UK and global food system perspectives shared

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Students from five institutions joined food system professionals at the recent IFSTAL Annual Lecture. The event also marked the launch of the eighth year of the innovative teaching programme.

The Royal Veterinary College’s Camden Campus played host to the event, which was opened by Professor Ken Smith, Professor of Companion Animal Pathology and Head of the Department of Pathobiology and Population Sciences. Calling IFSTAL a “unique collaboration”, Smith reflected on its benefits. “We really cherish the friendships and networks that IFSTAL brings,” he said.

The Annual Lecture’s first guest speaker was Anna Taylor, Chief Executive of the Food Foundation. Taylor opened by summarising the causes for the current cost of living crisis, which include the war in Ukraine (which has affected the supply of wheat, vegetable oil and fertiliser) and climate shocks. She emphasised that a key driver is the low priority on resilience in the UK food system.

UK food insecurity

Figures on insecurity in the UK revealed by the Food Foundation made for grim listening: 18.4% of overall households reported experiencing food insecurity in the previous month, rising to 25.8% for households with children. With evidence that food insecure households cut back on fresh fruit and vegetables more than food secure households, the links between food poverty and poor health was also highlighted. 

How can we enact positive change? The answer lies in policy, according to Taylor, who believes the public should not be doing “the heavy lifting” when it comes to moving to healthier diets. “Policy can enhance our diets using three strands: price and affordability; appeal, and availability.”

Complementing the previous talk with a global look at food systems, Dr Mehroosh Tak, Lecturer in Agribusiness at the Royal Veterinary College, focused on food systems in protracted crisis, where typical international development approaches of agricultural development or humanitarian food aid may not apply.

There is less academic focus on these areas, according to Dr Tak, who went on to show hopeful examples of inherent resilience in several food systems.

Flourishing resilience

Using examples from Kashmir, Syria and Palestine, Dr Tak highlighted food systems that each displayed resilience and – in the face of low intervention at government level – an ability to adapt. “When state involvement in food systems in protracted crises is low, there is space for private investment,” Dr Tak explained. “This is more likely to be due to communities self-organising than investment from multinationals.” Resilience examples included the unionisation of food system workers, and land reforms that led to the flourishing of kitchen gardens.

While the first speaker called for policy intervention to enhance the food system resilience in the UK, the second highlighted how resilience can flourish when, in the words of Dr Tak, “the state is not on your side.” These were two fascinating talks, giving the audience much to think about.

Year 8 launches

Launching the eighth year of the IFSTAL teaching programme, the evening also highlighted how IFSTAL works for the prospective students in the audience. Former IFSTAL student Caroline Welch spoke about her experiences of being on the muti-disciplinary programme: “I gained enormously by mixing with people from many different disciplines,” she said. “It gave me perspectives I hadn’t considered before.” 

The event concluded with a networking reception, where the audience had a chance to ask questions about the programme and mix with fellow food systems thinkers.