Category Archives: Primary Food Production

Farming in the UK: can we nourish ourselves from this land?

This post is written by Elise Wach and was originally posted on the Institute of Development Studies blog site on the 14th of October 2016.

The recent dispute over food prices between the UK’s largest supermarket chain, Tesco, and the UK’s biggest food and grocery manufacturer, Unilever shines a light on a deeper problem in the global food system: our reliance on food that is grown elsewhere.

This is compounded by a drive for healthy eating in the UK which tends to heavily emphasise a tropical diet. From public messaging about your 5 a Day which almost always include pictures of bananas, to cookbooks such as The Happy Pear and I Quit Sugar which rely heavily on the use of coconut and avocados, there seem to be strong messages that that it is not possible to eat locally and ecologically-grown food while also being happy and well nourished.

Is this true?

Not in my experience.

Is all British food bland and stodgy?

When I tell people that I grow food as part of a community food project near Brighton, I often get this response, “ah so what do you grow? Potatoes and cabbages?”

Volunteers with the Food Project, Brighton

Well, yes we do, and they are really tasty by the way, but we also grow well over a hundred other foods, ranging from sweet juicy figs to exquisite mizuna salads and the best pumpkins I’ve ever tasted. We also grow grains (rye, spelt, oats) in small amounts and keep a dozen chickens who lay the most delicious, nourishing eggs I have ever eaten.

All this on one acre of otherwise windy and chalky hillside near the sea (we have great hedging which protects us), with about 4-6 people leisurely working two afternoons per week, approximately the equivalent of one person’s normal work week.

Is eating local only viable for the middle classes?

While many others have been demonstrating the potential to eat well and local in Britain – from the Great British Revival BBC programme (and cookbook) to those keen on foraging the free weeds on our doorsteps, it seems to be a pretty middle class preoccupation. People on low incomes are less likely to be able to afford a veg box or buy organic, much less spend time volunteering on a community food project.

Lack of policy support is a major factor keeping local and organic foods out of reach for the wider public. Part of the problem could also be that policymakers, like consumers, are unaware of the potential for and benefits of growing nourishing food to be consumed locally. Farming policies and reports in Scotland (PDF), for example, tend to be based on the idea that animal grazing is the only viable way to farm in the hills.

However, some people – crofters and the Tap o’ Noth Farm, for example – do continue to grow arable crops, including not just oats and barley but also vegetables such as purple sprouting broccoli, and even tea, in addition to keeping sheep and cows.

Such initiatives tend to be dismissed as anomalies but what if we were curious about what the outliers could show us?

Treating food and agriculture as separate entities contributes to the problem

Another problem is that many policies treat agriculture separately from food. Farming policies aim to boost exports, support farmers and, more recently, reduce environmental degradation (whether they effectively do this is another matter). They do not consider what foods are being produced or who is consuming them.

The largest container ship in the world - 18000 teu - departing Southampton Seen in the upper swinging ground. Credit: Graham and Dairne - Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Scotland is a bit ahead of the game in that it does have a National Food and Drink policy (in contrast to England). While it does include a focus on local production for local consumption, the emphasis is still strongly on exports and I cannot help but think that the two are contradictory. As a recent report by the Food Research Collaboration argues, we need to transform Agricultural Policy into Sustainable Food Policy.

Agriculture should not just be about economics with a bit of ‘greening’ thrown in – it needs to be about food (as well as livelihoods, ecology and community). And this is by no means just a British or European problem. Professor Henrietta Moore, Director of UCL Institute for Global Prosperity recently called for a revision of the mechanisms that “keep farmers trapped on the treadmill of producing for international markets at the expense of themselves and their families.”

Time, costs, and affordability perceptions

As for why people do not have the time and money to buy good quality local food, this seems to be a question that goes beyond the issue of farming to issues of housing, economy and lifestyles more broadly.

Value added at the farm represents only 5% of what UK consumers spend on UK food and drink, so increasing (or decreasing) costs there is not really going to make a huge difference. Looking at mark ups for processing and retailer margins would be more relevant. And with some of the highest costs of housing in the world, it is questionable whether the lack of access to quality food in the UK has to do with the cost of food itself or the cost of housing and other basic needs.

But there are also interesting questions about perception of cost, quality and affordability. I’ve experienced this dichotomy between cost perception and affordability at a personal level.

A friend of mine felt that she “could not afford” an organic cabbage (which can cost up to £1.60 in a high-end supermarket) and yet was happy to regularly pay for avocados which cost £1 each. This indicates that for some, consuming locally produced foods is largely related to price perception – whether prices are ‘too expensive’ or ‘too cheap’, rather than whether they are actually affordable. There are also issues about what is perceived as healthy – the rise of so-called ‘super foods’ might be coming at the expense of regular consumption of nourishing and affordable staples, as well as the expense of food security and ecological resilience in other countries.

Where do we draw the line(s) about what we consider to be local food?

So, if we were to consume more local foods, what would constitute being as ‘local’? The answer is not as straightforward as you would think.

West Peckham Polytunnels. Credit: Chris Guy - Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The Food Meters project, for example, indicates that the geographical radius for local is different in different areas. And this is further complicated by the fact that having less food miles, does not necessarily mean that foods are more sustainable – organic tomatoes imported from Spain may have been grown and transported using less energy and producing less pollution than tomatoes grown in the UK in heated polytunnels or with high levels of fertilisers and pesticides. A third option, and the one that makes the most sense to me, would be to simply give up the idea of eating tomatoes all year round and simply enjoy them in the summer.

If we can learn anything from our past mistakes it is that we need to be thinking of food and farming in a more integrated way. And as Albert Einstein is famously quoted as saying, “we cannot solve our problems with the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” Instead of resigning ourselves, perhaps conveniently, to claims such as “New Zealand lamb is more sustainable than British lamb”, it might be more productive to ask what could be done to make British lamb more eco-friendly.

And if a certain food simply does not grow well here, we might ask ourselves how our diets could shift to a more local yet still nourishing diet?

Holistic thinking, which is one the ten principles from the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (PDF), could be one approach for this.

Who should be making decisions about our food systems and how?

According to principles of Food Sovereignty (PDF), decisions about how to improve our food systems should be centred on the realities of farmers (particularly small-scale and family farmers) and consumers themselves, rather than solely determined by the momentum of markets, the priorities of large businesses (including large-scale industrial farms) or the perceptions of high level government officials who are often removed from the realities of farming and eating on a budget.

But how can we manage our limits in understanding and our own biases?

One option is to use processes in which farmers and consumers come together to reflect and to hash it out, which we are using in our Pathways to Agroecological Food Systems project. This includes bringing together diverse groups of people to discuss and debate what an agroecological food system might look like at a local and national level. It entails building on people’s own knowledge while also presenting them with information that may challenge their perceptions.

One of the most important aspects is that the process includes a focus on the potentials (notice the plural of that word) for things to be different. It entails thinking both about the implications of our current food systems as well as the type of food systems we want to be creating for our future generations.

We recently had our first UK-focused workshop for the Agroecological Food Systems project, which follows on from workshops with farmers in Senegal and Nicaragua, and will be sharing some of our initial insights from our work in all of these countries soon. It is certainly an interesting time to be considering these issues as the UK begins to Brexit – watch this space.

Image credits: fruit bowl – Avi8r; the Food Project Brighton (reproduced with permission from the author); polytunnels in Kent, UK – Chris Guy; container ship – credit Graham and Dairne 


Droughts hit cereal crops harder since 1980s, study shows

Drought and extreme heat events in Europe slashed cereal harvests in recent decades by up to 20 per cent according to new research by the University of Sussex and Canadian academics.

At a time when global warming is projected to produce more extreme weather, the study, published in Nature, provides the most comprehensive look yet at the influence of such events on crop area, yields and production around the world.

Drought in France

Sussex geographer Dr Pedram Rowhani, together with colleagues at McGill University and the University of British Columbia (UBC) in Canada, analysed national production data from the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization for 16 cereals in 177 countries. They also examined 2,800 international weather disasters from 1964 to 2007 and found that droughts cut a country’s crop production by 10 percent, and heat waves by 9 percent.

Dr Rowhani said: “This study shows for the first time how droughts and heatwaves significantly damage crop production globally, and how the losses have varied across different regions and throughout time. The frequency and severity of these disasters is expected to increase in many regions of the world and it is crucial to adapt our farming practices to better resist such extreme weather events if we want to ensure food security.”

Europe and North America suffer bigger crop losses in droughts

They found that, from 1985 to 2007, droughts caused cereal production losses averaging 13.7%, up from 6.7% for the period from 1964 to 1984.

“We found that the average impact of drought disasters on crops has gotten worse, but it is still debated whether droughts themselves have gotten more severe [or] crops have gotten more susceptible to drought over the decades,’’ said Lesk, a recent graduate of McGill’s Department of Geography and first author of the study. “That could mean, speculatively, that we’re already on the wrong path with regard to climate adaptation.’’

Production levels in the more technically advanced agricultural systems of North America, Europe and Australasia dropped by an average of 19.9% because of droughts – roughly double the global average. However, extreme cold events and floods had no significant impact on crop production.

Corey Lesk said the greater production impacts from drought in developed countries may reflect differences in scale and methods of farming in wealthier countries, compared with the developing world.

Senior author Navin Ramankutty, professor of global food security and sustainability at UBC’s Liu Institute for Global Issues and Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability, said the findings may help guide agricultural priorities and adaptation efforts, to better protect the most vulnerable farming systems and the populations that depend on them.

“We don’t think about it much, but rice, wheat and maize alone provide more than 50 percent of global calories,” Dr. Ramankutty said. “When these grain baskets are hit, it results in food price shocks, which leads to increasing hunger.”

One bright note does emerge from the analysis: the extreme weather events had no significant lasting impact on agricultural production in the years following the disasters.

The researchers also included extreme cold events and floods in their analysis, but found no significant impact on crop production. One possible explanation is that floods tend to occur in the spring in temperate regions, and susceptibility to cold weather in most agricultural regions is outside the growing season – such as the recent floods in Scotland and Cumbria. So many of the flood and extreme cold disasters may have had little effect on harvest levels.



Notes for editors

  • The research was supported by a Discovery Grant from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada.
  • “Influence of extreme weather disasters on global crop production,” Corey Lesk, Pedram Rowhani, and Navin Ramankutty. Nature, Jan. 7, 2016. DOI:10.1038/nature16467
  • University of Sussex Media Relations: Jacqui Bealing and James Hakner.  01273 678888,
  • @SussexUniPress

Growing your own food: filling some knowledge gaps using European data

This article was written by Dr Lee Stapleton (SPRU, University of Sussex) and was originally posted on the Sussex Energy Group website on the 14th of January 2015.

Growing Your Own Food: Filling Some Knowledge Gaps Using European Data

Growing food for personal and family consumption is a significant global activity, but one that has received insufficient academic attention, particularly in developed countries.

There are many benefits of growing your own food which can be categorised into: (a) those associated with the activity of food growing e.g. physical activity and personal independence; (b) those associated with the output from the activity e.g. safer and higher quality food; and (c) externality benefits that are not directly related to either the activity or the output e.g. lower ecological footprint.

Working with Andrew Church and Neil Ravenscroft at The University of Brighton and Richard Mitchell at The University of Glasgow, we used data from the European Quality of Life Survey (EQLS) to address three areas of particular concern: the prevalence of growing your own food and how this has changed over time; the individual and household context in which growing takes place; and whether those who grow their own food are happier than those who do not.

On average, there was a marked increase in households growing their own food across Europe. In some cases, the UK included, the proportion of households which grow at least some of their own food has more than doubled between 2003 and 2007, to reach approximately 15% of total households.  Overall, this increase is largely associated with poorer households and thus, possibly, economic hardship. In the UK however the increase in households growing their own food is predominantly associated with older middle class households.

Across Europe, those who grew their own food were happier than those who did not.

The article concludes that claims about the gentrification of growing your own may be premature. The dominant motive across Europe (despite the UK evidence) appears to be primarily economic — to reduce household expenditure whilst ensuring a supply of fresh food.

You can read the full article on Elsevier.

Dr Lee Stapleton is a Research Fellow in SPRU (Science Policy Research Unit) working principally in the EPSRC-funded Centre on Innovation and Energy Demand CIED. Lee StapletonPrior to joining SPRU in September 2013, Lee was employed at The University of Brighton where he worked on projects concerned with ecosystem services, the environmental social economy and personal food growing.

New Event Announced – Agro-Chemicals Symposium: The Future of Fertilisers and Pesticides – 8th Jan 2016

The Brighton and Sussex Universities Food Network are pleased to announce that we will be hosting a one-day symposium on the topic of agro-chemicals. The symposium will be held at the Univeristy of Brighton on Friday the 8th of January, from 10am until 4pm.

The use of agro-chemicals became widespread during the period known as the Green Revolution in the 1950s and ‘60s, and has continued to increase in use since. The nature of agro-chemicals varies from plant-specific to mass-produced NPK (Nitrogen-Phosphorus-Potassium) fertilisers, and from household weed-killers to mass spraying of toxic chemicals.

However, the range of agro-chemicals is now coming under scrutiny. The natural resources which common forms of fertiliser are made from are being depleted and pesticides are increasingly being identified as having a negative effect on environmental and human health. The presentations during this symposium will take a critical look at the future of agro-chemicals

This symposium addresses highly topical issues associated with the use of agro-chemicals. The morning session will focus on fertilisers with the threats of peak phosphorus being discussed from different perspectives. The afternoon session will focus on pesticides, particularly highlighting the harmful effects that pesticides are having on human and environmental health.

Two Keynote Lectures

We are delighted to be welcoming two distinguished speakers to give keynote lectures during the symposium. Dr. Robin Sen (Manchester Metropolitan University) is a highly regarded soil microbiologist and has much expertise in microbial interactions with plants and uses for crop production. He will be giving us his perspective on the threats of peak phosphorus to global food security.

We will also be joined by Professor Dave Goulson (University of Sussex), an ecologist who is well renowned for his research on bees. He has undertaken influential research on the effects of neonicotinoid pesticides on bee populations. He will be presenting on the interactions between bees, pesticides, and politics.

A full provisional programme for the symposium is available here.

The symposium is free to attend but space is limited so please register your attendance here.

The Agro-Chemicals Symposium is kindly supported by the School of Environment and Technology, University of Brighton.

Conceptual Art Film Communicates Link Between Agriculture and Food

World Food Day 2015 was celebrated on the 16th of October (see our post here). As part of the celebrations for this, Agricultural Innovation in Brabant commissioned the production of a short film about the relationships between agriculture and food.

The film takes a conceptual art approach to communicating relationships which are not always seen. This highlights how arts and media can be effective methods for communicating pertinent food-related issues to those outside of academia.

If you are interested in using arts, media, and creative processes as a means for broadening engagement around food-related issues, please get in touch with us ( as we are currently preparing a number of projects which may be of interest to you.

Edible Insects and Global Food Security – new report

This post was shared by Rachael Taylor (University of Sussex) and reflects some of her own views on the report discussed and not necessarily those of the authors of the report.

This month two members of BSUFN published a report based on a piece of research they undertook earlier this year. The report is titled ‘Edible Insects and the Future of Food: A Foresight Scenario Exercise on Entomophagy and Global Food Security‘.

Researchers Dominic Glover (Institute of Development Studies) and Alexandra Sexton (King’s College London) used Foresight methods to anticipate whether edible insects can provide health protein and micronutrients to contribute to future global food security.

One of the methods used in the study was a scenario exercise to identify whether edible insects would potentially feature in future diets according to different economic and resource scarcity conditions. Study participants identified four different future scenarios: A Gated World; New Asia; Mundus Middle-Class; and Bread and Circuses.

The outcome of the scenario exercise suggested that edible insects would feature in future diets under each scenario but to varying degrees. This is perhaps not surprising given that, on a global scale, edible insects already feature in diets so some degree of consumption of edible insects could be anticipated regardless of changes in resource scarcity or economic power.

The researchers recognise that there were limits to the scope of this study. Further, in the scenario-building exercise the participants identified a variety of potential influences on future trends in diet and then selected resource scarcity and economic power as the two which were used for scenario development. Although significantly difficult to model or factor into a scenario exercise, social and cultural influences on behaviour change are likely to have a central role in determining the future of edible insects in achieving global food security.

The full report by Glover and Sexton (2015) is available here. If you have any comments on this report please share them with us using the comments box below or via e-mail to

Food Policy Needs to Feed Society

In the run up to our Governing Food Policy Workshop on the 25th of September 2015, we are sharing a series of articles to provoke discussion. This post was written by Rachael Taylor and is the third post in this series. Rachael is a Doctoral student at SPRU (Science Policy Research Unit), University of Sussex and is researching small-holder farmers and agricultural development interventions in Northern Ghana.

Food Policy Needs to Feed Society

We cannot ignore the importance of food, we all need it to survive. Food is not only essential for life but also has cultural dynamics and provides a social function. The global food system cannot ignore that the primary objective of the food system is to feed society. This post questions whether existing food policies really reflect the needs and priorities of society.

A Complex Global Food Machine

The global food system is highly complex, with numerous sectors interacting at multiple scales and with different objectives and outcomes. It is complex because the huge number of people, processes, interactions, and influences can result in non-linear outcomes which means they are not possible to predict. It is easy for one cog in an Earth-sized machine to focus so intently on its own particular function that it forgets what the machine as a whole is trying to do. Food policy is the element of the food sector which is meant to manage this so that the food system as a whole obtain the necessary outcome of feed society.

Food policy sees the intersection of other major areas of the global food system. Food policy and governance refers to diverse sectors within the global food system and associated policies act at a range of scales in time and space. If there is any activity which is associated to food then somewhere there is a policy which relates to that.

But perhaps food policy has lost sight of the fact that, ultimately, its objective is to ensure the survival of society through sufficient and nutritious diets. Are food policies and the processes that lead to their development being controlled by the few in order to control the many?

A Food System Dominated by Few

In her recent book, Nora McKeon (2015) argues that even agricultural production is no longer primarily concerned with feeding society, instead being driven towards food as a commodity, food to produce biofuels, and food to feed livestock. Large agribusinesses, governmental policies and subsidies, international trade agreements, and intergovernmental priorities are diverting food production away from focusing on feeding society and towards achieving profit or political objectives. Mass-scale food production within the global system is no longer primarily concerned with ensuring that every individual always has sufficient culturally appropriate food to live a healthy and active life.

Agribusinesses prioritise food production, processing, and marketing in order to make financial profit. International trade agreements secure low prices for buyers and consumers, meaning producers at the other end of the food chain get paid little. Governmental targets to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases have driven demand for biofuels to replace fossil fuels, meaning crops are being used for fuel instead of food.

Changing diet patterns in response to increasing affluence globally has led to an increased demand for meat produce, meaning crops are being used to feed livestock instead of people. It is a widely-cited statistic that it takes ten kilograms of feed to produce one kilogram of beef, meaning an overall loss of nine kilograms of food produce. Peasant farmer organisation La Via Campesina state that less than half of all grain produced worldwide are now eaten by humans, the rest being used for biofuels and as livestock feed.

Over recent decades there have been many voices rising concerns that the food system is not functioning sufficiently to feed society. The volume and number of these voices has rapidly increased in recent years, particularly since the food price crisis in 2007-8. Many organisations, civil society groups, and farmer representative have described the food system as ‘broken’.

Putting Society Back at the Centre of Food

This is where we see the rise in mobilisation and action taken by the food sovereignty movement. Food sovereignty prioritises providing food for people, seeing food as a right and campaigns for food justice and equality. Food sovereignty argues for locally appropriate production methods and focuses on producers and local systems. The food sovereignty movement has its own policies and has produced statements and guidance for policy-makers globally.

Some may see ‘food sovereignty’ as another term and additional elements of a complex global food system. But at the moment the food sovereignty movement is arguably the most dominant voice rallying against big agribusiness and international politics and economics. This movement which considers food as a human right still has negligible influence on high-level food policy and governance but it is the first step towards putting society back at the centre of food systems. Food production is for consumption and the primary concern should be ensuring that every individual can eat enough to live a healthy and active life.



McKeon, N. (2015) Food Security Governance: Empowering communities, regulating corporations, Routledge, Abingdon, pp246