Feeding research into policy & practice

Composite image: a mother cradling a newborn baby (left), a person at a fruit market (centre), and a row of cows standing in water (right)

Improving food production from Africa to Lancaster, reducing carbon, waste & pollution, enhancing mother’s birth experience: Lancaster’s environmental researchers show how their work is improving lives.

“The eyes of the world are now on people working on the environment and people want to see change, they want to see us put forward ideas which lead to solutions to some of the big intractable problems that we are facing,” said Professor Philip Barker, director of the Lancaster Environment Centre, opening the department’s Winter Conference.

“It's always been our aim to work alongside government, society, civil society, business and the third sector to try make a difference through our research. As we emerge from the pandemic, in the aftermath of the COP26 climate conference, the public are more engaged in environmental issues than ever before.”

Eight researchers talked about their collaborative projects, and how their findings are feeding into policy and practice.

Dr Paul Young’s keynote address showed how international action can make a difference to seemingly intractable issues. His study, published in Nature last year, revealed how the Montreal Protocol – a treaty signed 30 years ago by 197 nations to protect the ozone layer by banning CFC chemicals – had also dramatically reduced the speed of climate change.

“What we do in this study is imagine a world where Montreal Protocol never happened, and CFCs continue to increase. A healthy ozone layer protects plants, which take up carbon.”

Paul was supported in this work by Lancaster’s Professor Nigel Paul, who spent 14 years on the Environmental Effects Panel of the Montreal Protocol. The study quantified how much more CO2 there would be in atmosphere without the Protocol and how the much higher UV light levels would dramatically increase skin cancer and cataracts.

“We would probably be living underground now, it really would be catastrophic. There is a value in thinking about how the future could be different, giving policy makers a literacy of timescales, showing how decisions they make today have consequences going far into the future.”

At a more individual level, social scientist Dr Nadia von Benzon presented her study, Birth Stories, which set up a Facebook group as a safe space for mothers to tell stories about their birth experience, exploring the impact of the physical and social environment.

“There really isn’t very much human geography around the concept of birth, despite it being hugely significant in family life,” said Nadia.

Nadia and colleagues are now hoping to work with some of the mothers and maternity service providers to use the learning to make real change.

Many of the other research projects featured are focussed on ensuring that people have access to healthy, nutritious food while taking care of the environment, in a world where the climate is changing.

Dr Shane Rothwell talked about the RePhoKUs project, which has been exploring the issue of phosphorus overuse in the UK. The research shows that three quarters of the phosphorus used in the UK – mainly in fertiliser or animal feed – is wasted, and ends up in the soil or in watercourses, badly impacting water quality. A key element of the project involves working with farmers.

“It’s important that there is no finger pointing, no blame, everyone in the system is involved and system level change is needed,” said Shane.

Policy makers are taking note – the recent report on Water Quality in Rivers by the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee depended heavily on the RePhoKUs findings.

Urban food was the subject of two presentations from researchers involved in the Rurban Revolution project – which has been exploring the potential of using urban green space for local food growing, and its beneficial impact on health and wellbeing.

Dr Andy Yuille spoke about the creation of a new network, Quench. “Urban ecosystems, where most people live, are deeply under researched. Quench is building a multi-disciplinary, cross-sector network of planners, health professional, NGOs and academics. We know that exposure to nature does deliver health benefits but have a lot less understanding about how the quality of the environment affects how we engage with nature.”

Dr Rachel Marshall spoke about a collaboration with Lancaster City Council and FoodFutures, a local food partnership, to develop an open-source tool which people can use to identify spaces for local food growing. A self-guided Lancaster Walking Trail has been created to showcase some of the potential land in the city.

At an international scale, Professor Elizabete Carmo-Silva presented her group’s work with RIPE (Realizing Increased Photosynthetic Efficiency), which aims to improve photosynthesis – the process through which plants turn sunlight into plant matter. She talked about the group’s research into cowpea, a major crop in Sub-Saharan Africa. Using cowpea varieties, supplied by breeders in the region, the aim is to produce cowpea cultivars which perform better in a changing climate.

“As fundamental researchers we are focusing on discovery. The next phase is to have those improved cowpea seeds in hands of farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa.”

Another major collaboration in Africa, RECIRCULATE, is coming to an end and has plans for a lasting legacy. RECIRCULATE brought together researchers, businesses and other stakeholders to co design and co create sustainable products and processes in West Africa. The ambition now is to build a research hub in Ghana.

A spin off project, ACTUATE, has built two demonstrator anaerobic digesters, one at the University of Benin in Nigeria and the other at Umar Bun Hatab Islamic School in Accra, Ghana – to how these explore how these can reduce pollution from waste while creating a sustainable fertiliser.

Developing the next generation of researchers was also highlighted. Dr Malika Mezeli spoke about the legacy of the STARS Centre for Doctoral Training, which has trained nearly 40 PhD researchers studying soil. STARS is made up of four universities combined with four research institutes, plus industry partners including Kew Gardens, Defra and the House of Lords.

The programme’s legacy is not only in its graduates, but also in the creation of a long-term network of people interested in soil, said Malika, who is a STARS graduate herself. There are also a series of resources, including more than 40 films, available to interested parties both within and outside the research community.

Watch the recordings of the conference sessions on YouTube:

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