A new £6m research project titled Healthy soil, healthy food, healthy people (H3) seeks to transform the UK food system from the ground up via an integrated program of interdisciplinary research.

Social and natural scientists from the Institute for Sustainable Food at the University of Sheffield will collaborate on a whole-system approach to emphasize the links between production and consumption and identify practical paths towards food system transformation.

Food security and sustainability are among the greatest challenges facing the world today, and traditional approaches of intensifying food production are coming under criticism for not looking at the whole picture of how we produce and supply food to the nation.

The Covid-19 pandemic also shone a light on the fragility of the UK’s food systems resilience and how its reliance on foreign imports during a global crisis meant people in the UK experienced empty shelves, and shortages of basic staples such as flour and pasta. 

"This is an exciting, once-in-a-lifetime, opportunity to use cutting-edge research to have a genuinely transformative effect on the health and sustainability of the UK food system. We are delighted that the Institute for Sustainable Food will be leading one of the four consortia to be funded by the UK Research and Innovation’s Transforming the UK Food System for Healthy People and a Healthy Environment programme," says professor Peter Jackson, Co-director of the Institute for Sustainable Food at the University of Sheffield. 

The H3 consortium - which draws on the combined strength of researchers from the University of Sheffield, University of Leeds, University of Bristol, University of Cambridge and City, University of London as well as a wide range of stakeholders from government, business and civil society - will focus its research on horticulture, hydroponics and hybrid farms, and on the health benefits of biofortification and increased fiber consumption. 

The project will identify practical paths towards food system interventions: on farm, in food manufacturing and retail, and improve dietary health and environmental sustainability of the agri-food industry in the UK.

This will include finding ways to increase the production of health-promoting vegetables while reducing reliance on harmful agricultural inputs and imported food by integrating hydroponic production systems within conventional soil-based farms. The project will also look at how improving the microbiomes of growing mediums has the potential to increase nutrients in our food systems and reduce our reliance on pesticides. 

'We are absolutely delighted by this award and excited to apply the food systems-level thinking we've developed at the Institute for Sustainable Food to the real world."

“Backed up by our world-leading research, this work has huge transformational potential to improve the sustainability, the quality, and the equity of our agri-food system here in the UK. Working closely with our external partners will add a real-world perspective to shape how our initiatives are applied.

“In terms of fighting the climate crisis, this kind of transformational research is sorely needed. We are delighted that the Institute for Sustainable Food will be leading the way in developing and applying that research," says Professor Duncan Cameron, Co-director of the Institute for Sustainable Food at the University of Sheffield. 

The FDF is the voice of the UK food and drink industry, representing the largest manufacturing sector in the country. We are very proud of the industry’s achievements, particularly the way it has dealt with the challenge of Covid-19, keeping the country fed throughout the pandemic.

“That being said, we know more needs to be done to continue to improve the food supply. There is clearly a need for the UK to ensure a resilient and secure food supply chain into the future, which can deliver sustainable and healthy food for all.

“Long term research is needed to help support food and drink companies who will be at the heart of making further positive changes to our food supply. I am delighted to support this ground-breaking research proposal which will help transform the UK food system," says Kate Halliwell, Head of UK Diet and Health Policy, Food and Drink Federation (FDF). 

For more information:
University of Sheffield, Institute for Sustainable Food