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Cambridge Global Food Security

An Interdisciplinary Research Centre at the University of Cambridge

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A report on the Global Food Security Cambridge Symposium

‘What stops you from working with non-academics to implement your research? And what could be done to remove these blocks?‘

These were the frank questions asked of the – mainly academic – audience at the Global Food Security Symposium by Dr Lara Allen of The Humanitarian Centre, which seemed to reverberate through discussions throughout the rest of the day, along with two other main strands of thought. Firstly, Ivan Scales highlighted how global food security is really a ‘multiscalar problem’, which spans from global commodity chains, to local land use issues, and even differences within and between households. Secondly, Steve Wearne challenged the audience with a particularly thought-provoking quote which he had overheard earlier in the day - ‘Opinions are the key to making progress, not knowledge’. Themes of public engagement and acceptance were reoccurring, with issues ranging from the marketability of transgenic disease-resistant poultry, to the practicalities of extracting usable and farmer friendly data from complex models of current and future resource availability.  Such wide-ranging issues really sum up the ethos of the day; with speakers and attendees from many areas of the university and beyond much exciting and stimulating interdisciplinary discussion was had.

The core science research within the Initiative was well represented, with talks from Drs John Carr, Mark Holmes and Jon Lyall. Carr spoke about his group’s work looking at the spread of bean common mosaic virus and bean common mosaic necrosis virus in East Africa, and ways to prevent it. Whilst they are working hard on the gritty biological details of how aphids respond to the volatiles given off by infected and non-infected plants, they are also ensuring that this information is passed back to the communities they are working with, through the Pan-African Bean Research Initiative.

Both Holmes and Lyall are from the Department of Veterinary Medicine, and their talks were focused on zoonoses – diseases that can pass from animals to humans, which endanger not only food security but also public health. How dairy cattle and other animals in agriculture act as a reservoir for MRSA was the topic of Holmes’ talk, as he had discovered that it is the same strains of MRSA that are found in both cattle and humans, and even tracked down evidence for individual cases of transmission between animals and their handlers. It was pointed out that it is important that we understand the origins of new strains, and how they spread, in order to prevent MRSA becoming a bigger issue here in the future, or in developing countries.

Lyall had taken his study of avian influenza slightly further, and was aiming to engineer transgenic chickens that were resistant to the disease. His current work had succeeded in providing immunity at the level of the flock but not the individual, by showing resistance to secondary but not primary contact. However it is hoped that future work to crossbreed the two forms of transgenic chickens which he has created could improve this success rate. However, as with any transgenic organism, the big question is ‘is the public ready; will they accept it?’ This was picked up later in discussions of research translation.

Understanding of supply chains and resource demand was another theme for the day, with individuals from the Department of Engineering and the associated Institute for Manufacturing presenting their work. Mukesh Kumar had been investigating and mapping UK and Indian supply chains, with a view to understanding how and why companies are changing their supply chains, and how future climate change impacts could exacerbate this. He drew an interesting comparison between the two countries: in India 40% of produce is destroyed upstream of the point of sale, whereas in the UK 40% is destroyed downstream. By understanding what the causes behind this are there is hope to reduce losses in both countries.  

Feriha Mugisha talked of his work applying the Forseer model to Ugandan water, energy and land use now and into the future. This spanned the global to local continuum, with the same model being used in California, China and the UK, as well as being able to give information in Uganda from the whole country scale down to half kilometre grid squares. A major issue, he admitted, was how to get this knowledge to the farmers themselves.

 Katya Yatskovskaya also spoke on resource use, and picked up on the work of Kumar, with her research focusing on how natural resources such as water at the local level had the ability to limit and force re-organisation of global supply chains. Ground water over-pumping, drought and declining water quality have all forced major multinationals to change their supply chain structures or stop operations in certain areas. A case study she gave was of a Coca Cola factory in Plachimada, India, between 1999 and 2006, where severe depletion of the water table forced the state’s government to close down the plant, leading the company to reconfigure its supply chain. This is a good example of the importance of resource protection to large companies, and their supply chains.

The importance of protecting ‘natural capital’ – such as ground water resources – was also emphasised by Gemma Cranston, who gave the business case for investing in nature. Her work aims to provide the evidence to businesses in an accessible way, to show just how important investing in natural capital is to protect profits in the long term - she wants to see natural capital protection become integral to business plans. Lynn Dicks’ presentation on the Cool Farm Tool explained how this tool could be used by businesses to understand how they are damaging natural capital. Whilst the tool is currently only able to give businesses an estimate of the greenhouse gas emissions generated by their actions, she has been working to enable the tool for biodiversity estimates. Dicks and her colleagues at the Zoology Department have aided the development of a biodiversity scoring system by analysing the evidence of the impacts of certain actions on biodiversity. This will be used to give feedback to businesses and farmers after they have answered questions on what actions they take in their supply chain. This also allows the collation a database of biodiversity management and land use actions across supply chains, which can be fed into future work.

The use of new tools and technology to convey information was also the topic of Shailija Fennel’s talk, albeit for a very different use. She has been working with engineers at the Indian Institute of Technology to analyse the availability and quality of wireless internet in rural Tamil Nadu, India. They are developing maps of signal quality, so that people can ensure they are getting value for money. Additionally, they are developing apps to give information about higher education institutes prices and courses, so that the rural youth are able to make a more informed choice about if and where to continue their education. Fennel hopes that by giving youth more information about leaning options and skillsets, they will be better equipped to choose courses with skillsets more suited to both urban and rural work markets, so that if they are unable to find work in the city (which many aspire to do), they will also have options in rural areas.

This theme of communication and the knowledge deficit ran throughout the day: conveying knowledge from scientists and engineers to farmers that need it for increasing yield, or understanding resource distribution; from scientists to businesses to help them understand the benefits of investing in natural capital, and from wireless internet providers and researchers to the general public, to ensure they can get value for money. Paul Mylrea, in his stimulating closing address, also picked up on how the university as a whole needs to communicate the fact that its researchers do try to communicate their research – currently the university is seen as not being as strong as its counterparts in applying its research. This linked heavily with Lara Allen’s questions to researchers, with which this article opened. Chris Sandbrook presented on the new global assessment report ‘Forests, Trees and Landscapes for Food Security and Nutrition’, which he was involved in writing. This characterised forests as ‘livelihood safety nets’, which are vital to top up, enrich, and increase resilience of food supplies, and suggested increasing legally recognised rights for locals over their own forested land, as this encourages cultivation of tree products. Lara Allen highlighted that it was vital that the action points recommended in the report were actually acted upon, and help those that needed it, rather than being written and forgotten.

However, communication of, and action on, knowledge is not the only issue. Ivan Scales asked in discussion whether there really was a knowledge deficit when it came to big businesses and politicians, and the general public changing their ways, or whether it was more of an unwillingness to act on the knowledge given. This certainly linked with Steve Wearne’s talk on his experience with the Food Standards Agency, and how they would like ultimately to encourage a secure and healthy diet. He also picked up on the power of the public in the success of new technologies leaving the lab – a valid point with reference to Lyall’s transgenic chickens. Wearne asked whether research should start with what consumers want, rather than what scientists think most effective – which would most likely have led to a very different outcome with Lyall’s work.

Paul Mylrea, of the Office for External Affairs and Communications, finished the day, again focusing on the impact of research. He said ‘Days like today are critical for developing ways to convey your research’ – and hopefully all those involved will agree that the symposium allowed for reflection on how best to make impact, as well as much interdisciplinary discussion to stimulate new avenues of research.

Joanna Wolstenholme, Communications intern