From smart engineering to shared prosperity for food production

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Dr Aidong Yang (Principal investigator) is an Associate Professor in the Department of Engineering Science of the University of Oxford. He is leading on the system integration feasibility project.

In this modern world, there are not many things which can be said to be loved by a wide range of different groups, from an individual, a family, a local population, to a whole ethnic group. One such thing is … food! There are also not many products like food, which are still made in so many places and scales – from a family kitchen  a couple of times a day to feed a few people, to a factory machine producing tonnes of product, 24/7 for national distribution. Despite the fact that we have food every day we don’t often think about where or, how it is produced, because it is too familiar.

As I write the first words of this blog, our Local Nexus Network (LNN) has come to the end of its funding period. In the LNN project, we had the opportunity to explore the future of more localised food production, and the effects that are linked with energy and water supply. Our work included several studies on the technical side: food technology, energy and water processes and whole-system resource efficiency; and several studies on the socio-economic side: business models, drivers and policies. The “raw” empirical evidence and the “distilled” list of challenges and opportunities can both be found in the reports produced by the seven feasibility projects, which hopefully will form a solid basis for future research in this area.

LNN was conceived and executed within the much larger context of societal change in responding to the pressing challenges of sustainability and resilience. The topics covered by the LNN project, namely food, energy and water, have always been essential commodities to mankind throughout history, yet, like many other commodities, the way they are produced has shifted  a lot over the years, particularly since the modern age marked by the industrial revolution. It is without doubt, that the world today is supplying these essential commodities to an unpreceded size of population, which is a remarkable achievement, but many people would also agree that we are still far away from being able to claim that there is enough of a good quality, global supply of food, water and energy. More importantly, the system that has brought us this progress to date seems to suffer from a number of big problems, ranging from lack of environmental sustainability to social justice. Solutions are needed to solve these problems, not only for today but more for tomorrow, where these challenges may become even more severe with the trends in population growth and climate change.

A particular element of the potential solution, pursued by the LNN project, is changing the way that production activities are organised in terms of location and scale.  The remit of LNN has thus overlapped with the popular notion of “local food”, to which many people show enthusiasm while others remain sceptical. What we have tried to do in LNN, with both a warm heart and a cool brain – as we, the researchers are always expected to do – is explore the potential of re-distributing the production activities from their status quo – of economies of scale, keeping multiple possible outcomes, drivers and perspectives in mind. One thing we have started to appreciate is that there is perhaps no single best configuration which is advantageous in all aspects – social, economic, environmental, technical and political. In addition, the comparative advantages between different configurations are often dependent on the attributes and conditions of the specific case considered, such as the nature of the product (e.g. tomato paste vs. sliced bread) and the geographic setting (e.g. Southeast England vs. California).

There seems to always be a problem when a system is shaped for a single aspect, no matter how legitimate or important that aspect is on its own. This is particularly true when this very objective was also the dominant driver that has shaped the problematic system which we are now trying to fix! One such objective, as you will probably have guessed, is ‘economic viability’, and it does not need complex reasoning to see the problem.  Food has already been remarkably (and in some areas overly) cheap for decades, yet hunger and malnutrition are still around, casting dark shadows over some (unfortunately not very small) corners of our society! Economic considerations such as cost and profitability are always important, but secure access to good quality food, energy and water by all people and at all times requires consideration of many more aspects, which need to be embraced when it comes to researching innovative ways to re-configure production activities.

In LNN, we have been fortunate to have engineers and social scientists working on new technologies and technical systems along with a wider range of stakeholders, to address some of the complications mentioned above. Collectively, there is hope that we will move our food-energy-water systems towards a better future -for all social groups and generations, for both businesses and consumers, and for both mankind and mother nature; a future striving for shared prosperity. There are undoubtedly many barriers and challenges ahead of us, yet as researchers and citizens we should remain optimistic about opportunities for making positive changes, pretty much like a man facing the rising sun, at the break of dawn.