We are faced with an unprecedented challenge: to create a net-zero food system for the UK by 2050. It’s a bold ambition, and one that can only be achieved by harnessing the collective power of our diverse talents, perspectives, and experiences.
Our challenge is not just a scientific or technical problem. It’s also a social, economic, and cultural one. Our food systems are not just about growing, processing, and distributing food. They are also about people, communities, traditions, and ways of life. They are intertwined with our economies, our environments, and our societies. So, any effort to transform them must be grounded in a deep understanding of all these aspects.
Who better to provide that understanding than the people who are a part of these systems every day, those who live and breathe the realities of our food industry?
These are the farmers, manufacturers, innovators, distributors, retailers, restaurateurs, and consumers. Their perspectives, insights, and experiences are invaluable. They are not just stakeholders in our food systems; they are integral parts of them.
Why is their involvement so essential?
Firstly, they bring practical knowledge. They understand the realities of the current system, its strengths and weaknesses, its opportunities and threats. They can tell us what works and what doesn’t. They can help us identify feasible solutions that are not just scientifically sound but also practically viable.
As part of our work as AFN Network+ Champions we have been asked to map the research landscape, to understand what solutions can get us from where we are now, to where we want to be in 2050.
As Champions, we’ve all laid out specific plans for how we want to achieve this research goal. Being someone from industry rather than academia this can be a daunting task - my main skill set doesn’t lie in searching academic databases or creating literature reviews.
However, I have been a part of the food and farming innovation sector for the past eight years. So instead of mapping the literature, I am reaching out to my network of agricultural innovators to see what people are doing on the ground that can help us get there.
Industry is often at the forefront of technological advancements and innovative practices, but not all of this work is documented. At least not publicly. By collaborating with industry, we can tap into these innovations and harness their potential for our net-zero goal. This is something unique that I have been able to bring to the table specifically because I am not an academic, but a practitioner.
This is, of course, a two-way relationship. It has been amazing for me to have a seat at this table. Being a part of this project has created the space within my working week to do more research into the UK’s agri-food innovation sector, to go out and talk to other innovators and researchers about what they’re working on and see how it could all fit together in the future.
It’s vital that we not only seek out more industry voices in our research but also ensure that they feel empowered to contribute.
While everyone I have worked with has been encouraging and positive about my involvement, it can nonetheless be intimidating to speak up in a room full of professionally smart people - especially when countering what they have to say.
I had the uncomfortable experience recently of having a farmer I invited to an event - who was the sole farmer in attendance - ask if we usually have more present, the answer unfortunately was “no, we usually have less”.
To combat this, we simply need more voices. When we include a critical mass of industry voices in our research, we show that the research is not coming from an ivory tower, detached from the realities of the world.
We show that we value and respect their expertise. This can help build trust and foster collaboration, which can be critical for the successful implementation of our research findings.
Equally, we must be aware of the competing interests that come with including industry in our discussion. For example, I currently work in the greenhouse and vertical farming sector, so if every contribution I had pointed to it being a panacea, you may want to take it with a pinch of salt (I don’t by the way!)
Navigating these potentially competing interests is not going to be easy, but nothing worth doing ever is. It will require us to step out of our comfort zones, to challenge our assumptions, to listen with open minds.
It is important that we remember that a net-zero food system is not just about reducing carbon emissions. It's about creating a food system that is sustainable, resilient, equitable, and just.
I urge any industry folks to get involved. To create such a food system, we need all the voices we can get. We need the scientists and the farmers, the policymakers and the businesspeople, the academics and the activists.
We need the voices that echo our own and the voices that challenge us. The AFN is not just a network of researchers or scientists. We are also connectors, facilitators, and leaders.
Our role is not just to generate knowledge, but also to bridge gaps, to build bridges, to foster collaboration.
Proudly powered by Weebly
UK Research has funded this Network+ with the support of these 4 councils:
The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC)
Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC)
Natural Environment Research Council (NERC)
Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC)