How is the UK research addressing the food security challenge?

Guest posts

Category: Research success

6 July 2017

Food security occurs when all people at all times have access to enough safe and nutritious food to meet their requirements for a healthy life, in ways the planet can sustain into the future.

The Global Food Security (GFS) programme brings together the UK’s main public funders of food-related research to address this systemic challenge.

In particular, we think a great deal about the continual evolution of the food security challenge, the ever-changing global and scientific environment putting the food system under new and increasing pressures that innovative research will be essential to solve.

For example, it has been estimated that over the next 35 years the growing global population will demand more food than has ever been produced in human history. But as agriculture is a key consumer of natural resources – including land, soil, water and minerals – and emits around a third of all greenhouse-gas emissions, any drive in production must be balanced with the need to improve sustainability and meet the Paris climate agreement.

At the same time, competition from urbanisation, sea level rise and negative emissions technologies means there is likely to be no new land available for agriculture, putting additional restrictions on how we might meet the growing demand for food[1]. Emerging issues such as climate change further compound these challenges, altering what can be grown and where while also increasing risk of sudden production shortfalls as a result of intensifying extreme weather events[2].

However, the food security challenge spans far wider than production, also needing to address the increasing burden of hunger and undernutrition alongside overweight and obesity seen in developed and developing countries alike. Globally, one in three people now suffer from some form of malnutrition[3] – 800 million chronically undernourished, 2 billion suffering micronutrient deficiencies, and another 2 billion overweight or obese[4] – increasing the prevalence of diet-related non-communicable diseases and costing the global economy an estimated $2 trillion every year[5].

More needs to be done to address the imbalance in global food consumption; for example, a ‘contract and converge’ model towards more equitable and healthy global diets would have significant scope to address global nutrition goals. This kind of scenario would require a push for change across behaviours and structures, including a paring back in demand from those who currently overconsume, both in terms of calories and specific macronutrients like fat or protein, as well as improved access to a diversity of food for those who don’t currently have sufficient or nutritious diets. This approach would also have wider system impacts, reducing the growing pressure on food production as well as the environmental impact of the food system – studies showing we cannot meet the terms of the Paris agreement without both change to food production and consumption practices[6].

These issues will undoubtedly require interdisciplinary and whole system solutions, and this is just what the Global Food Security (GFS) programme aims to do. We unify the interests of the UK’s main public funders of food-related research – those being a number of the Government departments as well as all the Research Councils – facilitating, coordinating and translating new interdisciplinary research on a variety of topics to address food system challenges. We also advocate for solutions that involve stakeholders and users from across the system, and so provide a platform for working in partnership with food producers and processors, retailers, consumers and government, both internationally and in the UK.

For example, our stream of work focused on climatic shocks and food system resilience saw GFS partner with the FCO and the Science and Innovation Network to bring together an interdisciplinary group of UK and US experts from across policy, business and academia – including delegates from Anglia Ruskin's Global Sustainability Institute – to understand worst case scenarios for extreme weather impacting on global crop production, and the market and policy responses that would lead to positive outcomes. The group concluded that a short sharp shock from extreme weather would result in a significant yield loss, the adverse effects of which are then channelled through the food system via market forces and policy responses, leading to food price spikes and potential civil unrest. The group further modelled the risk of extreme weather hitting several major food producing regions of the world, projected to triple by 2040[7].

We built on this work through exploration of shared research priorities with other nations[8], a working group on environmental tipping points and their interaction with and impact on food system dynamics[9], as well as a new stream of work considering the need for a food system that supports both global health and the Paris climate agreement and how this kind of system might be realised[10].

Encouragingly the drive for interdisciplinarity and systems-thinking is steadily coming to the fore, particularly with the formation of UK Research and Innovation and an increase in funding sources for interdisciplinary and systems work, including the hugely promising Global Challenges Research Fund. However, there is still a need to drive the food security challenge higher up the agenda. What we need above all are more advocates for food security and interdisciplinary approaches to healthy sustainable food systems – whether researchers, policy-makers, producers, retailers or consumers, all have a role to play in addressing this global challenge, as even small changes have the potential to lead to system wide impacts.

This post was written by Sian Williams at the Global Food Security Programme. The Research and Innovation Funding Development Team requested the post in order to inform our research community of the pressures of the food security challenge as seen from the GFS perspective, therefore the views expressed are not necessarily those of Anglia Ruskin University. Clearly there is more work to be done, and plenty more ways our researchers can get involved in solving food security problems going forward. We thank the GFS programme for providing the information below. Further reading is included in the references cited at the end of the text.

[1] Foresight. The Future of Food and Farming. Final Project Report. The Government Office for Science (2011).

[2] Extreme weather and resilience of the global food system, Global Food Security Programme (2015).

[3] Global Nutrition Report 2016: From Promise to Impact – Ending Malnutrition by 2030. IFPRI (2016).


[5] Insight issue 5: Overconsumption and influences on diet. Global Food Security Programme (2016).

[6] Importance of food-demand management for climate mitigation. Bajzelj et al; Nature Climate Change 4, 924–929 (2014).

[7] Extreme weather and resilience of the global food system, Global Food Security Programme (2015).

[8] UK-China Workshop: Extreme weather and global food system resilience. Global Food Security Programme (2016).

[9] Environmental tipping points and food system dynamics: Executive Summary. Global Food Security Programme (2017).

[10] Paris-compliant healthy food systems. Global Food Security Programme (2016).


The views expressed here are those of the individual and do not necessarily represent the views of Anglia Ruskin University. If you've got any concerns please contact us.