Eight topics under the microscope
SHEFS concentrates on three countries and eight key areas of research which, individually and together, will give policy makers the information they need to ensure healthy, accessible, affordable and sustainable diets for everyone.
The two focus areas of UK-based SHEFS work are: (1) land use changes and their impact on diets and health; and (2) food system sustainability, international trade patterns and their consequences for (inequalities in) diets and health. SHEFS is developing a land use model, which aims to explore the links between agriculture and other land uses, biodiversity, greenhouse gas emissions and food production, and in turn links to dietary and health outcomes. Furthermore, a model is being developed to estimate the impact of current and future international trade strategies on fruit and vegetable supply to the UK. Both models will be used to inform national food policy, which is being reformulated as the UK leaves the European Union and in the face of the climate emergency and the national obesity crisis.
The South African partner of SHEFS is the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN), led by Professor Rob Slotow. The UKZN focus includes four inter-related research components, namely agriculture, environment, human development (poverty and community) and health. More specifically, UKZN SHEFS research includes the following themes: transdisciplinarity; strategic enactment; indigenous and traditional crops in the food-health-environment nexus; crop physiology; natural capital of food systems; health-population-
SHEFS work in India is led by the Centre for Chronic Disease Control (CCDC), New Delhi, and Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment (ATREE), Bangalore. CCDC’s work on SHEFS encompasses health, nutrition and agriculture domains. Activities such as photovoice, comprehensive dietary survey, farmer survey, stakeholder interviews align with the SHEFS Theory of Change activities; including understanding the policy environment and engaging stakeholders, analyzing diets and health, quantifying the food system interactions and analyzing agriculture and livelihoods. The work at ATREE comprises of seven sub-projects that aim to assess the links between environment and nutrition and health across themes as diverse as sources of anti-microbial resistance, the water-energy-food nexus, invasive plant species, changing livelihoods, urbanization, gender as a factor in nutrition outcomes, cash and food crop systems, and, pollinator dependence and decline.
Historically, underutilised crops underpinned cropping systems diversity, resilience and dietary diversity. However, much of this diversity has now been lost with consequences for the resilience of smallholder farming systems and dietary diversity. A major focus of the Agriculture theme is to explore opportunities for underutilised crops with regards to enhancing smallholder farmers’ productivity, climate change adaptation, ecosystem services, women and youth empowerment, and contributing to food and nutrition security. Moving forward, such efforts require enhanced connectivity and collaboration towards a collective goal of mainstreaming underutilised crops into South Africa’s food system. The Agriculture theme brings together crop scientists, human nutrition and dieticians, environmental scientists and health scientists as part of exploring the agriculture-environment-health nexus.
A major theme of SHEFS is to explore ways in which the food system has impacts on the natural environment, especially greenhouse gas emissions, water use, biodiversity and pollution. The differences between local and regional/global impacts are being explored, and environmental changes that then affect the food system are documented. By working in the UK, India and South Africa, these processes can be examined in very different contexts.
In South Africa, SHEFS is studying dietary patterns and malnutrition over time and space. The underlying socio-economic and environmental drivers of current dietary patterns are being investigated, allowing projections to be made of what this may look like in the future. In the UK, the impact on health of changes in supply of fruits, vegetables and legumes is being modelled, following several climate-change and import scenarios. The model has a special focus on inequalities in access to fruits and vegetables across socio-economic groups in the UK. In India, the aim is to map and access dietary diversity and food security in urban and rural areas. To assess sustainability and further quantify the impact on the local environment, foods are being traced back to specific sources.
SHEFS is undertaking several streams of research to examine the economic underpinnings of the food-health-environment nexus in India. One strand concerns processed foods as a key element of dietary quality, and is studying consumption trends and consumer economic behaviour in response to regulation and climate variation. Another strand focuses on fruit and vegetables, examining economic drivers of consumption and inequality in consumption.
The SHEFS diets strand explores real population diets in India, South Africa and the UK, and their associations with the environment and health. This includes using data-driven clustering methods to identify multiple dietary patterns consumed by different population groups in each country, and to quantify the average environmental and health impacts associated with each pattern. SHEFS diets work is also exploring the vulnerability of diets to climate change both within and outside the SHEFS countries, and how this could be minimised by altering diets or patterns of food trade.
Focusing on selected livestock food sub-systems (chickens in South Africa; dairy and eggs in India; sheep and beef in the UK), the livestock research theme (jointly with other groups in SHEFS as well as with external collaborators) explores links between food and nutrition security, food environment, microbial and chemical hazards, sustainability and/or health, as well as related market, governance, policy and social landscapes. Case studies are conducted in different contexts to describe these dynamics for a range of situations from local to national production and consumption.
The theme’s challenge is to have quantitative and joint understanding of the domains of environment, food systems and the health of populations. Meeting the challenge combines theory, empirical evidence and mechanistic understanding drawn from the SHEFS group. The theme fosters connected research; links relevant expertise at local and regional scales; and accounts appropriately for the variability and uncertainty inherent in data and models used in the domains of SHEFS. It will provide both historical insight and evaluation of policy options for improving outcomes. The theme organises monthly project meetings, presentations and workshops.
One of the key objectives of SHEFS is to provide policymakers with evidence to define future food systems policies that deliver nutritious and healthy foods in an environmentally sustainable and socially equitable manner. To contribute towards this goal, the SHEFS Policy Research Group is generating evidence on what food system policies are now in place in South Africa, India and the UK, assessing if they are being effectively implemented, and identifying areas where policy innovation could help improve both nutrition and sustainability. To do so, a mix of methods is used, including policy coherence analysis, qualitative studies to generate insights from people who experience the problem, and ‘tracer analysis’, to trace specific foods through the food system.