Fish bellies, fava beans and food security

silver fishes underwater

Cambridge Zero and Cambridge Global Food Security gather academics and experts to share solutions for the planet’s looming food production problem. 

If you ask Cambridge conservation scientist Professor Lynn Dicks how long humanity has to fix the global food system before it starts to collapse, she is pretty blunt:

"Less than 10 years."

Dicks told the Sustainable and Healthy Food Production symposium in March that our system of intensive food production is inherently unsustainable. It degrades soils, pollutes water, destroys biodiversity and contributes to climate change. It's also not very resilient to climate change either.

Climate change causes the intensification of catastrophic weather events such as extreme heat, storms, droughts and floods. These events put pressure on agriculture, from flooding farmland to harming the insects that pollinate crops. This pressure threatens the global supply of food, known as our food security

Additionally, the excessive demand for specific types of food, and how we grow food on the farm, can worsen the effects of climate change and the risk to food security. 

A range of keynote speakers, from academics to industry insiders, joined heads at Cambridge Zero symposium at the symposium organised by Cambridge Zero and Cambridge Global Food Security to share their findings on how to rebuild the food system for resilience from farm to fork.

Q&A discussions at the symposium

Q&A discussions at the symposium

person walking on rice field

Photo by Levi Morsy on Unsplash

Photo by Levi Morsy on Unsplash

We call it the UK’s Big Five: Salmon, Tuna, Cod, Haddock, and Prawns/Shrimp.” Jessa Garibay-Yayen’s research looks at consumer choices in seafood.

Garibay-Yayen’s MPhil in Seafood for Societal Health has taken her on a voyage across the world of online recipes, to get to the underlying drivers of the “Big Five” and consumers who only eat fish fillets. 

When it comes to other fish parts like heads, skins, bones, and trimmings, Garibay-Yayen research suggests “there’s a lot of hesitancy because they’re not familiar with how to prepare it…they’re asking “how do I prepare a fish belly?

"If we want to utilise fava beans...we need better bacteria in the soil," said Dr Nadia Radzman, Research Associate at the Sainsbury Laboratory.

Her talk shared the importance of "forgotten, neglected, underutilised" legumes like fava beans for replenishing barren soil, providing a high protein source whilst also reducing the symptoms of Depression, Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases.

green round fruit in close up photography

Fava Beans. Photo by amirmasoud on Unsplash

Fava Beans. Photo by amirmasoud on Unsplash

Alternative protein wasn’t the only thing on the menu at the symposium. Technical solutions were shared by academics across plant sciences, land economy, zoology, business, geography, and engineering, on ideas from using AI to improving access to digital farming markets.

"Farmers are unable to plan what the climate will be like to manage their agricultural rhythm," said early career researchers Dr Jerry Chen and Elilini Hoole, who are using AI to help farmers understand, predict and manage climate changes.

"When we went to Gambia, West Africa...we found that people didn't remember millet," said Professor of Economic Security and Resilience, Shailaja Fennell. Her work is remembering "forgotten crops" like millets, which use less water than more popular cereal crops such as rice and wheat, and can withstand higher temperatures.

Finger Millet. Image Credit: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).

Finger Millet. Image Credit: Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO).

school of fish in water

Jessa Garibay-Yayen, MPhil Seafood for Societal Health student

Jessa Garibay-Yayen, MPhil Seafood for Societal Health student

The challenge is not technical, it’s political,” said National Institute of Agricultural Botany (NIAB) CEO Prof Mario Caccamo.

Technical solutions, like genetically modifying forgotten crops to improve their yield and optimising farming with AI, were only part of the conversation at the symposium.

Speakers from within industry, like National Farmers' Union (NFU) representative Rob Wise and The Food Farming & Countryside Commission CEO Sue Pritchard, were keen to express the need for solutions to meet the needs of the people across the food chain:

  • "Farmers are in the business of profit...farmers will only do right thing by the environment if they can stay profitable," said Wise.
  • "Healthy food has got to be good business for everybody," said Pritchard.

Professor Jaideep Prabhu of the Judge Business School said, when asked how laws could be changed to support the transition, "one of the reasons why fertilisers are so popular is because they're heavily subsidised."

Fertilisers provide plants with nitrogen-based nutrients to make it easier to grow, and consequently improve crop yields. Nearly half of the global population is fed with fertiliser-supported crops. However, these synthetic fertilisers are a major source of the greenhouse gas emissions which cause climate change.

Subsidies make fertiliser cheaper, which doubles up with increased yields to improve the profitability of farms.

"What would we have to pay to remove land from production?" asked Professor David Edwards, Head of Tropical Ecology and Conservation Group.

Edwards assessed what financial incentives could be used to encourage farmers to give up some of their farmland for crop-supporting wildlife, which would help to make the remaining farmland more resilient to climate change.

The carbon market allows people to pay for conservation projects which use-up carbon-based greenhouse gases from the atmosphere (referred to as "carbon credits"), to offset their carbon emissions.

At the right price for carbon, it can be more profitable to naturally regenerate carbon than to grow sheep, said Edwards.

"Healthy food has got to be good business for everybody"

Sue Pritchard - CEO of The Food Farming Countryside Commission

Fixing our future

If nothing changes, the future of food looks bleak.

“We are already experiencing food systems collapsing...[the IPCC reports] talk about mid-century impacts. Mid-century is 20 years from now, it's not that far away," said Hoole.

But it's not all doom and gloom, says Wise: "We have come through the hay day of the era of synthetic productivity…and [we] are now entering a new era of lower environmental footprint."

"It's vital we continue to bring voices from both inside and outside of academia together in these conversations. As today illustrated, realistic solutions need to make sense to both the farmer and the food supplier, the consumer and the cook." – Cambridge Zero Head of Research Engagement Dr Erik Mackie.

To see the full list of talks given at the event, find the symposium programme here.

The event was organised in collaboration between the University of Cambridge's Cambridge Zero initiative and Cambridge Global Food Security, in the West Hub on 21 March 2022.

Dr Shailaja Fennell, Deputy Head of Department, Professor of Economic Security and Resilience in the Department for Land Economy

Dr Shailaja Fennell, Deputy Head of Department, Professor of Economic Security and Resilience in the Department for Land Economy

Cambridge Zero hosts numerous collaborative research symposia each term. To keep up-to-date with Cambridge Zero's latest news and events, sign-up to our research newsletter here.

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Published 05 April 2024

Images: Ellie Austin

The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

Cambridge Zero is the University of Cambridge’s ambitious climate change initiative, harnessing the power of research to tackle climate change at one of the top global research universities in the world.