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Food systems with Dr Laurence Smith

Dr Laurence Smith discusses the complexity behind the food system using examples from production, retail and consumption.
Have you ever considered how sustainable your food is? Well, today we’re looking at how climate change is impacting agriculture, all the way down to the food right on your plate. More people are turning to veganism and vegetarianism, with many of them doing for environmental reasons. We’re here on campus in our Eat at the Square canteen to talk to Dr. Laurence Smith, who researches, teaches, and assesses the sustainability of our food. We’ll be learning about the impact of climate change on our food systems, the complexity of being sustainable, and all about his research, as well. So, can you tell us a little bit about your research and what got you into climate change in the first place?
Yeah, so I got into climate change research through becoming a volunteer on organic farms. And it was really through that increased understanding and connection to what’s happening within the food system that I became very interested in the environmental crisis that we’re experiencing at the moment. And then my research built on my experience on organic farms, which often try to promote system thinking and understanding of the whole production system on a farm and not just one aspect, such as the livestock or the crops, but thinking about how those elements interact. So that led me to develop research interests that could consider the trade-offs between the different elements within the farming system. And then, more recently, extending that to beyond the farm.
So the consumer aspects– so looking at how the decisions that we make in terms of our everyday buying, and eating, and waste disposal habits affect the sustainability of food systems. So could you tell us a little bit about the life cycle analysis that you do in your research? Lifecycle analysis– it’s a term that’s used to define the system of research that looks at the environmental burdens that are associated with a product, or a, process or a service. The way it does that is it takes one unit of that product, say a kilogram of wheat, and it looks at all of the environmental burdens that are associated with the production of that one kilogram.
Everything from this mining of the coal that goes into the production of the electricity, right through to the on-farm practices by looking at all those embodied emissions and energy sources that go into the different production lifecycle stages where those hot spots are, where we can tackle practices to reduce environmental effects. Often there’s an assumption that if food is produced locally that it’s going to be less environmentally damaging. And it’s not actually the case. When we think about something like tomatoes, for example, that when they’re produced in this country, they’re often grown under glass.
So that requires heating and the use of fossil fuels to supply that heat to the tomatoes, and, of course, all the energy that goes into the production of the greenhouse, as well. So, in that case, for example, with tomatoes, it’s actually often more efficient to source it from a country like Spain where they can grow these crops outdoors without this need for protection, and the heat that’s provided within that, as well. So that more than offsets the emissions and the environmental impacts associated with the transport of the crops. Because when we look at the impacts of most foodstuffs, we see that, actually, the bulk of the impact is resulting from the processes that are happening on the farm.
And, actually, the miles are actually quite a small part of the total picture when we look at, particularly, greenhouse gas emissions. With this research, and kind of linking to the University, how do you get to your research into the teaching? One of the main ways I try to integrate it in the teaching is through what we call Living Labs. And what these are, essentially, are farmer-driven research projects where a group of farmers will come together with a researcher and they’ll identify a specific need that relates to a technical challenge that they may be facing. Then, with the researcher, these farmers, or individual farmer, work together to try to develop a solution to that over a number of years.
And I’ve found that’s very effective as a teaching tool, as well. Because the students can see how this Living Lab is playing out in practice and see how the researcher and the farmer are working together to address real-world problems. So what are the initiatives going on at the moment to help us prevent food waste and to encourage sustainability? There’s a lot of really positive initiatives that are being promoted now. In particular, within the retail sector, we’re seeing increased uptake of things like the Wonky Veg campaign to increase the marketability of the products that are sourced from farms. And that’s really caught on now, and it’s been quite popular with the consumer, as well.
So, the other thing that retailers are doing is that they’re investing in these improved methods of labelling and improved procurement regimes to avoid overstocking of particular items. And we’re also seeing some increased occurrences of some innovative marketing and food distribution campaigns. Like the one we can see over here where people can help themselves to the food through dispensers that, obviously, cuts down on packaging and the associated costs associated with production. In terms of food waste, there are some really straightforward, practical things we can do in terms of making sure that our fridge is at the right temperature. And making sure we’re not storing things in the fridge that should be outside the fridge, like onions and tomatoes, for example.
As well as using shopping lists when we go shopping. And, in terms of our meat consumption, there’s been a lot of promotion of things like meat-free Mondays and Veganuary– if that’s how it’s pronounced– is really taken off over the last few years. And I think getting involved in initiatives like that is helpful. And also thinking about how we can set examples to others, as well, when we’re in positions of responsibility like teaching, or taking on leadership roles in organisations. Yeah, I think that’s really interesting, as well, as you mentioned with the food waste that that’s something we can all take control of and, in our own lives, to avoid wasting food.
And there’s lots of new initiatives like the Too Good to Go app, where you can get waste food from companies, and a lot we can do collectively to try and stop that kind of thing.

Emily and Nick meet with Dr Laurence Smith to learn about his systems-thinking approach to investigating the environmental burdens associated with particular food products. He describes how lifecycle analysis of a food item analyses everything that goes into producing, for example, a kilogram of wheat, right down to the coal burned to create electricity to power the production process. He demonstrates how this level of understanding shows that buying locally grown tomatoes (if you live in the UK) may be less sustainable than buying those grown in warmer climates like Spain.

Take a single fruit or vegetable from your cupboard or fridge. From what you know of its production (where it was farmed, what kinds of farming methods might have been used, how it was transported to your market and then your home), see if you can make a list of all the environmental burdens associated with it. How long is your list?

About Dr Laurence Smith

Dr Laurence Smith, from the School of Agriculture, Policy & Development at the University of Reading, focuses on the development and application of tools and metrics for sustainability assessment to reveal trade-offs and synergies from innovations within food systems. Laurence is co-coordinating the Horizon 2020 project PATHWAYS to inform policy, research, and business strategies in support of a transition to more sustainable livestock production and consumption and he has been working on the Sustainable Food Trust-led Global Farm Metric to help us all have more confidence in our food system.

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