EFFORTS to determine how sustainable food production in the North West really is are being hampered by a lack of suitable data coupled with an absence of adequate methodologies.
Academics from Manchester Metropolitan University found despite a raft of statistics - on livestock numbers, arable land productivity, food businesses and food consumption for instance - and the existence of several models, no combination is satisfactory to meet the "monumental task" of analysing a complex supply chain system serving 7million people.
In their collaborative research paper published with academics from the University of Central Lancashire, Dr Adrian Morley, Research Fellow, and Andrew Hollingsworth, Principal Lecturer in Food Sustainability, highlight the shortcomings in trying to measure food sustainability and to develop a set of appropriate metrics that properly incorporate the three pillars of environmental, social, and economic demands.
Collaboration's first paper
The initial findings of their project were published yesterday by Food Research Collaboration, a national initiative bringing together academics and civil society organisations. It is the first paper born out of the Sustainable Food North West Research Collaboration with three other universities in the North West.
They wrote: "The starting point of this work was the recognition that, as modern food production and consumption relationships are invariably global in their reach, the complexity of the regional food system means that attempts to understand it must ultimately trade off comprehensiveness with data utility and accuracy.
"There generally exists both a data and policy governance gap at the regional level.
"Despite the wealth of data available, it can be argued that type of data does not help fully understand food systems at the regional level."
More monitoring and data
The researchers suggest to improve matters more expansive and intensive monitoring systems are required - with the costs inevitably being borne by either the taxpayer or the consumer.
There is a need to harvest more private information on an individual's eating and buying habits and on business operations.
With this more systematic data attempts could be made to build a conceptual model with which to measure sustainability, Dr Morley and Mr Hollingsworth say.
Mr Hollingsworth said: "The North West of England is just one of many regions facing increasing pressure and scrutiny over its ability to feed its population in a sustainable manner.
"Whilst it has some distinctive and thriving food chains, it also faces enormous challenges: food poverty and diet-related ill health are on the rise whilst food waste remains at an unacceptable level.
"Moreover, the regional food system is a significant source of carbon emissions and arguably provides diminishing socio-economic benefits as national and multinational chains continue to grow at the expense of smaller independent businesses across the sector.
Food is a solution
"Food is not only at the heart of some of our greatest problems but also a vital part of the solutions.
"Communities at different scales across the UK are recognising the pivotal role that food plays in addressing the social, environmental and economic challenges that we all face.
"Positive transformations in how we relate to food are taking shape, supported by a range of networks and initiatives that take a joined-up and increasingly whole system approach to food sustainability by connecting and addressing inter-related issues such as obesity, ill health, poverty, waste, climate change, economic development and environmental damage."