RVC researchers lead vital study on global food systems - Veterinary Practice
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RVC researchers lead vital study on global food systems

Study highlights the need for a holistic approach to understanding food systems

Researchers from the RVC have led an important study as part of the Wellcome Trust funded global programme Sustainable and Healthy Food Systems (SHEFS), highlighting the need for a holistic approach to understanding food systems, if significant progress is to be made in producing healthy and nutritious food in an environmentally sustainable way, to all people, at all times.

Two researchers from the RVC, Dr Barbara Häsler, Senior Lecturer in Agrihealth, and Mr Kevin Queenan, Research Assistant in SHEFS, joined colleagues from the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, and the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Pietermaritzburg in South Africa, to investigate the complex systems that underpin the production, distribution and consumption of livestock-derived food (LDF) in South Africa.

Highlighting the complexity of the system, the existing problems and suggesting potential solutions, the researchers created an overview of the entire South African LDF system for the benefit of policymakers and stakeholders. The study also demonstrated the use of conceptual system dynamics modelling as a tool for decision-makers to use when considering food system recommendations, associated with nutrition and health, environmentally sustainable food production, food security, and equitable access to food.

The results determined that the LDF system in South Africa is incredibly complex and undergoing dynamic change, driven in part by a rising population and increasing per capita demand. The study also found that the country’s historic roots continue to influence the dominance of industrial-sized producers, large-scale supermarkets and international fast-food companies at the exclusion of others.

In addressing this imbalance, the researchers found that Government support of emerging commercial producers is challenged by land access and a shortage of skills that are needed to meet high standards of the formal value chain. Local production is also challenged by cheaper imports (as part of complex trade deals), increasingly frequent droughts and climate change. These findings demonstrate the importance of a wider contextual analysis when considering the debate around food security, nutrition, health, and sustainable livestock production. The study has the potential to guide policy toward more integrated and durable solutions, highlighting possible unintended consequences, and mitigating the risk of system destabilisation that may accompany the deep structural change required.

Dr Barbara Häsler, Senior Lecturer in Agrihealth at the RVC, said:

“The increasing global population, combined with the climate change crisis and the risk of foodborne illness, presents a stark challenge to all those committed to ensuring there is a global provision of nutritious and healthy food for everyone that is produced, distributed and consumed within planetary boundaries.

“It was a pleasure to be part of this transdisciplinary team to conduct this important research, which highlights the complexity of the myriad networks which underpin the provision of livestock-derived food, hopefully demonstrating the need for a systems thinking when tackling food system challenges. Projects like this truly emphasise the need for a One Health approach to food and sustainability, which recognises the interconnections between people, animals, plants and the shared environment.”

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