Knowledge for better food systems

Research focus

The FCRN carries out interdisciplinary research into food systems and sustainability. By identifying emerging or controversial issues of concern and differing perspectives among stakeholders, we help to shape the wider agenda on food systems sustainability within communities of research, policy and practice.

Areas of focus have included livestock, meat and dairy; consumption and sustainable diets; and ideological framings and perspectives on food systems issues and concepts.

Note that this page will be updated with information on more projects, including news streams with outputs, related blogs and resources. Soon you will also be able to follow certain projects and provide input and feedback.

Two ongoing research projects

Research on the role of grazing livestock in a sustainable food system

This project, led by the FCRN and involving multiple institutional partners, takes a closer look at what the evidence has to say about the very polarised debate on ruminants, especially those in grazing systems, identifying what can be concluded and where the key knowledge gaps lie.

On the one hand are those who point out that ruminants are a major source of greenhouse gas emissions, drivers of land use change, and destroyers of ecosystems and biodiversity. Stakeholders in the opposing camp argue that the sequestration benefits of grazing systems can counter or even outweigh the methane impact; that methane is qualitatively different from CO2; that ruminants in well managed systems have helped shape and can maintain grassland biodiversity; and that the emerging ‘problem’ drivers of land use change are not ruminants at all, but instead, our growing demand for meat of monogastric origin (i.e. chickens and pigs), whose production is underpinned by industrialised monocultural crop production.

The project’s output will be two reports, identifying what can be concluded from the available evidence, and where the key knowledge gaps lie. The first will focus on soil carbon and the greenhouse gas balance of livestock production systems; and the second, on the effects of livestock production on biodiversity and land use. Read the first report Grazed and confused? Ruminating on cattle, grazing systems, methane, nitrous oxide, the soil carbon sequestration question, launched 3rd October 2017.

Research on the future of animal sourced foods

The FCRN’s Dr Garnett is involved in a major University of Oxford project focusing on the ‘Future of Animal-sourced Foods (FOAF)’. The project is funded by the Wellcome Trust under its ‘Our planet, our health: responding to a changing world’ programme. This project will evaluate the relationships among food, environment and health on a global level, and exploring what motivates people’s food choices. The project begins in late spring 2017 and will run for four years.

Areas of research

The FCRN produces influential reports and briefings. Our recent reports examine the following issues:

  • The role of livestock in a sustainable food system: see the ‘Our planet our health’ research and the grazing livestock project above.
  • Healthy and sustainable eating patterns  In April 2014 the FCRN convened a workshop on the subject of ‘Changing what we eat’, funded and hosted by the Wellcome Trust with additional support from the UK’s multi-agency Global Food Security Programme.  A wide range of expert stakeholders participated, representing all sectors and specialisms relating to food systems, including the Food and Drink Federation, Mars, WWF, Eating Better Alliance, DEFRA and World Cancer Research Fund International as well as leading academics.  The subsequent workshop report sets out a wide-ranging research agenda for carrying this work forward.  The workshop presentations are available here.  Additionally, as input to the workshop, Tara Garnett produced two discussion papers.  The first: ‘What is a Healthy and Sustainable Diet?’ now the FCRN’s most downloaded publication while the second, 'Changing to healthier & more sustainable diets: how can this be achieved?' looks at different disciplinary approaches to the question of how changes in food practice should be understood and achieved.
  • Sustainable intensification in agriculture. In collaboration with the Oxford Martin Programme on the Future of Food the FCRN organised two workshops that brought together a diverse range of expertise to consider what sustainable intensification is and how it sits within, and needs to interface with, a wide range of social, ethical, environmental and developmental goals we might have for the food system  The first, held in January 2012 explored the attitudes of different stakeholders to sustainable intensification as a concept, and considered how SI should engage with concerns spanning human nutrition, animal welfare, biodiversity and broader issues of demand management, waste and governance. Outputs included a report and a paper in the journal Science.  A second workshop in February 2014 focused more specifically on farmers in low income countries.  Its focus was: how can sustainable intensification strategies and practices be implemented in ways that a. support livelihoods and enhance development outcomes for low income producers in developing countries; and b. increase the local availability, accessibility and affordability of food for urban and rural consumers in these regions? (February 4-5 2014).
  • New Global Powers In early 2014 the FCRN published Appetite for Change a major 180 page report which investigates China’s food system transformation over the last 30 years. What are the forces influencing food production and consumption? What health, environmental, economic and socio-cultural trends are emerging and how do they intersect? What are the priorities for coming years?  The growth in livestock production and consumption is a central theme in the report. We are also exploring scope for a. follow-on work with Chinese collaborators and b. applying our mapping approach to another transition economy, such as India.
  • Understanding the food system and its contribution to greenhouse gas emissions. Our Cooking up a Storm report was perhaps the first attempt in the UK to provide a description of how the food system contributes to climate changing greenhouse gas emissions, both by life cycle stage (from plough to plate to bin) and by food type. It also explored the flip side of the coin: the global impact of a changing climate on how we grow, distribute, produce and consume food. The report underlined the need to address the question of what we eat as much as how we produce food, and provided an initial ‘back of the envelope’ estimate of the potential emission reductions achievable, through a combination of production and consumption side changes.  This report was itself based on comprehensive analyses of GHG emissions from three food commodities produced and consumed in the UK: livestockfruit and vegetablesalcoholic drinks; and one supply chain process: food refrigeration.
  • The Cooking up a Storm report provided the impetus for a subsequent collaboration between WWF and FCRN, leading to a jointly commissioned report produced by a team at Cranfield University and entitled How low can we go? This not only provided a more detailed quantification of the UK’s food food carbon footprint but also took account of emissions from land use change, finding that the overall figure increases by about 50%. It also explored a range of scenarios for achieving a 70% cut in food related greenhouse gas emissions, concluding that both technological and behavioural changes are needed.
  • Topical issues: a series of discussion papers. The FCRN produces discussion papers that summarise the current ‘state of play’ on topical issues.  Topics covered include soil carbon sequestration the feeding of grains to livestock; the relative impacts of intensively versus extensively reared livestock; and the relationship between animal efficiencies and animal welfare.