6 February 2018

This was the complex question posed to experts on food production at a recent N8 conference: Dr Shane Rothwell, a Knowledge Exchange Fellow at Lancaster University, reflects on what was learnt

The need to change the way we do things was a recurring theme at this year’s N8 AgriFood Resilience Programme internal conference, hosted at Lancaster University.

What made this conference special was that, unlike many, it didn’t focus on a particular discipline but brought together crop and livestock scientists, supply chain and logistic experts, political ecologists, health scientists and sociologists, all focused on solving the same pressing problem: how to sustainably feed a growing population.

The N8 AgriFood Programme is a collaboration across the eight research-intensive universities in the north (Newcastle, Durham, York, Leeds, Sheffield, Manchester, Liverpool and Lancaster). It aims to deliver impactful research across the whole food system from production, through supply chains to health and consumption.

Academics from all eight universities were asked to reflect on the future of sustainable diets from their own disciplinary perspectives.

The conference was started, however, by an academic from outside the N8 - our first keynote speaker - Dr Tara Garnett from Oxford University, an expert in food related greenhouse gas emissions, particularly from livestock production. Tara succinctly explored what ‘sustainable healthy eating patterns’ could look like, suggesting what some of the priorities and trade-offs might be, particularly our relationship with eating meat. The take home message being that we need to change some of the foods we eat if we are to have a sustainable food system in the future.

This stimulated much thought among the delegates, I certainly went away with a promise to reflect on my own food choices.

Topics covered during the rest of the first day reflected the diverse, interdisciplinary nature of the AgriFood Programme, with N8 academics presenting on subjects including improving photosynthesis in bread wheat, assessing the sustainability of different global food sources and the impacts of too much dietary sugar on our health.

Then, during the first afternoon, we had a breakout session, brilliantly facilitated by Dee Hennessy, which was great fun. Delegates were asked to have group ‘conversations’ about a range of foods such as rice, potatoes, roast beef and chicken nuggets, discussing different views of their sustainability. Again themes emerged including the sustainability of beef and dairy production (particularly relevant to our local farmers) and the impact of local vs global food supplies: we hope to use these as a basis for potential funding proposals.

Being a conference themed around sustainable diets, there was a certain amount of pressure to get the menu right at our conference dinner, held at the Lancaster Brewery! The caterer delivered with a delicious meal of mostly locally sourced food, including, from just down the road, Mrs Kirkhams cheese and Goosnargh duck. Some delegates took up the option of a Brewery Tour to see how our locally sourced beer was produced.

Day two started with a keynote presentation from Lancaster University’s own Mike Berners-Lee, who runs an environmental consultancy based in the Lancaster Environment Centre.  Mike maintained that there is currently enough food produced on the planet to meet predicted needs for 2050, an idea that certainly stimulated debate among the production scientists present!

The rest of day two saw more N8 academics deliver a fascinating range of diverse talks including the feasibility of growing soya in the UK, improving gut health in chickens and the ethical and social considerations of vanilla supply chains. The conference theme of future sustainable diets held the diverse sessions together – there are plenty of opinions of what ‘sustainability’ might look like in a food system, though the idea that we need to change was a central and re-occurring subject. It was great to see such a diverse range of academics working towards a common goal and encouraging that people believe change is possible.

Feedback since the conference has been really positive: delegates appreciated the opportunity to hear a much wider range of topics than they would typically experience at a single discipline conference. This was great to hear as it was always our intention to represent the diversity of the N8 AgriFood Programme, but also to reflect on how grand challenges such as sustainably feeding humanity in the future will require collaborative interdisciplinary approaches.

Special thanks must go to the rest of the Lancaster N8 AgriFood team and our conference speakers for helping deliver this conference, but especially to Dr Ali Birkett for brilliantly organising this event.

If you want to learn more about N8 AgriFood at Lancaster you can visit our website.


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