Geography and Environmental Studies: Embedding food system sustainability into business, regional, national and international policy

Prof Aled Jones, Dr Zareen Bharucha, Dr Roberto Pasqualino, Dr Davide Natalini

Research conducted by the Global Sustainability Institute (GSI) at ARU has led to a better understanding of risks in the food system, and opportunities to move towards a more resilient global food chain which is able to withstand shocks.

The research team has explored the practices of individuals in the food system – from farmers through to government officials – and had a significant impact on national and international decision-making processes.

Explore ARU researchers' original work via our open access repository, ARRO

Research summary

Food is a truly international business. It’s fundamentally important to all of us, but there are concerns about the resilience of the current food system. The Global Sustainability Institute's research explores the practices of individuals in the food system – from farmers, through to market decision-makers and government officials. It’s split into two approaches: risk and opportunity.

The risk focus looks at financial markets and national or international governments, while the opportunity focus centres on farmers, communities and local governments.

Through the risk focus, we have developed a better understanding of the decisions that are taken by international organisations, national governments and the market when a shock occurs in the global food system. We’ve explored which decisions are taken at this level, and why.

Meanwhile with the opportunity focus, we’ve explored the practice of sustainable intensification of rural agricultural systems in the global south – and the policy decisions that support it.

To identify a series of risks and opportunities in the global food system, the research team in the Global Sustainability Institute has been involved in a number of projects.

Prof Jones led an expert elicitation of business and policy stakeholders from across the world to better understand and model probable responses to future food system shocks such as export bans, subsidy changes or other market interventions.

Dr Natalini gathered data on the dynamics of civil unrest and conflict related to food system pressures to enable a more quantitative approach to mapping food conflict. We were then able to explore this data in the context of broader market and economic systems. Prof Jones led our work on how the finance sector (investment and insurance) is impacted by short-term, but large-scale, events. This research was used to develop systems dynamics models (led by Dr Pasqualino) and agent-based models (led by Dr Natalini) which are able to explore the impacts of physical or price shocks in food systems.

Meanwhile, research led by Dr Bharucha provided the first available analysis of a pioneering programme of sustainable intensification from the state of Andhra Pradesh in India. Here, the government has invested heavily in a roll-out of sustainable intensification across thousands of small farms, as well as climate adaptation practices.

Eighty percent of India's farmers have less than two hectares of land, and face a triple burden of chronic poverty, declining yields and environmental change. Conventional techniques and policies designed to intensify production have bypassed these farmers.

Our research gathered available evidence showing that smallholders across the global south are successfully achieving sustainable intensification at scale. It also explored the growth of rural social capital.

There remains a need to further improve policy incentives and knowledge about sustainable intensification.

Farmer in India using a smartphone app

Summary of the impact

  • Research underpinned the establishment of a UK-China partnership on climate change risk assessment, and the policy outputs of a UK-US taskforce on food system risk
  • US events led to inclusion of food risk in the US National Defense Authorization Act
  • Food security impacts taken into consideration by underwriters when assessing insurance and risk
  • Evidence for the efficacy of sustainable intensification cited in UN Special Report on Climate Change and Land
  • Supported policy development in India with evidence that sustainable farming methods result in higher yields and incomes


The research on food system risks underpinned the establishment of a new partnership on climate change risk assessment between the UK and China, and the policy outputs of a UK-US Taskforce on food system risk.

It also led to Prof Jones being a key member of the UK-US Taskforce on Extreme Weather and Global Food Resilience, on behalf of the UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office. The FCO Taskforce brought together academics, business leaders and government officials to write a policy document, with Prof Jones as a coordinating lead author. Members of the GSI were lead authors on two of the three appendices.

This involved leading on data-gathering from financial markets as well as running expert elicitation with policy makers and food system experts from around the world to gather knowledge on how various countries and organisations might respond to future food system shocks.

Content from the researchers' reports was included in Climate Change: A Risk Assessment, published by UK, US, Chinese and Indian experts in 2015. This was the UK Government’s primary means of engagement on climate change risk with those countries in the run-up to the Paris Agreement.

The research team's work on risk also supported the establishment of a partnership between the UK and Chinese governments on climate change risk assessment. In particular, their work has influenced the perception of senior Chinese officials as to the scale of climate risks to the food system following a joint workshop in Beijing in 2016, and subsequent activities.

Read more about more about taskforces and international partnerships.

Working in partnership with Prof Molly Jahn, the research team provided physical agriculture and climate modelling expertise, alongside social science expertise and models of how markets and governments respond to food system shock.

They co-convened events with a global group of academics, policy makers and business leaders, starting with a workshop at the Tallberg Forum in 2013.

These meetings, jointly chaired by Prof Jones and Prof Jahn, and subsequent research, led to the inclusion of food risk in the US National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2018 (NDAA – REF5). This Act set out the budget for the US Department of Defence and included a commitment that they should produce a report on global food system vulnerabilities for congressional defence committees.

This research led to the publication of the 2015 Food System Shock report by Lloyd’s of London, which outlines a set of plausible scenarios that could be used to demonstrate the materiality of climate change risk for the insurance sector.

The research team explored the likely responses of governments and insurance companies to specific food system shocks – and the market impacts. In particular, our research highlighted significant plausible and material financial impacts on asset valuations and a number of insurance products as a result of a set of physical (weather) related shocks in the food system.

The plausible scenarios were published to support underwriters in the Lloyd’s of London market to identify previously unconsidered food security impacts on insurance and risk.

This research strengthened the debate around insurance product risk management and led to Prof Jones being part of the Academic Expert Group, which provided feedback to the Bank of England’s Prudential Regulation Authority (PRA) on the 2021 Insurance Stress Test on Climate Change.

The Lloyd’s report was cited as a key piece of work in the UK Government’s 2nd Climate Change Risk Assessment, published in 2017. Prof Jones is now a contributing author to the UK’s 3rd Climate Change Risk Assessment which will be published in 2022.

Read more about more abut the insurance stress test.

The research exploring sustainable intensification of agriculture led to an invitation to contribute to the development of the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation’s Sustainable Food and Agriculture Framework.

The research team was able to provide strong supporting evidence for the efficacy of farmer-led models of sustainable intensification already being adopted at pace across the global south.

The potential for sustainable intensification to contribute to yield improvements while improving environmental and social outcomes was also cited in the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) Special Report on Climate Change and Land (SRCCL), published in 2019.

By bringing together researchers from the UK and India, the research team conducted the first analysis of the impact of a rural development initiative in the state of Andhra Pradesh, which used sustainable intensification.

Zero Budget Natural Farming (ZBNF) is a globally significant example of the sustainable intensification of agriculture at scale. In Andhra Pradesh, some 165,000 farmers have adopted it since 2016. The researchers provided a briefing note on the impact of ZBNF and hosted a webinar in March 2019 for policy makers and stakeholders, which included key speakers from the Government of Andhra Pradesh.

The team was able to clarify the benefits that had been observed, and offer recommendations on future roll-out strategies. In particular, their research has been used to counter lobbying activity by pesticides companies. They provided evidence that sustainable farming methods result in higher yields and incomes. Without this, it is likely that plans to roll-out sustainable intensification farming techniques would have been curtailed or diluted.

United Nations Sustainable Development Goals

We have mapped our REF 2021 impact case studies against the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The 17 SDGs, adopted by all UN Member States in 2015, are an urgent call for action. They recognise that ending poverty and other deprivations must go hand-in-hand with strategies that improve health and education, reduce inequality, and spur economic growth – all while tackling climate change and working to preserve our oceans and forests.

This case study is mapped to SDG 2: End hunger, achieve food security and improved nutrition and promote sustainable agriculture, target 2.4.

See also

Read the full REF 2021 impact case study for UoA 14: Embedding food system sustainability into business, regional, national and international policy

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