From Farm to Fork

Farmers are the people who feed our nation. But the agriculture industry is facing huge challenges from every angle. Climate change, crop disease, supply chain disruption, and ever-changing legislation are just some of the disruptions farmers face on a daily basis.

These challenges have been intensified by the COVID-19 pandemic, with additional problems around wastage, labour shortages, and responding to dramatically different consumer shopping habits, making the last 18 months an especially tough time for the agriculture community.

Our work aims to support farmers by helping them to prevent crop disease, and to run their farms more efficiently by harnessing the power of robotic technology. We also work with government to uphold farmer’s best interests in an uncertain legislative and economic landscape, and we’ve developed technology which helps farmers globally rise to the challenge of restoring biodiversity on their land – making a significant positive difference to the environment.

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Policy and governance questions about the National Food Strategy

Policy and governance questions about the National Food Strategy

The University of Hertfordshire’s Food Systems & Policy research group provide some immediate reflections on the National Food Strategy Part Two.

Policy and governance questions about the National Food Strategy

A new National Food Strategy for England (Part II) has recently been published (following on from Part I in 2020).

With over twenty years in food policy research, the team in the University of Hertfordshire’s Food Systems & Policy research group provide some immediate reflections on the National Food Strategy Part Two (NFS), focusing on the policy and governance measures proposed, followed by a background briefing on national food strategies.

Read the policy and governance questions about the National Food Strategy

What is the National Food Strategy and how could it change the way England eats?

What is the National Food Strategy and how could it change the way England eats?

Reforming England’s food system could save the country £126 billion, according to a recent government-commissioned report.

What is the National Food Strategy and how could it change the way England eats?

Reforming England’s food system could save the country £126 billion, according to a recent government-commissioned report. The National Food Strategy, led by British businessman Henry Dimbleby, proposes a raft of measures to shake up how food is produced and the kinds of diets most people eat.

The need for action is laid out in stark terms in the National Food Strategy's report. Poor diets contribute to around 64,000 deaths every year in England, and the government spends £18 billion a year treating obesity-related conditions. How we grow food accounts for a quarter of greenhouse gas emissions and is the leading cause of biodiversity destruction.

To meet these challenges, the report calls for “escaping the junk food cycle” to improve general health and reduce the strain on the NHS, reducing the gap in good diets between high- and low-income areas, using space more efficiently to grow food so that more land can return to nature, and creating a long-term shift in food culture.

The strategy is, in parts, highly ambitious, particularly in its framing of the challenge as a systemic issue, and in some of the more innovative measures it proposes.

Read 'What is the National Food Strategy and how could it change the way England eats?' in The Conversation. It is written by Professor David Barling and Dr. Kelly Parsons.

Are robots our future farm labourers?

Are robots our future farm labourers?

Professor Farshid Amirabdollahian on the role of robots and automation in agricultural food production.

Are robots our future farm labourers?

Find out more about the Centre for Computer Science and Informatics Research at Herts

Using New Space technology to help protect crops from the impact of climate change

Using New Space technology to help protect crops from the impact of climate change

Scientists at Herts are aiming to provide agricultural industries with innovative and more accurate ways to keep a close eye on their crops in the face of threats to the food chain.

Using New Space technology to help protect crops from the impact of climate change

Astrophysicists spend much of their time looking to far-flung galaxies, observing objects that are lightyears away. But the same technology is now being directed towards Earth to closely monitor our crops and tackle the potential impact of climate change.

Scientists at Herts are aiming to provide agricultural industries with innovative and more accurate ways to keep a close eye on their crops in the face of threats to the food chain.

If global climate change targets are not met, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warns of catastrophic and irreversible impacts on the food chain.

Professor James Geach believes his team’s new techniques can address this potential disruption to food supply by providing more accurate satellite images of agricultural land. New developments in technology combine Earth Observation (EO) satellites with pioneering technology that can produce accurate imaging of the Earth’s surface, day or night, regardless of cloud cover – which has historically presented a challenge.

This cloud-free, detailed representation of the Earth’s surface is invaluable for many areas of study including marine life, road usage, and even retail customer habits.

For farmers, the resulting imagery provides vital clues for spotting crop disease, predicting growth and yield, monitoring irrigation and even foreseeing disasters such as flood and drought – allowing them to move more quickly to mitigate against the ruin of crops.

Find out more about the Centre for Astrophysics Research.

Farming in the UK

Farming in the UK

The story of from farm to fork across the UK.

Farming in the UK

infographic of farming in the Uk and the impact of Herts

Helping improve how Britain feeds itself in times of crisis and beyond

Helping improve how Britain feeds itself in times of crisis and beyond

From farm to fork, the pandemic impacted every stage of the food chain.

Helping improve how Britain feeds itself in times of crisis and beyond

From farm to fork, the pandemic impacted every stage of the food chain.

Herts researchers examined the wide range of food-related policies the government introduced to support the food supply chain during the pandemic. Their expert analysis and insights will help support the transformation of food systems in the UK, enabling policymakers to better adapt to future issues impacting the food supply chain.

Food-related policy interventions were introduced by multiple government departments to address issues caused by the pandemic. The Food Standards Agency put in place remote inspections of farms and relaxed food labelling, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs enabled a supply of seasonal agricultural workers, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy relaxed competition rules, the Ministry of Housing Communities and Local Government amended rules to allow pubs and restaurants to operate as takeaways, and Her Majesty’s Treasury created an ‘Eat Out to Help Out’ discount  scheme to encourage people to return to hospitality.

Beyond the early weeks of the pandemic, the UK might not have suffered significant disruptions to overall food supply as a result of COVID-19, but parts of the food chain experienced more serious issues than others. Milk farmers found themselves pouring away milk as the coffee chains who feed our latte habits remained closed, and beef producers were forced to transform restaurant-quality cuts of beef into lower-priced minced meat as the food chain was unable to redeploy food from hospitality and catering to supermarkets fast enough.

Our researchers found that some food-related policy interventions worked well, such as those to ensure food supplies were available from farms and in supermarkets, but other interventions lacked impact, fell short of their intentions, or created unintended consequences. For example, the Department for Education grappled with policy around the replacement of free school meals, leading to high profile campaigns by footballer Marcus Rashford and civil society groups lobbying for better food access for vulnerable families before policy action was taken.

More broadly, there was a failure to prioritise healthy eating despite a link being established between health and COVID-19. Examples include food parcels being nutritionally-poor, the incoherence of the Eat Out to Help Out scheme, which lowered the cost of meals at fast food outlets, and poor messaging around healthy eating compared to other countries.

To support robust food systems that are fit to handle the food production and supply issues of the future, our researchers’ recommendations include better involvement of external stakeholders in policymaking, checking the broader coherence of individual policy interventions with other societal goals – such as health, and building on the impressive level of cross-government coordination which took place to institutionalise cross-government working on food policy.

By Professor David Barling and Dr Kelly Parsons, Centre for Agriculture, Food & Environmental Management

David Barling headshot Kelly Parson headshot

Find out more about Food research at Herts.

Key facts: from farm to fork

Key facts: from farm to fork

How Herts is helping to power sustainable agriculture.

Key facts: from farm to fork

Farm to fork infographic

Creating a more sustainable future for UK crop protection

Creating a more sustainable future for UK crop protection

Climate change is the single largest threat to food security globally.

Creating a more sustainable future for UK crop protection

Climate change is the single largest threat to food security globally.

It’s increasing the presence of pests and diseases that can destroy our crops and overuse of pesticides is intensifying the evolution of insensitivity to the pesticides that are used to control these threats.

Herts has a strong heritage in crop protection research. Our researchers work closely with the agriculture industry to develop more sustainable ways of improving crop resistance to the pests and diseases that threaten our food production. Many of our agriculture experts have backgrounds in epidemiology and use their expertise to further understand how crop disease epidemics develop.

Our researchers have contributed breakthrough research to help growers prevent losses of up to £100m from diseases infecting oilseed rape, the UK’s third most important arable crop. The team have developed forecasts to predict risks of severe disease epidemics affecting oilseed rape, both now and in the future as predicted climate change affects growing conditions.

We’re also helping protect our iconic British strawberry crops with the development of the Decision Support System that enables an intelligent use of fungicides. Without effective control, strawberry powdery mildew alone can cause losses of up to 70% of a strawberry crop. Growers are alerted when there is a higher risk of the disease developing, resulting in their use of fungicides being reduced by half, financial savings for growers of at least £200 per hectare and a more sustainable strawberry production process.

Most recently, our researchers are engaged in cutting-edge research to investigate how fungal viruses could be used as environmentally friendly biological control agents against insects that transmit diseases to crops. Tests in the lab have found this to be an effective method of controlling pests such as flea beetles, which have blighted oilseed rape crops in 2021. This innovative approach could be used by UK crop producers in the next 5-10 years.

Find out more about the Crop Protection and Climate Change Research Group.

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