The world’s food system is causing great damage to our health, our communities and our environment. Turning things around will not be easy, but the Centre for Food Policy at City, University of London, is committed to promoting more sustainable diets and influencing policies that are better for everyone.

The sheer amount and variety of groceries cheaply available in our supermarkets might not suggest we face a serious food problem. But for Professor Corinna Hawkes at the influential Centre for Food Policy, the food system is simply not doing its job.

“Global food supply is very unsustainable,” she says. “Firstly, the way our food is produced, grown, fished and farmed is depleting land, harming biodiversity and releasing greenhouse gases. Secondly, the economics of the system puts downward pressure on food prices, which leads to poorly paid suppliers and workers. And thirdly, many diets around the world are affected by both inadequate access and affordability to nutritious, healthy food and too much unhealthy, ultra-processed food.”

Professor Hawkes paints a bleak picture, but she remains an optimist, passionate about understanding how the complex, interconnected parts of our food system work, so she and her colleagues can help tackle the issues.

Shaping food policy

“What we’re interested in here at the Centre is how the food system really works – everything from farm to fork and beyond. In order to understand it, you have to engage with it, as well as with those in the system. That is what we do: talking to people who experience the problems of the food system – citizens – as well as policymakers and people who work in food businesses. By doing that we can more effectively intervene and produce the evidence that shapes public policy and decision making.”

The Centre’s research focuses on creating a more sustainable food system, one that is not just about better diets for the public, but that also protects the planet and creates better livelihoods.

One current project involves researchers exploring how food from farms that use more sustainable techniques can get products to consumers in an affordable, greener way. Similarly, another focuses on working with small businesses producing diverse varieties and species of grains such as populations and long-straw wheats, which improve the sustainability and resilience of grain production over modern homogenous industrial varieties. The aim here is to identify and alleviate the policy bottlenecks that prevent more diverse grains becoming more widely available.

Tackling child obesity

Emeritus Professor of Food Policy, Tim Lang. Professor Lang appears regularly in mainstream media and is a former World Health Organization consultant. His work has influenced the UN, helped reshape European food policy and informed the UK government. He was also policy lead on the EAT-Lancet Commission on Healthy Diets and Sustainable Food Systems, which led to a report calling for significant changes in people’s diets to improve their health and protect the planet.

Professor Hawkes’ own research interests lie in nutrition. She has over two decades’ experience of working with UN agencies, NGOs, national and local governments and other public bodies, helping to shape policy and strategies to improve diets.

Professor Corinna Hawkes.

Within the last couple of years, she has served as Vice Chair on the Mayor of London’s Child Obesity Taskforce, set up to tackle the chronic levels of obesity in young people. This led to the publication of a 10-point strategy calling for a range of actions from transforming fast-food businesses and upskilling early-years professionals, to making free water more available and preventing the marketing of unhealthy foods to children.

Engaging the consumers of tomorrow

With food policy touching all aspects of society and affecting everyone, making any kind of meaningful change to any part of the food system is enormously challenging.

“This is a very political space and it is difficult to secure any shift in policy,” Professor Hawkes explains. “If, for instance, you restrict the marketing of unhealthy food, businesses fight back. Try to change the agriculture subsidy regime and special-interest farmers fight back. Try to reduce the amount of meat people eat and the meat industry fights back. So what happens is that people become entrenched and little progress is made.”

So what needs to happen? “A couple of things are important,” she continues. “Firstly, over the long term we have to get young people engaged. Unless there is demand from the citizens of tomorrow, governments and businesses will not change.”

“Secondly, we need to focus on finance. Trillions of pounds of public and private money are spent in the food system. How is it being spent? No one really knows. But one quick way to make improvements would be to target public procurement – how state money is spent. Take the money spent on school dinners. It is not focused on sustainable options, but the cheapest ones. As a consequence, this contributes to children not developing a healthy relationship with food and we end up with high levels of obesity and other health problems – which actually ends up costing the economy money. Unless public procurement is tackled, we cannot as a country say we are committed to the issue of a healthy, sustainable food policy.”

Beacons of hope

Ever the optimist, Professor Hawkes says that beacons of hope can be found everywhere, whether it is on a small scale with certain schools “doing incredible things to bring healthy food to children and using resources in a smart way,” to major changes in places such as Latin America. “Governments there have said enough is enough: yes we need a food industry but we do not need to be targeting junk food to children, we can make schools healthier, we can change labelling laws and we can use taxation.

“I would like to see the government here take seriously the review by Henry Dimbleby [co-founder of the Leon restaurant chain] that supports a national food strategy. They can also take a stronger stance on food industry behaviour and set higher standards for public procurement. And I would also like to see investment in small farmers, businesses and entrepreneurs who have great ideas for how to get more sustainable food into the market. There also needs to be a change in the economics so there is a fairer allocation of the value generated, because at the moment a lot of the profit only goes to certain actors.”

Individuals can also play a role. “Everybody who has the means can take responsibility to identify the most sustainable sources of food where they live,” says Professor Hawkes. “It might be something simple like going to a local market, ordering online from farmers using sustainable practices or eating less meat. You do not have to turn vegan overnight, just find one or two things you can do to source products more sustainably.

“I also encourage people to not waste food. Not only because of all the resources used to get that product to you, but also because it is a waste of money.”

Towards a more sustainable future

Whatever the arguments over what needs to change and how, one thing is clear: the world’s food system cannot carry on indefinitely in its current form. The war in Ukraine, while being an immense humanitarian disaster, highlights what happens when you have a global economic system geared towards sourcing food from a small number of cheap suppliers. Ukraine produces a lot of wheat. When that staple becomes harder to source, prices go up. Professor Hawkes says this raises questions about where we source our food and may force governments of countries to think about being more self-reliant.

“If the food system carries on as it is, the solutions food offers to major challenges such as climate change, decreasing biodiversity and poor diets and working conditions will be cut off,” she says. “But with a sustainable system, we can have healthy, nutritious food for everyone that is less harmful to the environment and which sees value distributed more fairly across everyone involved in the system.”

It is a vision of the world few would argue against. How we get there is going to be a challenge – a challenge Professor Hawkes and the Centre for Food Policy is not shying away from.