This year’s 5th annual Institute for Food Nutrition and Health (IFNH) Forum focused on shaping sustainable food systems for future generations. But what do we mean by sustainable food systems and why is it so important? Our panel of expert internal and external speakers looked at how sustainability is applicable throughout the food supply chain from production, transport and processing to the retail environment and the consumer at home. In each of these areas there’s a lot of work to be done to improve sustainability.

Photo by Jake Gard on Unsplash

So what changes are needed to the UK food supply to ensure a sustainable yet nutritionally adequate diet? Professor Nigel Scollan, GRI Director, Institute for Global Food Security at Queen’s University Belfast highlighted how there is a lot of attention today on our food system: it’s at the heart of not just our health and wellbeing but it’s absolutely embedded in discussions on the environment and climate change. Food is now featuring in global forums such as COP – at COP26 food was embedded as a major theme for the first time. This is crucial because innovations to improve soil fertility, reverse the loss of biodiversity, and improve the nutrition in the food we consume to feed a growing global population are now urgent matters. There is also a tension between what we eat and it’s environmental footprint, a need to build much more resilience into our food system including how we deal with shocks such as the impacts of COVID and the war in Ukraine, as well as huge targets to achieve – to deliver 2050 net zero target for UK, agriculture and land use sectors must reduce emissions by 64%. But the good news is that the UK and Europe are working to lead a global transition towards competitive sustainability from farm to fork.

It can be easier to think about what the food system should look like: we know a bit about what we should do in the future and what a transformed food system might look like. But what we’re perhaps less good at considering is how do we change what we do now. We’re creatures of habit – we like to do what we always do; make the same choices we always make because it’s easier. What’s difficult is to do something differently, to behave differently and that’s true whether you’re a business or a consumer. How do we get more people to change their behaviour and do something differently in the way that they interact with the food system?

InformPack is an EIT Food project that aims to develop public engagement actions, tools and strategies to enable a sustainable shift in food packaging culture in Europe. Dr Stella Lignou, Associate Professor in Sensory and Consumer Science, University of Reading reported early findings that highlight some of the key issues in trying to create a positive impact in sustainable public behaviour regarding food packaging. Consumers were typically confused and lack knowledge relating to disposing food packaging sustainably and common purchase-related packaging issues were excessive packaging, no clear information and labelling, limited sustainable packaging options, and the cost. Consumer-centric campaigns were developed in two formats based on consumer preferences and self-reported behaviour was successfully modulated by infographics and videos.

Measuring consumer trust is an important step toward a healthier and more sustainable food system. Unless you trust the people that are providing you with the information then there isn’t the incentive or motivation to make those personal changes which can be quite disruptive to your personal or business life. Dr Anna Macready, Associate Professor in Applied Economics and Marketing, University of Reading presented findings from the latest TrustTracker® project, which surveyed 23,090 consumers in 19 countries. People who show trust in the food system are more confident about food integrity. And when trust is strong, consumers can get on board with innovations for a healthier and more sustainable food system. Amongst many findings from the survey, results show that the openness of food system actors – in terms of their activities, the information they offer and their honesty – is of primary importance in establishing consumer trust.

Collaborations are a critical part of shaping sustainable food systems for future generations. IFNH is a proud collaborator with The International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) working in partnership on a 4-year programme to reduce malnutrition in young women and children in India as well as a PhD studentship and GCRF AgriFood Africa Innovation project on the promotion of composite flour for local recipes with locally available cereals, legumes and tubers for income generation and household nutrition. Dr Jane Parker, Associate Professor in Flavour Chemistry, University of Reading outlined a joint research project with ICRISAT that is looking at the role of traditional crops for providing healthy sustainable diets, specifically pearl millet in India and sorghum millet in Nigeria. Both of which have good nutritional profiles and are consumed widely.

EIT Food’s mission is to transform how food is produced, distributed, and consumed and IFNH continues to be a successful active partner in EIT Food with 19 Interdisciplinary projects in 2022. Specifically, IFNH is also active in two of the EIT Food Mission Co-Design Programmes: Healthier lives through food and Net-zero food systems – both of which are critical elements in shaping sustainable food systems for future generations.

The Healthier Lives Through Food (Mission 1) was introduced by Dr Beatrix Wepner, Scientist, Innovation Systems and Policy, Austrian Institute of Technology GmbH. It aims to make a material difference to health adjusted life years (HALYs) by enabling more consumers to make better choices through access to healthier products and actionable information. A roadmap has been developed that focuses on three priority areas: achieving a balanced diet for people and planet, diversifying protein sources for food consumption and increasing and retaining the nutrient density of food.

Mission 2 focuses on Net Zero Food Systems, reducing CO2 equivalent emissions by tackling CO2 hotspots, reducing the footprint of proteins through diversification, and creating new markets for food waste. Stephane Durant, Head of Innovation at the Institute for Global Food Security, Queen’s University Belfast highlighted how intensive scoping and research has identified priority areas of focus: sustainable farming practices, diversification of protein sources, sustainable food packaging, and reducing and valorising food waste and food loss, and created a roadmap to a net zero food system.

What came through loud and clear from the Forum is that we’re no longer thinking about individual components of the food system but of the system as a whole. We’re aware that if we tweak one part of the network, it’s going to have consequences and ripple effects right across the system. Each of our speakers really understand that as part of the approach their taking to their work. Food systems change is critical and it’s vital that we think about what our future food system will be and how we get to it, so that future generations have something sustainable and robust that they can work with.

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