Transform London's food system with a human-centered design by removing barriers obscuring the connection between producers and consumers
Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.
The famous writer Samuel Johnson once said – “You find no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London. No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.” However, although Dr Johnson muses that London has all that life can afford, is that really sustainable? For instance, nearly 40% of the children in London are obese with the highest rates observed among vulnerable populations. From an environmental standpoint, food-related emissions are responsible for one-fifth of London’s total emissions. While cheap and unhealthy food products are proliferating, the price point of healthy and sustainable food is beyond the reach of many. Despite London being a hub of innovation and technology, these advances are often used to cater to profit-driven businesses. There is no doubt that London is an amazing city with unbridled potential, but the state of the current food system does not reflect that. But, London has the potential to transform our relationship with food.
Our team and research institute have a close relationship with London. All of us work at Rothamsted Research (the oldest agricultural institute in the world), just a 30-minute train ride away from London. Professionally, we have numerous collaborations with universities, think tanks, start-ups, and innovation hubs in the city. Our team members regularly organise workshops, participate in sessions, and have a multitude of networks and contacts in the city. Personally, London is a great source of entertainment and recreation. We visit London frequently to savour the multicultural cuisines, enjoy a show at the West End, sample the historical exhibits at museums, and occasionally have a good night out at the classic English pubs. And just like London, our team is also multicultural and diverse with members from the UK, India, Germany, and Greece. We all work on a myriad of issues focusing on improving the sustainability of our agri-food system.
Describe the People and Place: Provide information that would be helpful for an outsider who has never been there and may have no context about this Place to better understand the area.
Childhood obesity (2012-13) - Income levels play a huge role in causing childhood obesity. Prevalence of obesity (indicated in red/orange) is mostly felt in low-income areas outside of London's city centre. However, even in areas with high income, childhood obesity seems to be an emerging issue. This might be due to the hectic work patterns, availability of fast food which is processed and cheap, and lack of availability and access to healthy and sustainable food products.
Nitrogen Oxide emissions (2011) - Increased residential and commercial activity in the city centre leads to high emissions of nitrogen oxide (NOx), with highest emissions observed in central areas of London. (indicated in red). NOx is an air pollutant with detrimental health impacts. This is particularly concerning in the case of London, since the harmful effects of NOx are being felt in an area where most people reside (as seen from population maps)
Population Density (2028) - According to population projections for London, a bulk of people reside in the city centre (indicated in red). This could be due to the general increase in population and migration of people into cities. Large green and open spaces are pushed outwards (blue/green) far away from the people.
Household income (2012-13) - Household income in London is quite varied. The inner cities and some suburbs are well-off (indicated in blue/green) with the low-income populations (indicated in red) pushed out to the periphery of the city.
Green spaces in London (2014) - The increasing demand due to the urban sprawl in London has led to many open and green spaces moving away from the capital. Residential and commercial (indicated by red and orange) areas dominate London's central areas. However, the result of some conservation initiatives led to the creation of large parks (Hyde Park, Regent Park) at the centre of London, but more needs to be done.
London is one of the world’s first truly global cities with a 24% population of ethnic minority origin. London’s diversity is really one of its biggest strengths and a major draw for tourists and talent from around the world. Londoners embrace food from different cultures, making it one of the world’s most influential restaurant cities and home to chefs who are redefining food. Other cities pale in comparison to London when it comes to the development of tech-enabled rapid food deliveries which provide a truly international dining experience, all in the comfort of your own home. London’s average early-stage start-up funding is almost double the global average, making it one of the world’s leading technology hubs.
London’s food consumption is more than 2.5 million tonnes annually and requires the equivalent of the entire productive land area of Great Britain to sustain itself. Still, agriculture in London is a rather small enterprise, with only around 9-10% of the Greater London area used for commercial farming, the rest has been pushed out to the peripheries of the city. There are around 13000 hectares of farmland in Greater London providing approximately 3000 jobs. However, farming in London is on the decline since agricultural activity is highly resource-intensive and limited to focusing on arable and livestock production. Space requirements from urbanisation crank this pressure a notch higher, leading to further declines. Still, efforts are on-going to boost urban farming in London, which has gathered considerable momentum over the past decade.
Londoners have an average annual household income of 15% more than anywhere else in the country. However, a growing population, pollution, changing work patterns, expensive housing, variation in pay scales, and rising debts put a strain on general well-being and lead to many preventable health issues. London has the widest health inequalities in England and avoidable and unfair differences in mental or physical health between groups of people. The wealthier boroughs such as Bromley and Barnet, are “healthier” than the national average while in Tower Hamlets mortality rates are 10–20% higher than the average. For women, the difference between the highest and lowest healthy life expectancy is 15.7 years, and for men, it is 16.1 years. London is now working towards becoming a healthier city with proposed measures to tackle health threats posed by unhealthy eating habits, stress, lack of ample health services, high prices of food, pollution, transportation, alcohol consumption etc. Diet especially is a big concern as more than 2.3 million Londoners live below the poverty line and many do not have access to affordable, healthy food. On the flip side, the well-to-do population is also not necessarily eating better and often eats the trendier or easily available food because of busy work patterns which are often unhealthy and cheap.
Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.
Current food systems are failing to meet modern demands sustainably. At the heart of this failure is a disconnection of people from their food. This negatively affects the people and planet today, but projections indicate catastrophic impacts into the future. These impacts will reverberate across all six themes and bring with it many challenges
- Environment – London is faced with many environmental problems, particularly air pollution. The growing urban sprawl, combined with an increase in transportation and commercial activities, will worsen this further. Biodiversity losses within the city are also substantial. Increase in consumption leads to food imports from countries with unsustainable production methods along with increased emissions from transport and storage
- Diets – The varying income levels combined with the monopoly and manipulation of the food industry has led to the availability of cheap and unhealthy food products. The health of people living in low-income and vulnerable areas at risk. However, even in high-income areas, busy lifestyle and access to cheap and unhealthy food lead to negative health impacts such as obesity
- Economics - London’s food systems are divided. At the high end, food is commoditized and niche products reign. At the other end, healthy and sustainable food is expensive, while processed, unhealthy foods are cheap. Retailers govern food choices with special offers and marketing gimmicks. Wastage is high across the spectrum of consumer habits. On the production side, producers are cut off from their customers by food manufacturing and supply industries. They are highly reliant on subsidies for their land, and the caprices of markets, and suffer from an unstable income
- Culture - London hosts a wide diversity of people, from various backgrounds and ethnic groups. Culturally diverse food is very important to identity and community. However, they are often unavailable locally and have to be imported from countries having a poor ethical and welfare record. Importation also leads to high prices, environmental degradation, and makes the supply chain complex and less trustworthy
- Technology - Most tech-development is software focused, but hardware production is still lagging. Scaling-up is a challenge which could slow down innovation. Also, adoption of new biotechnological innovations faces serious backlash due to lack of awareness. Automated agriculture continues to focus on monocultures which could pose a serious risk to food security and resilience
- Policy - There is a lack of meaningful global cooperation on food production and climate change. Government policies haven’t evolved with the advances in agri-tech innovations which could ensure food security as well as tackle climate change. International trade is increasingly bilateral rather than guided by multilateral agreements leading to unsustainable food-supply chains. Local and nation-wide policies refuse to tax unhealthy and highly polluting food products
Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.
We envisage a future where people are connected with their food. People see the production of their food, are aware of the impact of their choices on the environment, and have the resources to influence decisions. Such a design will radically change the current food system and can successfully tackle current and future challenges that arise from blindly following the status quo.
- Environment – Local sourcing of food products combined with leveraging production within cities using agri-tech solutions will lower imports, increase biodiversity, and reduce emissions. Digital solutions will open up the complex supply chain and provide information to consumers and producers in eating and growing environmentally friendly food products.
- Diets – By growing food in cities and surrounding areas, low and high-income areas would have easy access to healthy and nutritious food. Personalised digital services will help people track their bodily requirements and guide them to make healthy food choices. Awareness and community programs will create an informed and smart consumer base.
- Economics - With healthy food subsidised in production and retail, diets are down to informed consumer choice. People make ethical and healthy choices without having to pay extra. The availability of cheap fruit and veg produced in the city, for some by their own labour, means that the majority of food eaten is fresh and local. Farmers are paid a good price for the food they produce, and consumer choice can incorporate environmental objectives.
- Culture - Diversity is celebrated, with no division by people’s preferences. Cultural food can be grown locally indoors, or outdoors with enhanced nutrient values. Where imports are necessary, low carbon transport is used, direct from producers in fair trade. Producing food physically brings people together, working on the land, and valuing the food they grow themselves. People eat together more, with healthier choices. Recipes can be brought for food printers, preserving branded or traditional cuisine sustainably.
- Technology - Big-machinery manufacturers will be incentivised to transition to high-tech solutions. Blockchain will be used to solve issues such as food fraud, safety recalls, supply inefficiency and food traceability leading to faster and robust supply chains. The unique decentralised structure will ensure verified products and practices in creating market transparency. Biotechnological innovations will be at the forefront of any agricultural system driven by an evidence-based approach rather than the current precautionary approach.
- Policy – Regulatory reforms will allow farmers to innovate. The aggressive precautionary principle that prevents UK farmers from adopting innovations would be replaced with an evidence-based approach. Protectionist trade rules which keep out affordable and sustainable food imports would be re-evaluated in line with technological advances that reduce the carbon footprint of transportation.
High Level Vision: With these challenges addressed, now provide a high level description of how the Place and the lives of its People will be different than they are now.
Our vision has the potential will bring about a radical change in the way the London grows and consumes food. This impact will be felt across the city and a range of stakeholders in the food system.
- Consumers – Access to cheap and healthy food is ubiquitous. Obesity and diet-related illnesses are on an all-time low. Advances in digital services provide consumers access to information about the supply chain. Community gardening and allotments are the new fads.
- Farmers – A new type of urban farmer emerges. Guided by consumer’s needs and their direct input, these farmers will grow and provide a diverse and nutritious range of food products. Access to digital tools optimise resources, reduce costs and environmental impacts of producing food. The local farming community thrives.
- Food manufacturers – Source ingredients from local and peri-urban areas. Significant changes in processing and the supply chain. Food imports are negligible with local sourcing making the supply chain shorter, reducing costs and packaging. Demand for healthier and sustainable food from consumers leads to phase out non-recyclable and harmful ingredients in food products.
- Food distributors – Smart and economical storage and supply, driven by technology and digital tools allow for direct and personalised connections to individual consumers, eliminating out profit and market-driven entities. This also cuts down physical infrastructural requirements to a great extent.
- Government - Supports research and development in agri-tech with incentives and favourable policies. Flexible and adaptive policies incentivise food products which are nutritious and environmentally friendly.
- Corporations - Start-up agri-tech companies flourish. Infrastructure industry and architects now work together with the food industry to leverage the potential of physical structures in urban areas to produce food. Digital services focus on food systems to make them safe, trusted, and transparent.
Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?
A day in the life of a agrifood businessman in 2050
A day in the life of smart farmer in 2050
A day in the life of a new age consumer in 2050
Food occupies a special place in all our hearts. It brings us joy, makes us nostalgic, and enables us to form deep-rooted connections with people and places. Emotions aside, the way we produce and consume food has implications on our health, environment, economy, and society. However, the current food system seems to ignore these values and implications. They are modelled based on a system that is extractive, wasteful, and increasingly harmful to human and planetary health. For instance, while intensive farming systems have increased yields, this has come at a cost. These systems are driven by stakeholder profits rather than feeding people healthy and environmentally friendly food. This has led to monoculture, lack of diversity and resilience, degradation of soils, loss of biodiversity, extraction of finite resources to produce chemical inputs, and pollution of air and water bodies. These detrimental impacts extend beyond the farm to the rest of the food system as well. Processing, manufacturing, and distribution are governed by profits and puts a strain on the food system. This is built on a model of consumerism, resulting in increased wastage and consumption of cheap, unhealthy, and environmentally damaging food products. The British people are a victim of this model - the vast majority are unaware of the externalities of their food consumption, for their own wellbeing; and their surroundings. This disconnect is even more significant in urban centres, such as London. Cities are important since the growing size of megacities and the rate of urbanisation will compound the strain on food systems. By 2050, over two-thirds of the world’s population is projected to live in cities. In the case of London, this represents an increase of 37% from current population levels. Traversing along the same status quo in the future, this surge in the urban population could lead to irreversible changes in the lives of people and our planet.
However, not all hope is lost. Current trends indicate a shift among the various actors involved in the food system in a positive direction. Consumers are at the heart of this change, swimming against the tide of easy to access cheap and unhealthy food products towards more sustainable alternatives. The focus seems to have shifted to flexitarian, plant-based, seasonal, local, and in general diets comprising food from regenerative production methods. These consumer trends are fuelling investment in innovative technologies and novel production methods. This has enabled the entry of sustainable meat and protein alternatives, incentivised urban and indoor farming, led to an increase in digital services providing consumer-centric information. Policies, regulations, and standards connected with food are also evolving towards a circular approach in food system design.
We envision a future where people, at the heart of food systems, are empowered to choose the right option for their well-being, the interests of their community and their place within it, and the wider landscape and wildlife. Of course, people are not all the same. One size does not fit all, and we envisage a future that caters for the different needs and desires of all stakeholders. From hands-on reconnection with the soil, community communication with farmers, transparent technologically advanced urban farming, to policy facilitated access to food and dietary advice: reconnection is necessary throughout the system. Food is a complex issue, touching all aspects of human well-being, and modern solutions need to be multifaceted. We believe that by putting people at the core of this, with true equity and sufficient education, the future of food will be bright in all its connections. Our vision aims to bring producers and consumers closer by breaking down the barriers between them. This has a direct impact on the six interconnected themes.
Cities offer a unique and exciting opportunity to put our vision into practice. On the one hand, the large influx of population and increasing consumption of food in the future mandates such a change, and on the other the unique characteristics, assets, and capabilities of cities make them the harbingers of such a change. For starters, changes in consumer behaviour towards new diets and food products often start and propagate rapidly in cities. Moreover, cities are the breeding ground of innovation and technology, driven by the availability of skilled labour, infrastructure, and generally higher incomes. The dense network and proximity of various actors in the food system allows for new models to produce, manufacture, and deliver food. London is such a city with untapped potential in making a transformative change. By removing the barriers created by profit-driven stakeholders between the producers and consumers, we can leverage the current model of London’s food system to be more sustainable. Our vision is based on a human-centric design, informed by systems thinking which can radically transform London’s current food system. We foresee a spectrum of solutions and new entities which can aid this transformation.
- Penetration and use of digital solutions and services – Artificial intelligence, machine learning, blockchain technologies, among others, will improve transparency, convenience, safety, and quality of food supply chains. Digital services will take over or eliminate some of the current players and services provided by the agri-food system.
- Redesigning physical infrastructure - New methods of farming that uses fewer resources such as indoor farming, vertical farming, hydroponics etc. will grow food using existing infrastructure and unutilised areas. Clever city design will enable access to more land area in cities allowing consumers access to local and seasonal food within cities, thereby connection consumers directly with food.
- Increasing local sourcing – A greater share of the food supply of London will be met using food grown in peri-urban areas. This will render the current model of food supply obsolete by cutting down storage, transportation, packaging, and distribution. Combined with digital solutions, people would be able to get food delivered straight from the farm rather than depend on a multitude of actors. This would improve health, reduce environmental impact, costs, and wastage.
- Spreading education and awareness - Education and awareness campaigns will teach people about nutrition, environmental and cultural aspects of food. This would involve tours to farms, allotments, campaigns at schools, cooking classes etc. Digital services will leverage this further by providing personalised recommendations and guidance to consumers and producers to eat and grow healthy and environmentally friendly food products
- Proactive policymaking - Local city councils and the government would have favourable zoning laws and incentives supporting local and seasonal food. This would make healthy, nutritious, and environmentally friendly food cheaper and easily accessible for the city population. Standards on food safety and quality will be at an all-time high. Levies and taxes based on environmental impact will provide an increased market for healthy and sustainable food.
Rothamsted Research is the world’s oldest agricultural institute and a pioneer in agricultural research and innovation. Research in the institute aims to work across a range of stakeholders encompassing the food system to deliver expertise, guidance, and transformative technologies to improve productivity, resilience, and value. For instance, Rothamsted has a huge network and actively collaborates with local and national farmers, retailers, food manufacturers etc. The institute also has a dedicated science communication and innovation and commercialisation team focusing on innovative agri-tech solutions. Our team hopes to take advantage of this diversity in agricultural and food systems research along with engaging and collaborating with the network of interested stakeholders. Our team is also quite diverse. Our research areas cover different aspects of the food system ranging from enhancing nutritional composition of food products, developing agricultural best management practices, to increasing yield and reducing environmental impacts, understanding the evolution of diseases in crops, ensuring livestock production is sustainable, to name a few. With our expertise, we can unlock the potential of a single gene to ensure food security, to develop large scale technology and modelling tools to maintain/increase food production while minimising environmental impacts. Besides the fact that we work on different challenges involved with sustainable food production, the primary motive that drives us is that 2050 is our shared future as well. As motivated young researchers, we cannot afford to sit back and let the status-quo ruin the health of people and the planet. We demand change. We want to see an agri-food system that puts the interests of people and the planet at the forefront rather than immediate monetary benefits. We see London as the perfect playground to think big, assemble like-minded innovators and bring to life a food system, which could work as a blueprint for developing similar cities around the world