It was our great pleasure to hold the 3rd Annual IFNH Forum online just before Christmas. We have been holding the Forum each year since the Institute was set up in late 2017. Each Forum has a theme which allows us to showcase research from Reading (and partners) and how this connects with work done elsewhere, with presentations from highly respected external speakers.

This year’s theme was the importance of interdisciplinary working to successfully address food system challenges.

Previous events had been in person and by invitation only, so moving online for the first time was both a challenge and an experiment but had the advantage of increasing engagement and broadening our audience. We also took the opportunity to change things by inviting two external speakers who broadly share a common vision – to reduce stunting and the incidence of associated chronic diseases in children in low and middle income countries by improving their diets – but approach it from very different perspectives.

Stunting is a major worldwide problem and an important measure of malnutrition and a good indicator of social inequality. In 2019, 21.3% of children aged under 5 worldwide were stunted, with undernutrition linked to 45% of child deaths. About half of stunted children live in Asia and over one third in Africa. Linear growth retardation and stunting are associated with delayed child development, lower school achievement and reduced physical strength. In due course this leads to reduced work capacity and lower earnings, trapping people in poverty and reducing economic productivity of nations by an estimated 10%. Given the scale of the problem, the contrast in approaches by our keynote speakers, one using animal-derived foods and the other plant-based approaches, proved to be enormously interesting. Equally, so were the synergies that emerged from those differing approaches, particularly around diversity and interdisciplinarity.

Joanna Kane-Potaka is Assistant Director General, External Relations, ICRISAT and in her role as Executive Director provides the real drive behind the Smart Food Initiative (ICRISAT). The programme addresses large global issues of poverty, hunger and malnutrition by looking at diversifying staples through increased use of sorghum and millets; ancient grains chosen because of their diversity, versatility and nutritional value, having both a low glycaemic index and being gluten-free. Sorghum and millets were also chosen as ‘smart foods’ because they meet the ‘triple bottom line’, where solutions are good for you (healthy and nutritious), good for the planet (environmentally sustainable), and good for the farmer (of benefit to, and engaged with, smallholders). Various studies have shown impressive results such as 50% relative faster growth in school children fed millet-based meals for 3 months. When finger millet was included in their meals, 80% of students in a Tanzanian boarding school study changed their negative perceptions of it. When Smart Food ambassadors spread nutrition messages about legumes, sorghum and millets it resulted in an almost 100% increase in diet diversity for children and 20% increase in women.

In contrast, Dr Adegbola Adesogan, a University of Reading graduate (MSc and PhD) and Professor of Animal Nutrition and Director of the Food Systems Institute at the University of Florida, is the leader of USAID’s Feed the Future initiative. The programme’s primary objective is to reduce childhood stunting, described by Dr Adesogan as “the silent preventable tragedy”, using animal-derived foods (including eggs) because of their superior quality protein, higher energy density and higher nutrient density and bioavailability, particularly for children aged between 6 and 23 months. The programme works in eight countries, has 45 field to fork projects and has developed 43 innovations used by nearly 3,000 people across the world. Projects are diverse ranging from improving cow productivity with drought tolerant home-grown pigeon pea and improving milk production (by 94%) through a livestock diet balancing app, to influencing policy in East Africa to address high aflatoxin levels in animal feed and culturally tailored behaviour change interventions to improve nutrition through increased egg intake.

Although our keynotes speakers outlined their rather contrasting approaches, results from both projects showed the need for multidisciplinary approaches in solutions, from working with communities and school cooks to designing menus that are culturally acceptable to prioritising education at individual and stakeholder level to raise awareness and effect behaviour change. Projects do not work in isolation – the scale of the problem and the magnitude of what is trying to be achieved requires a diversity of solutions simply because different solutions suit different agroecosystems.

Other presentations, including a number based on EIT Food-funded projects, covered a digital toolkit for communicating health claims, development of new protein beverages as dairy alternatives from less refined plant protein sources, increasing consumer trust and support for the food supply chain and for food companies, a biosocial cohort study of obesity in young adults in urban Peru and an interdisciplinary approach to the drivers of food choice.

The overriding message from all our speakers was that interdisciplinary research is critical to address food system issues and solve global hunger. The breadth of issues encountered, from environmental degradation to individual food taboos, needs a broad range of experts, from public health to agriculture to behaviour change, working simultaneously to improve global food security, equity, livelihoods and environmental stewardship. Interdisciplinarity enables different perspectives that can be truly revealing and sometimes result in eureka moments. To ensure food systems are sustainable, resilient and capable of responding to shocks and disruptions such as the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, it is critical that approaches are holistic, diverse and interdisciplinary: no one solution can solve everything.

Professor Ian Givens is Director of the Institute for Food Nutrition and Health and Professor of Food Chain Nutrition.