Andrew Wood, Senior Engagement and Impact Officer with Yorkshire and Humber Climate Commission, reflects on the Commission's examination of our unsustainable food system.

27 September 2023

We are living through three emergencies of climate, nature and public health, and we know that our food systems are inextricably linked to all three. The food we eat is not healthy enough, and this is especially true for those of us on lower incomes, with impacts on illnesses and inequalities. Food production is placing unsustainable pressures on nature, both locally and globally and contributing to climate change. And the impacts of global heating, especially extremes of weather, pose increasing risks to food security and to the livelihoods of farmers. We have plenty of scientific evidence about these inter-related problems, but the solutions are complex. Our region is home to about 5.5 million people, of whom about one fifth are experiencing food insecurity. We want everyone to have enough food and a healthy diet, and we need farms that can thrive with nature in the changing climate. Just as nature needs to be diverse to be healthy, so do our sources of food and how they’re produced. 

This is the complex background for Yorkshire & Humber Climate Commission’s exploration of what could be done at the regional level to help transform our food systems in response to the three emergencies.  

The solutions all come down to how we use land, both in our urban and our rural areas. Although Yorkshire & Humber is often perceived as an urban and industrial region, 70% of our land is farmed. The food system, and the pressures and incentives placed on farmers, operates beyond the natural capabilities of the land, and this is clearly unsustainable. The catastrophic decline of flower, insect and bird populations are directly linked to pesticides and herbicides, and reliance on synthetic fertilisers is damaging soils, polluting watercourses and destroying sensitive ecosystems. But finance for farmers does not adequately support them to protect and restore nature. Without healthy ecosystems, crops have low resilience and farmers become yet more dependent on artificial inputs to sustain yields.  

Could we work towards a regionwide framework for how our land and water are managed? This idea has come forward time and again throughout our ‘Delivering Impact’ programme of focused investigations, not just in the food systems topic. Could it incorporate a food system strategy? There is no doubt that land, nature and water right here in our region are under huge, competing pressures, but there is no one right answer. A successful strategy would need to be based on real-world examples of solutions that work. 

This means that supporting a range of projects demonstrating alternative food production and land management practices is a vital part of the overall solution. And there is no shortage of great projects to show the art of the possible, covering the huge range of benefits that could be brought together in a food system strategy including: 

  • Decarbonising the food we produce – for example Grow it York, who are testing precision, indoor farming techniques, and Our Cow Molly in Sheffield, a dairy with hyper-local supply chains who are also monitoring the carbon absorption of their grazing land; 
  • Reducing waste across our food chain – see the Fix Our Food vision for a fully circular food system where waste has been eliminated; 
  • Shaping healthy and climate-aware food, education and school meals – as the Fix Our Food Schools Network are doing ; 
  • Raising visibility of the evidence and knowledge needed for transitioning to nature-based and regenerative farming techniques – through peer networks like the Nature Friendly Farming Network and individual advocates like Paul Temple of Wold Farm.  
  • Helping farmers optimise their crop yields in balance with nature to reduce dependence on synthetic fertilisers and other costly inputs - see the Maximum Sustainable Output (MSO) analysis developed by Nethergill Associates;  
  • Making more space in our communities for shared gardens and allotments – check out some of the brilliant projects in our region such as Incredible Edible Todmorden, Leeds Permaculture Network, Regather (Sheffield), Edibles (Huddersfield), and community and city farms like Bradford’s Bowling Park Community Orchard and Leeds’ Kirkstall Community Garden

More than anything, we need to bring together landowners, farmers, retailers and communities to feed into the decisions about how land is being used and managed in our region, to create a future where everyone has access to healthy, sustainable food without it costing the earth. This should also be responsive to regional influence, not least because several national supermarkets are based in Yorkshire. Their direct power in the production and consumption of food is huge, and they also have the ‘soft power’ of shaping consumer choices.  

The cost of living crisis brings the social challenges of our food system into sharp focus. ‘Food deserts’ are places where people simply can’t reach a shop that sells a decent range of fresh ingredients they can afford, so addressing food cost and insecurity has to be about making healthy food much more accessible than it is now. And local and community grown produce may only make up a small portion of our food system, but they can help people who are in food poverty, and they have amazing success in reconnecting us with how food is grown. In urban life, going to a community farm is often the closest we can get to nature, and this can be especially true for children from low-income families and some minority ethnic groups. The power of community food projects like The Bread and Butter Thing to engage and empower people is inspiring. And the space we make for community-based action in our systems is not just about food but cuts right across climate action, including energy, housing retrofit, travel, enterprise and skills. 

Better connections between what we eat and how it is grown are as important for improving health and tackling social inequalities as they are for the climate. If you’ll pardon the pun, there is a huge appetite in the region for strengthening these connections, showcasing the amazing projects already going on, and hopefully influencing national policy decisions that can achieve change. 

Andrew Wood, Senior Engagement and Impact Officer, Yorkshire and Humber Climate Commission

Read the full Insight Paper - Sustainable Food Systems

Photo: Thomas Guignard