly that it should both ensure enough food for everyone and be better for the planet.  

He explained the cheaper food paradigm at the heart of the food system, and how this drive to produce ever cheaper and more abundant food creates interlocking vicious circles and causes malnutrition (due both to lack of food and to reduced nutrient content), a global epidemic of diet-related disease, crop yield decline, soil depletion, biodiversity loss and climate change. 

Despite these multiple failings, the food system’s priorities continue to be agricultural intensification and global trade. The enormous power of consolidated industry and global investment in intensive agriculture give the system great structural resilience, so that a ‘business as usual’ mind-set prevails and transformative change is perceived as too risky and challenging, politically and economically. 

Although the system’s structure may be strong, it lacks functional resilience. This weakness has been made apparent by recent events such as Covid, the war in Ukraine and disasters associated with the climate emergency. The high external costs (food waste, climate change and ill-health) inherent, but barely accounted for, in the current set-up are at the heart of these weaknesses. 

It is obvious that system level change is needed.  Only the alignment of citizens, politicians, farmers and investors will ensure this.  Recent failures in the system’s functioning have made governments realise they can’t rely on markets.  In response to this and increasing threats to food security, Professor Benton said that smaller scale, more varied farming systems, shorter supply chains and less waste are likely to prevail in the future; possibly even a market system that rewards people for eating better.   Research into how to manage this change, for example by building in biodiversity and carbon-capture, is needed to maximise the potential positives that system change could bring. 


Professor Benton was asked if the situation could be improved if more scientists went into politics. He replied that it might and that everyone with a role in the food system can be an agent for change. In the plant science community many years ago there was zero appetite for being politically active, but it’s not just about being a politician, it’s about getting involved.  For example in BBSRC and DEFRA placements, and internships, to tackle big transdisciplinary issues. 

Dr Sigrid Heuer: Old genes for future crops

Dr Sigrid Heuer, NIAB Cambridge, began her talk by outlining how agriculture and crop research could lower greenhouse gas emissions from farming and reduce yield loss due to climate change by breeding more stress-tolerant varieties. 

GHG emissions can be reduced by using less nitrogen fertiliser.  NIAB has been training farmers in ways to adjust soil pH through liming and avoiding water logging by improving drainage.  Farmers are increasingly keen to find solutions to this problem because of rising fertiliser prices. 

Tapping into genetic diversity could produce future-ready wheat and rice. For example the wheat rEvolution project at NIAB has phenotyped thousands of lines to evaluate traits that help the plant adapt to tolerate heat, drought, nutrient starvation, problem soils and pests and diseases. (Find out more about NIAB’s wheat research here: Designing Future Wheat | NIAB.) 

The traits of genes in rice can be mapped for molecular breeding to address climate change, though MAGIC (Multi-parent Advanced Generation Inter-Cross populations) although this is a complex process and rice a hugely diverse crop.  The Sub 1 mega rice variety and the STRASA project has led to a huge reduction of yield loss in rice due to flooding. Gates Foundation funds production of 'smart rice' variety 

Whatever the future brings, high tech sustainable precision farming is an important means of ensuring food security in an era of climate change. 

Professor Alison Smith: Algae for food and feed

Please find Professor Smith's slides here.

Professor Alison Smith, Plant Sciences, University of Cambridge  began her talk by explaining that algae are a useful addition to the food system, particularly because they have a high vitamin, mineral and protein content and are rich in lipids such as omega-3 fatty acids. 

Algae are potentially more sustainable than foodstuffs produced through traditional agriculture, because they use less water and land, can be grown at industrial scale and have a faster growth rate than land plants. 

Recent research projects include using chlorella as a dietary supplement in India for people lacking in B12, and, in Uganda as feed for black soldier fly larvae (which are farmed for animal feed).  In Uganda the algae were part of a circular process because the medium in which they were grown was derived from crop waste through anaerobic digesters. 


Asked if algae could be used for biofuel, Professor Smith said that there are two reasons that you can’t buy algal fuels.  Firstly, they currently can’t be grown at scales needed.  Secondly, the yield of energy is probably marginal; it would take more energy than you’d get out of itOverall increasing agronomic knowledge is more important than developing fuels.  

Dr Min-Yao Jhu: Can we switch from chemical to biological nitrogen fixation for sustainable food security?

Please find Dr Jhu's slides here.

Dr Min-Yao Jhu, Crop Science Centre, spoke about her research which is part of the ENSA project. A long term aim of this research is to reduce agricultural reliance on nitrogen fertilisers.  Western agricultural systems are reliant on the application of inorganic nitrogen fertilisers that greatly enhance yield, but account for a significant proportion of fossil fuel usage in food production and are the major global source of nitrous oxide emissions, a very potent greenhouse gas.

Dr Jhu explained the mechanisms which make some species of plants capable of forming beneficial interactions with nitrogen fixing bacteria providing a natural source of nitrogen for plant growth. Her research focusses on how that beneficial symbiosis relationship could be developed in cereal crops, for example barley.

Dr Inanna Hamati-Ataya: Post-agrarian pathways in the Anthropocene
Professor Lorand Bartels: Regulating the global economy through trade agreements

Professor Lorand Bartels, Faculty of Law, set out what free trade agreements are and explained some of their implications for food security.  

The main purpose of free trade agreements is to ensure economically efficient trade between countries; they are designed to allow consumers to buy products from the most efficient source, be that local or international, and to stop governments from interfering in international trade for economic reasons or to protect domestic industry. 

Free trade agreements prioritise economic efficiency, but this does not mean that they systematically favour trade that is environmentally damaging.  For example, although these agreements facilitate global trade in food, ‘food miles’ account for a small percentage of the carbon footprint of food, so imported food can be more environmentally friendly than locally-grown products. 

Trade law does not prohibit countries from importing goods that cause environmental damage or are produced by workers whose human rights are infringed and buying cheaper goods from other countries can mean more pollution and environmental degradation in those countries.  However, there are caveats that allow Governments to break their obligations under trade agreements if there is good reason to do so.  For example to protect the environment, animal welfare, human health or for moral reasons.  These reasons must be sensible, rational and based on science (where available) and they cannot be disguised protectionism.  There are other international laws designed to protect the environment, biodiversity and human rights etc, but these laws tend to be weaker than trade laws.  

Professor Bartels explained his role as Chair of the Trade and Agriculture Commission, which provides the UK government with expert scrutiny of new trade deals once they reach the signature stage, to assess what these agreements mean for the UK’s standards in the areas of the environment, phyto-sanitary protections and animal welfare.   


Asked why the TAC does not scrutinise trade deals before they are signed, Professor Bartels explained that this was to prevent the TAC eroding the government’s flexibility to negotiate on standards in the UK.

Asked whether national food security can be aligned with global food security if governments are rational agents and take a long term view, Professor Bartels answered that from a trade regime perspective the best form of food security is diversification of sources of supply; because agriculture is very susceptible to geopolitical risk and climate change, reliance on local production could be seen as a threat to food security.  Therefore preventing governments from interfering in markets and overprotecting their own farmers can bee seen as a good thing for food security.  While this requires what might be perceived as a risky level of trust in foreign regimes, in terms of food security the benefits of trading with other countries would seem to outweigh the risks.   

Food security means a secure supply of affordable food, but the UK government supports UK farming for reasons that go beyond economic efficiency or food security. Farming makes up about 0.5% of UK GDP, but it is of significance in terms of national identity. So the government’s aim to maintain the UK’s current level of self-sufficiency in food at about 65% is about protecting farmers’ jobs, managing the landscape and our national identity. 

Dr Jagjit Singh Srai asked whether complex supply chains undermine resilience, pointing out that the paradox of diversification is that as we diversify, we need more complex supply chains, yet the more complex the supply chain the more fragile it is. Professor Bartels responded by saying that the trend in trade policy today is to shorten and simplify supply chains, and that, taken to its logical conclusion, this means having no supply chain.  It’s not just the source of supply that’s the problem, but ruptures in the chain at different points. For example, China is a big problem and people are trying to reduce their dependence. There are two potential answers to this. Either the European approach of strategic autonomy, known more bluntly in the US as ‘Buy American’, or find something more fungible, in other words create a network where parts can be more easily replaced. 

Professor Dan Tucker: Emerging livestock systems: animal, human and socioeconomic risks of pig production in Myanmar

Please find Professor Tucker's slides here.   

Professor Dan Tucker, Department of Veterinary Medicine, gave a talk with examples from The Myanmar Pig Partnership; an interdisciplinary research project which ran from 2015 – 2021, funded under the Zoonoses and Emerging Livestock Systems (ZELS) initiative. 

The project focussed on the risk of zoonotic disease thought to be accompany changing pig production patterns in Myanmar. Zoonotic diseases (zoonoses) are those passed between animals and humans.  Bacterial zoonoses are a deeply damaging, but often unrecognised, limiter to health and wellbeing, particularly of poor people in low- and middle-income countries. As they affect pig health and production, these zoonoses also impact on people’s livelihoods. 

Professor Tucker explained the various livestock systems, why they are changing, and the related increased potential for zoonotic disease, for example intensification of farming and supply chains, increased antibiotic misuse, increased consumer demand for pig products and limited surveillance of transboundary diseases.  

He went on to outline the project’s outputs to support risk mitigation which included regulatory overhaul and toolkits for knowledge-based training for vets and farmers.  Unfortunately these outputs were truncated by the military coup in Myanmar in February 2021 when fieldwork in Myanmar and collaboration with the project’s Myanmar government partners ended. 


Following Professor Tucker’s talk, there was a brief discussion on whether international law could have a role in preventing the spread of zoonotic disease.  Professor Lorand Bartels commented that if the UK were importing Myanmar pork it's possible to impose some control, for example on microbials regulation is possible and trade will allow that, but UK law cannot regulate the health and safety of the Myanmar people. 

Dr Jagjit Singh Srai: Sustainable production through farmer producer organisations and digital platforms

Dr Jagjit Singh Srai, Institute for Manufacturing, talked about his research into Farmer Producer Organisations (FPOs) in east and west Punjab (the former in India and the latter in Pakistan) as part of the TIGR2ESS research project and the Newton Fund-financed extension which took place in early 2023. This research was undertaken in collaboration with Dr. Naoum Tsolakis and Dr. Edward Anderson

Dr Srai and colleagues’ research looked at how FPOs can benefit farmers, for example by allowing them to retain more control of their businesses than they would as part of farmer cooperatives.  They also looked at ways to optimise those benefits, in particular digital technology, as well as the impediments to the success of FPOs and challenges to their adoption by farmers and policy makers.  

The early stages of the research were conducted against the background of huge protests in India against three market-friendly farm laws that took place between September 2020 and November 2021, when the laws were repealed. 

FPOs could offer an answer to some of the problems of agricultural production in India.  They make for better, and more sustainable resource use, more equity and enhanced revenue for the farmer. They also offer attractive dynamics in terms of costs, margins and supply chains.  Also the increased capability of FPOs, as compared to multiple smaller farms, ensures more sustainable use of scarce resources, for example water.   Digital FPOs can further enhance these benefits.  

However, take up of FPOs is heavily influenced by the policy instruments in the areas where they operate.  These parameters are often arbitrarily set. For example, in one state thousands of farmers have to join for an FPO to become a legal entity, in others only hundreds.  As part of the TIGR2ESS programme Dr Srai and colleagues were involved in shaping state-level policy intervention for agri-business in Punjab.  They hope the research carried out in 2023 as an extension to this project will be published soon. 


In answer to a question about the demographics of members and size of farms typical for FPOs, Dr Srai said that the typical farm size was about 4-8 acres.  These are relatively small marginal farmers.  Their research was focused on helping smaller farmers to have sustainable livelihoods, rather than increasing the wealth of rich farmers. 

Asked what could be done about the drastic drop in water levels in Punjab, Dr Srai responded by say that this is a wider issue than FPOs.  His group has written a couple of papers inspired by the TIGRESS project; one on alternative less water-intensive crops and the other on better irrigation. None of the scenarios investigated showed potential to completely resolve problems with water scarcity, but taken together, the adoption of new technology, educating farmers in water use, using waste water, smart irrigation and changing to less water-intensive crops could just about sustain the status-quo in terms of production and water levels. 

Dr Srai was then asked about the effect of water pricing on water use. He said that water pricing was a problem. For example, use of tube wells is free of charge, so farmers conventionally flood their land to irrigate.  This is a hugely wasteful practice, but it would be career suicide for politicians to ban it.  Dr Srai found that famers were very environmentally conscious, driven by self-interest and that when offered a sustainable option they were ready to take it.   

Answering a question about conflicts between farmer autonomy and cooperatives that enforce production of commodity crops in other states, Dr Srai said that commodity crop production dumbs down the farmer so he or she doesn’t have to think; the innovative spirit is gone.  Commodity crops tend to fetch lower prices and be of lower quality. The FPO model allows farmers to become more concerned about price and quality, and so, more entrepreneurial. 

Professor Rachael Garrett: Transparency and sustainability in global commodity supply chains  

Please find Professor Garrett's slides here.

Professor Rachael Garrett, Department of Geography, gave an overview the work of the conservation and development group at Cambridge, integrating the Symposium’s themes of trade, supply chains and farmer livelihoods with conservation. 

She described the current food system in which we rely on a handful of companies for each product, and suggested that the consolidation and expansion of food businesses is both a challenge and an opportunity.  We need to find solutions within the existing system while acknowledging its fundamental flaws.

By tackling what traders do, through, for example, naming and shaming campaigns or state-level regulation, a huge number of upstream producers can be reached to change their supply chain policies.

The work of the conservation and development group falls into four areas: 

  • Trying to identify hotspots within supply chains focussed on land use policies and deforestation and biodiversity impacts. 
  • Assessing the drivers of adoption of specific pledging policies and what leads companies to make these policies. How the adoption of sustainability policies can be scaled up, and how effectively they meet their specific goals.  Looking at these policies’ equity in multiple dimensions, to examine their procedural equitability.  For example, whether they allow smaller and more vulnerable farmers to gain access to supply chains. Do they actually end up causing more harm to smaller farmers than they do larger wealthier farmers? 
  • They identify the feasibility of new policies; not just private sector but at the intersection between public and private sector. 
  • Looking at tensions and synergies between different policy outcomes like deforestation and farmer livelihoods or food security under different contexts.  

A huge problem is that not enough companies have sustainability policies, so there are major gaps in adoption which means large areas are not covered by zero deforestation or supply chain policies. One way of tackling the issue is to intervene with big companies to make environmentally unfriendly practices ‘uncool’. Most land-use practices are hugely well embedded; people do what they do because it’s well regarded.  Her group has asked, ‘what if you can change that?’  Could we activate latent social norms about being a good community member and link that to maintaining the forest vegetation around these farms? This would mean that they would continue to get rainfall and prevent flooding and landslides. If environmentally unfriendly practices were less socially acceptable, people might be more likely to conserve landscapes in the absence of regulatory intervention. 


The group has made their insights available in the development of EU deforestation policy and suggested the focus should be not on individual farmers or supply chains, but instead on interventions at a higher scale, either state or municipality, to help governments improve agricultural practices, monitoring and to change norms and channel finance at that scale. 





Asked about the relative responsibilities of the actors in the food industry and the possibility of regulating supply chains through trade agreements, Professor Garrett replied that large international actors and the financial sector are hugely responsible for unsustainable practices.  She pointed out that historically many Latin American countries were forced into a particular economic model. For example, for the military dictatorship in Brazil, clearing the forest was a way of both achieving economic growth and driving out indigenous people; an example of internal and external colonialism. 

With greater volumes of produce now going to export markets we can attribute more responsibility to international companies. We need all of the above together for an effective solution; we can keep working with an incremental approach, but only as a stop-gap to regulate individual supply chains.

We need to know what we’re working for, not just against.  What is the vision of the future?  We need to channel all this finance into the solutions, not just stopping the problems; we need to start to install a new economy.  

Lorand Bartels commented that there is a hard core legal dimension to this; the EU’s deforestation regulation.  This means products cannot be sold in the EU unless they are certified as not deforestation-related.   This is a big initiative on the demand side. 

Professor Garrett replied that this big change in the system could be important or a flop. It will stop deforestation-linked products from getting into the EU, but will it stop deforestation? 

One of the problems is that traceability is difficult; most products cannot currently be traced.  Some very large companies are splitting their businesses; moving the zero-deforestation parts of their businesses into supply chains for the EU and the rest into supply chains for China.  This may be too costly for a large number of companies. The conservation and development group modelled the reduction in deforestation as result of EU anti-deforestation regulations For the moment the EU has great leverage, but this could fall apart if more companies split supply chains in this way. 

Asked about the effect of Indonesian Sustainable Palm Oil (ISPO) and the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), Professor Garrett said RSPO ISPO have been shown in some studies to reduce deforestation. She and her colleagues had looked at the entire region and found that where companies directly own property they have stopped deforesting, but in the places where small holders sell into the supply chain, they haven’t. Unfortunately the system is not fool-proof; there are a lot of spill-overs and leakage. 

Professor Martin White: Generating novel solutions to improve urban food systems for human and planetary health
Dr Nadia Radzman: How forgotten beans can help fight malnutrition 

Please find Dr Radzman's slides here.

Dr Nadia Radzman, Sainsbury Laboratory, began by explaining that legumes (plants in the bean family including lentils, soybeans and lupins) are a sustainable and nutritious crop. They are drought-tolerant and can fix atmospheric nitrogen which improves soil quality and reduces the need for chemical fertiliser. They also produce high protein beans and tubers for human consumption. As well as peas and beans, many legumes can form potato-like structures on their roots; peas and chips on one plant!    

Dr Radzman’s research in Nigeria and Ethiopia (with Dr Curie Park) into forgotten and underutilised legumes focusses on the African Yam Bean. AYB has strong potential to buffer food insecurity in regions of Africa where there have been food crises, yet its popularity is declining.    

Dr Radzman outlined the challenges in developing AYB for commercial production, in terms of plant breeding and transformation, as well as issues of short shelf life and long cooking times for consumers. Despite these hurdles, AYB has huge potential to boost food security in areas of the world where this is needed most.  Further research to improve AYB could make this possibility a reality.  

Useful links:


Asked how AYB can be supplied to the hungry people who need it, Dr Radzman responded that most people growing AYB (in Nigeria) are poor farmers who grow it as a reliable security crop, in case other crops fail.  There has been an increase in farmers growing AYB because prices of seeds for cassava and cow pea have risen, whereas AYB has stayed the same.  

Asked how people consume AYB, Dr Radzman said that poor farmers cook the beans overnight, which is a barrier to AYB being more widely consumed.  However these farmers continue to consume it because it is an easy (to grow), accessible and cheap protein source.  

Dr Radzman said that AYB has been side-lined by institutions funding crop research, which is slowing its chances of becoming commercially useful in the future.  

Dr David Willer: Fish and seafood innovation

Please find Dr Willer's slides here.

Dr David Willer, Department of Zoology, University of Cambridge began by summarising the ‘fish and seafood conundrum’; fish and seafood are currently produced in unsustainable and wasteful ways, but bivalves are the exception; they are nutrient dense and sustainable, yet they are not a popular food.  Fish and seafood are an important source of vital nutrients that are lacking in many diets, yet, despite this, world consumption of these foodstuffs is lower than recommended. The question at the heart of Dr Willer’s research is, ‘How can we make what is sustainable economically attractive?’  

His group’s fish and seafood innovation approach targets five key areas:  

  • Improving sector policy.  A third of caught fish are used as feed in aquaculture.  If wild fish (e.g. mackerel) weren’t fed to farmed fish, and instead to humans, this would increase amount of nutrients in human diets. Rather than the ‘fish-in, fish-out’ metric that is currently used to assess aquaculture sustainability, his group has devised an ‘edible nutrient retention’ metric, which measures how much of the nutrients produced are consumed by humans (rather than as feed for fish or wasted).  (Read more about this research here.)  
  • Novel species innovation: His group developed an aquaculture system for shell-less clams which are high in fat and protein.   (Read more about this research here)  
  • Product Innovation: the group are working with companies including Nomad Foods, Europe’s largest frozen food company and owners of Birds Eye, Findus and igloo, to develop new products (Read more about this research here).  
  • Stimulating consumer demand for fish and seafood. Dr Willer’s group’s research into what motivates people to eat shellfish suggests that nutrition, convenience and low price can drive greater sustainable bivalve consumption. Bivalves in processed form are more appealing than processed meat – e.g. fish cakes.   (Read more about this research here.)  
  • Making sustainable seafood economically attractive, by encouraging a shift towards bivalves being lucrative to farm; Dr Willer aims to make direct human consumption of bivalves economically attractive.    


Dr Willer was asked about stakeholder involvement in his research. He replied that they’re currently working with two supermarkets and a few fish and seafood manufacturers to work out what the most effective products would be and whether they could be made available in sufficient quantities to be commercially viable. For example a manufacturer would need 100,000 tonnes guaranteed supply [a year?] of mussels for mussel cakes to be available in shops every day. Currently this is not possible.

It’s about working out what’s available, and if it’s not, how to help producers produce that. In terms of the trade in fish bi-products (for example fish belly and fish heads) Dr Willer remarked that salmon belly sells for about £2 a kilo in the UK, but about £30 per kilo in China, because of differences in food culture.  

Is capital investment needed for processing bivalves or do stakeholders already have machinery? Dr Willer said that this is an important point; removing shells is a big problem with mussels. However there are machines in other areas of the food industry that could be repurposed to do this, so it is hoped that the capacity exists to process mussels.   

It was pointed out that Spain consumes about 50 times more bivalves than the UK; is that because there is more availability in supermarkets or in restaurants?  Dr Willer responded that there is more availability in both places, and that in supermarkets the quality of bivalves is much better and fresher, which also reflects cultural differences in diet.  In terms of testing products on consumers, Dr Willer’s work has largely been limited to school and university canteens. School children seem to really like mussel fishcakes, which have outsold regular fishcakes.

Professor Paul Dupree: A gut feeling: pulses for health (and the planet)

Please find Professor Dupree's slides here.

Professor Paul Dupree, Department of Biochemistry, is a plant biochemist and leader of the Dupree Group in the Department of Biochemistry, interested in plant-derived dietary fibre. He is part of GFS’ project to build a local consortium working towards a grant application to look at fibres and health.  

Fibre should be an important driver for innovation in food because of its importance to our gut microbiome and its role in diseases such as bowel disorders, obesity, cancer and even our mental health. Legumes are of particular interest because they can be sustainably farmed. (See Dr Nadia Radzman’s talk above, ‘How forgotten beans can help fight malnutrition’.)  

Worldwide, diets are becoming more homogenous, lower in fibre diversity and poorer in nutrients, this is largely due to the increased consumption of ultra-processed foods and a concomitant decrease in the diversity of plants consumed. This is bad news for our microbiome and for biodiversity generally.  

An increase in the consumption of pulses could reverse these trends and improve human and planetary health. To maximise the potential of pulses and pulse-based products, we need to know more about fibre diversity, and how different gut microbes have evolved to digest fibre from different plant species.   

Dietary fibre is the main source of nutrition for our microbiome and influences it in complex ways that are not yet well understood. The Dupree Group focusses on what plant-derived dietary fibre is; plants have evolved to make a huge number of different structures. The analysis of these structures and the microbes that digest them constitute an extremely complex system that they’re working with others to understand.  


Asked if different people respond differently to different diets. Professor Dupree said yes they do, but we have a very limited genetic enzymology for degrading these types of fibres. Our ability to digest fibre mostly comes down to what microbes we have in our guts, and these vary greatly. For example, in Japan people have microbes that can digest seaweed polysaccharides, whereas people in other parts of the world don’t.     

In answer to a question about whether health professionals might be involved in any of these studies to find out more about how the consumption of pulses affects health (specifically pain management and inflammation), Professor Dupree said that they are keen to span the whole area. A person’s gut metabolism can have a huge effect on their health, and more research is needed, but these studies are complex and expensive.  

Asked about his view on UPFs, Professor Dupree said that probably not every food that is processed is equally bad, and that it is unclear which ingredient or process might make UPFs so bad for us. It could be that it’s too finely ground, lacking in fibre or that emulsifiers are the problem. He added that the importance of diversity of fibres is perhaps not enough taken into consideration.   

In answer to a question about why there is such a diversity of fibres in legumes, Professor Dupree said that it is often to stop insects and animals from eating the seeds; the fine structure of these polysaccharides isn’t important for these seeds to grow, it is more a defence system.  It is harder for pests to get nutrients from more complex structures.   

Finally, in answer to a question about the links between soil, gut and mental health, Professor Dupree said that his group are not looking at soil health. However the choice to study pulses is partly motivated by their positive effect on soil quality. The consortium group mentioned above is also looking at mental health in association with the William Templeton Foundation.  

Iris Berger: Effectiveness of different agricultural strategies and conservation interventions in limiting food production-driven biodiversity loss in India

Please find Iris Berger's slides here.

Iris Berger, Department of Zoology spoke about her PhD research on the consequences of different food system trajectories for biodiversity and potential conservation strategies in India. Her interest in food systems stems from the realisation that if we want to stop or slow biodiversity loss we have to change the way we produce food so as to meet ever-growing demand at the least cost to nature.   

Her research focusses on zero budget natural farming (ZBNF) in Andhra Pradesh in southern India.  ‘Zero budget’ refers to a radical reduction in the farmers’ reliance on synthetic external inputs and agricultural credit.  ‘Natural farming’ refers to the agroecological basis on which these expenditure cuts are achieved.  Having interviewed both ZBNF and other chemical-using farmers about yield, she found that there’s no difference in yield between the two systems. However, the more natural habitat patches there are imbedded in the agricultural landscape, the lower the yield.  Having established how yield is affected by land management and small-scale habitat patches, Berger will now turn her attention to biodiversity. She is assessing the density of bird species in different habitats and will then combine that with the yield data for the same area to identify the scenario that maximises the population density of bird species, whilst also meeting demand for food.   

Jessa Garibay-Yayen: Surfing Underloved Seafood: Encouraging the consumption of fish by-products and shellfish for societal health

Please find Jessa Garibay-Yayen's slide here. 

Jessa Garibay-Yayen, Department of Zoology began by pointing out that the health of the planet is inextricably linked to the food system and, for her as a Filipina, this always comes down to seafood.  

Global fisheries and aquaculture reached a record 214m tonnes in 2020 (SOFIA FAO 2022), 35% of which is not directly consumed by humans.  

Jessa Garibay-Yayen's research compares the way fish and seafood are consumed in the Philippines and the UK. This is particularly important because four out of ten people in the world rely on seafood for their livelihood. It is the biggest traded commodity in the world, beyond wine, beer and grains.

When it comes to eating fish and seafood, we cannot continue with business as usual; the best time to eat fish belly and fish heads is now. 

Broderick House: The Case for Farming Oysters in Cities: A promising solution in a sea of uncertainty  

Broderick House, Department of Zoology, talked about his research into urban aquaculture, touching on vertical farming.  His research looks at how to produce equitable and sustainable food and specifically how to grow oysters in an urban environment. 

Oysters offer nutritional advantages; as well as being high in protein oysters are rich in the micro nutrients in which 30% of global population are deficient. They can also be further enriched with micronutrients, for example vitamin D and A.   

Conventional aquaculture and the shellfish industry are at risk due to climate change.  Although conventional oyster production is low cost/low energy, oysters are filter feeders so they absorb toxins in their environment making disease and quality control problematic. In an urban setting the water quality can be controlled through, for example, filtration. This is currently high cost, but the risk to health is reduced.  It is hoped that in the future the cost will be lower as systems are refined and developed. Another advantage of producing oysters where they are consumed is the low transport cost. Urban oyster production could benefit industry and business, as well as the public and health sectors.  

Yuru Huang: Menu healthiness, socioeconomic patterns, and our out-of-home food choices

Please find Yuru Huang's slide here.

Yuru Huang, MRC Epidemiology Unit, discussed whether, when it comes to out-of-home food outlets, healthier menus really translate to healthier diets?  As part of her research she predicted the menu healthiness out-of-home food outlets using menu attributes and outlet names.  In more deprived areas, where there tend to be a greater density of out-of-home food outlets, she found that these outlets also tend to have less healthy menus.  She also found that exposure to outlets with healthier menus was not associated with diet quality.  

In summary, menu healthiness, along with food outlet availability, is socioeconomically patterned. Although menu healthiness may have a limited impact on dietary behaviour, the availability of food outlets may influence how often people purchase meals out-of-home. 

João P. R. Joaquim: Agricultural Virology in Mid-Twentieth-Century Britain: model organisms and crop pathogens 

Please find João Joaquim's slide here.

João P. R. Joaquim, Department of History of Science & Philosophy spoke on the development of plant virus research in the UK in the mid-20th century using as a case study the Cambridge-based Potato (later Plant) Virus Research Station – the PVRS.  

By noting the difficulty of disentangling micro and macro-organisms within virus research and framing it in the context of epistemological continuity rather than disruption, his research brings some nuance to classic accounts of the history of virology and reconnects it with its agricultural side, in particular potato growers’ continued reliance on the provision of certified disease-free seed for profitable farming.

Dr Matt Keeble: Understanding access to food through online food delivery service platforms

Please find Dr Keeble's slide here.

Dr Matt Keeble, MRC Epidemiology Unit, began by saying that 683 is the number of food outlets that would deliver to the auditorium in which the Symposium was taking place, had attendees been ordering via three of the major on-line food delivery services operating in the UK.  These services are becoming increasingly popular. The big question for public health is what this means for our diets and our food system. These services also provide access to food that is high in calories and fat, and frequent consumption is associated with poor diet and higher body weight.    

Dr Keeble’s PhD research was an investigation into who is using these services, why and how the opportunity to use them varies based on where people live. He found that people who are younger, more highly educated and living with children tended to use them more frequently. They said they enjoyed the convenience and that it was normal to buy takeaway food online not in shop.   

When he mapped over 30,000 food outlets in 2019 he found that people living in the most deprived areas had almost 50% more access to takeaway food outlets than people in the least deprived areas. When he repeated this exercise in March 2022, he found that the number of places that had registered to accept orders online had increased by almost 100% to around 60,000 food outlets.  

Matthew Keeble will continue his research, the policy implications of which are of interest to organisations that focus on population health and food systems.   

Valentine Reiss-Woolever: The social factors that influence oil palm smallholders and their ecological effects 

Please find Valentine Reiss-Woolever's slide here.

Valentine Reiss-Woolever, Department of Zoology talked about her research on why independent smallholder oil palm farmers in Malaysia replant in a polyculture (or not), and the ecological impacts of that decision.  This research is part of broader project funded by the UKRI BBSRC on smallholder oil palm systems in Malaysia and Indonesia.   

Palm oil is the world’s most traded vegetable oil.  It contributes to the livelihoods of over seven million smallholder farmers across the tropics, yet its cultivation is linked to negative impacts on biodiversity, ecosystem functioning, and community wellbeing. Smallholder farmers are key stakeholders in oil palm sustainability, as their management decisions directly affect plantation productivity and environmental health.  

Oil palm must be replanted every 20-30 years, with the decision to replant in a mono or polyculture having long term environmental and economic effects. The study involved social and ecological surveys as a case study to investigate which socio-demographic and attitude factors are related to smallholder farmer decisions about how to replant, the differences in management inputs and environmental features.  

The study found that there are no significant differences in socio-demographics or attitudes between mature or immature mono- or polyculture plantations, and that farmers are not tailoring management strategies towards their unique plantation needs. However, plantations did differ significantly in environmental features, suggesting that intercropping is influencing the ecosystem regardless of inputs. While this research was done as a case study, it provides a unique example of interdisciplinary work, illuminates key focus areas for sustainability and productivity initiatives, and proves useful guidance for future research in this understudied area. 

Valentine Reiss-Woolever's talk was based on a paper currently in review, to be published soon. 

Benny Qihao Shen: Rethinking the archaeology of apiculture through indigenous east African beekeeping

Please find Benny Qihao Shen's slide here.

Benny Qihao Shen, Department of Archaeology  described his research on the long-term impact of beekeeping on the landscape and ecology of west Kenya. He referenced the American archaeologist Carole Crumley who said that the past is our best and only laboratory for strategies against environmental change. 

This mutual relationship between bees and humans affects broader ecosystems and livelihoods. Benny Shen’s pilot study around the Embobut forest in west Kenya revealed how traditional beekeeping has been integral to the subsistence economy of the Marakwet and Sengwor communities.  

In this specific case, beekeeping, understood from a landscape perspective, enhances rather than conflicts with other types of food production.  Overall, Benny Shen’s research sheds light on the intricate relationships between human activities, beekeeping, and broader ecological systems. It emphasizes the importance of indigenous ecological knowledge to address environmental issues in the modern world and the autonomy of ecosystem management through which more resilient and diversified landscape management can be possible.  

Megan Walker: The Role of Fish and Seafood in the First 1000 years of Human Life.  

Please find Megan Walker's slide here.

Megan Walker, is a member of the Aquatic Ecology Group in the Dept of Zoology.  Her study looks at the first 1000 days of life from conception to a child’s second birthday; a period of enormous growth and change.  The food options given to children during this period lead to life-long dietary habits and she is focussing on fish and seafood.  

The UK population eats less than the recommended amount of fish and seafood.  This is significant because fish and seafood contain important levels of micronutrients, such as vitamin D, folates which are important during pregnancy, iron and omega 3 which is essential for brain development.  

The research seeks to understand the barriers for parents and guardians of young children to give children these foods early in life.  The subjects of the study are currently being surveyed to establish whether issues of cost or safety worries about heavy metals prevent people eating more of these foods and looking at whether they are proven barriers rooted in science, or socially perceived ones.