Food security research at Exeter, by Professor Michael Winter

michaelwinterblogFood security, the availability of food and how accessible it is to populations, is one of the biggest global issues facing research today. Once again the world’s eyes are being turned to Africa as the worst drought there in 60 years threatens 10 million people with famine, whilst at the same time England and Wales together throw away 3.6 million tonnes of “waste” food every year. At Exeter we’re in the early stages of strategising how we research food security. We already have real strength in four important areas: crop health, ecosystem services, food behaviours, and food animals.

Regarding crop health we are strong in Biosciences, particularly around pathogens with world leading research on diseases affecting bananas and rice diseases which affect productivity and yield. We’re also doing work on a soil fungus, trichoderma, which is shown to activate immunity to plant pathogens.

Ecosystem services is coming to the fore with the Environment and Sustainability Institute in Tremough. Professor Kevin Gaston, the inaugural director, is very much focused on the ecosystems services approach and the role of biodiversity, and we have some excellent work going on in Geography around soils and soil erosion. In the social sciences we’re looking at how we can best apply the ecosystems approach to decisions about how to use the land. In the South West, for example, I am looking at how best to adapt land-based systems to deliver economic benefits and sustainability targets.

In the area of food behaviours, Exeter has a long tradition of researching producers of food, agricultural producers in particular. But we also have a history of looking at the food chain and we have some very interesting research in Geography and in Psychology on issues of consumption and consumers. We also have work in Economics, led by Steve McCorriston, on price volatility, one of the big issues facing those concerned about food security.

The final area, food animals, attracts interest from geographers and biologists and wihtin the humanities. And in Psychology we have some fascinating work on dairy cows behaviour and the best way to manage behaviour for maximum welfare and productivity.

Food security research is inherently interdisciplinary, cutting across biosciences, economics, psychology, politics and other social sciences, and beyond. This is why I’m so excited by it – I’m a bit of an interdisciplinary junkie, you might say! As a social scientist I love working with natural scientists, and I think that’s really where the future is for the University, allying our tremendous strength in humanities and the social sciences with the natural science developments we’re making.

Posted by Professor Michael Winter (Co-Director, Centre for Rural Policy Research)

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