This was one of the questions raised at last Monday night’s Policylab on ‘Priority Research Questions for the UK Food System’. The Policylab showcased research which uses a broad range of stakeholders to indentify the most pressing questions for food security in the UK.


With the UK’s food security high on political, food industry, societal and academic agendas, it was very timely for the UK-Global Food Security Programme (GFS) to look at prioritising key research questions. The project on the priority research questions for the UK food system helped identify key research challenges for improving the UK food system’s efficiency and effectiveness in a global context.  The  full-to-capacity Policylab aimed to alert the policy community across government, research councils and industry to the outcomes of the project, and to garner support for taking the research forward.


The Policylab was chaired by Tim Benton, UK Global Food Security Programme Champion, and opened with a short introduction by Sir John Beddington FRS.


John Ingram, ECI Food Systems Programme Leader, set the context for the discussion by introducing the ‘food system’ concept. He also explained how a broad spectrum of stakeholders were involved in the project, including those associated with different activities along the food chain (i.e. producing, processing, packaging, retailing and consuming), and those interested in the socioeconomic and environmental outcomes of these activities.


He then explained the methodology for identifying the key research questions. From an initial list of 820 questions submitted by a wide range of stakeholders involved in the food sector, project participants identified 100 priority research questions. This was though an iterative process of voting and discussion at a multi-stakeholder workshop.  These were then sorted into ten themes relating to food system activities and outcomes. The top question for each theme was identified, deriving the overall ‘top 10’ questions.  Four different stakeholder groups (primary production; food industry and retail; governmental policy; and NGOs/advocacy) also each selected the top five questions from their varied perspectives.


The  next stages of the project will be taken forward jointly with interested parties:

  1. identify which questions can be addressed by synthesising existing knowledge, and which need new research;
  2. identify funding mechanisms for undertaking new work;
  3. build academia-industry partnerships to develop and implement research; and
  4. integrate the answers to help analyse synergies and trade-offs among multiple social, economic and environmental objectives.

The Policylab panellists discussed the findings of the project and presented their perspective on UK food systems.  In brief:


Ian Boyd, Chief Scientific Adviser, DEFRA, spoke about the role of government in feeding a population, the importance of needing to understand the dynamics of the food system and what the different trade-offs are so that government can produce sensible policy to help ensure UK food security.


John Casey , Vice-President R&D, Unilever, highlighted that the raw materials of ‘food of the future’ will need to be different to today’s materials and where sustainable sources of protein might come from.


Sue Davies Chief Policy Adviser, Which?, stressed the need to improve communication with consumers and allow them to provide inputs into policy rather than just being the objects of it.


Mark Driscoll Head of Food, Forum for the Future, rounded up the presentations by talking about the importance of multi-stakeholder engagement and the need for new business models in order to move forward and address the challenges facing the UK’s food system.


The Q&A broadened the discussion to include the extent to which the UK food system is self-sufficient; how this fits with the global production of food; and what can be done to help all farmers use their land efficiently.


The Q&A was rounded off with a lively discussion on the role of novel foods, such as insects, as a cheap and sustainable source of protein.  This raised the challenge of balancing innovative ideas with consumer acceptance and the need for effective regulatory frameworks.  So although those present agreed that  cockroaches are a highly efficient means of producing protein (after processing, 80% is edible compared to 35% for lamb), there might be a way to go before cockroaches are readily available on our supermarket shelves or a waiter asks whether you’d like yours sautéed, boiled or roasted.


For further information about the project, please contact John Ingram at:

Environmental Change Institute, University of Oxford,,