Good Food Governance

H3 Consortium: Transforming UK food systems from the ground up 

By Heloise Balme

Bristol Food Network’s Heloise Balme shares insights from a recent conference that brought together academics, third-sector organisations and industry representatives to explore food systems change.  

I recently joined a conference organised by the H3 Consortium – a group of UK universities working on a five-year research programme to support Healthy Soil, Healthy Food and Healthy People, with the strapline of ‘Transforming UK food systems from the ground up’.  

Delegates from the consortium’s universities, including Sheffield, Leeds, Bristol, City, Manchester, York and Cambridge joined the meeting, along with farmers, delegates from industry (for example the Food and Drink Federation), DEFRA and third sector organisations such as Bristol Food Network, ShefFood and Sustainable Food Places

The programme is halfway through its five years, so this was an opportunity for the academics to share progress on their many research strands, to get feedback from other stakeholders and invite debate via panel discussions.  The research covers improved production techniques and nutritional value and developing more resilient supply chains. Here are my top takeaways and reflections on the day: 

Regenerative agriculture  

H3’s researchers are supporting farmers to transition to regenerative techniques, analysing how soil health, yield and nutrition factors differ between conventional and regen techniques and how these factors change over time, as farms transition their practices. Feedback from farmers highlighted that significant soil health changes would likely take more than five years to be demonstrable. This reinforces the urgent need to focus on soil health, a topic that is often left out in discussion beyond the farm gate. For Bristol Food Network, this was a reminder that we can find opportunities to do more on this, for example via our annual Get Growing Trail

The research will be informative for DEFRA, who is trialling the new Environmental Land Management Scheme (ELMS) that pays farms for improving their natural environment. Discussion highlighted the need to understand the economics of regen farming practice more fully, to broaden farm engagement. The need for wider training to be available for farmers of all ages and backgrounds on regen and forward-thinking techniques, rather than just for new entrants, was also raised. From our interaction with food producers in Bristol, we know that training provision is lacking nationally; it was good to hear the message on regen skills being added to that voice. 

Consumer food supply and choices 

H3 is working with local communities and consumers to understand eating choices and habits, to help industry develop new products that address low fibre uptake and to inform behaviour change approaches for more sustainable diets. It will also be working with supermarkets and their suppliers to understand supply chain disruption. I sat on the panel for this discussion, which was very lively! It was valuable to have voices from the food industry, consumer bodies and from the local food system in the same room. Inevitably, the role and value of local economies and the wider food system controlled by supermarkets, that we all live within, was passionately debated. I welcomed the proposed research to better understand consumers’ perspectives and eating practices, whilst highlighting the systemic issues that may prevent them from eating how they want to (for example, due to their personal finances or where they live). 

I think there was general recognition that to achieve large-scale change, all stakeholders need to be included, but that local economic models must also be better supported for a resilient food system. Some of the sociological, consumption aspects of this research will be conducted by the University of Bristol, so I hope we can collaborate further on this work as it develops. 

In closing, my reflection is that the conference was a great opportunity to build deeper relationships with academia and other food system stakeholders on behalf of Bristol; and to share ideas on where food systems research can most benefit our communities, through providing evidence and insight to drive change, and achieve our goal of greater resilience.    

Explore the Bristol Good Food directory to find out which organisations are helping to make Bristol’s food system better for communities, climate and nature, and how you can connect with them.

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So, what change do you want to see happen that will transform food in Bristol by 2030? Do you already have an idea for how Bristol can make this happen? Join the conversation now.

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