£5m funding to investigate sustainable and healthy food systems

Sustainable food systems, healthy diets and the impact of environmental and population changes on food production will be investigated in a major new project led by the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine.
Women arranging vegetables to sell at a market in India

The Sustainable and Healthy Food Systems (SHEFS) programme is a large international collaboration funded by a major £5million grant from the Wellcome Trust - one of four projects funded through their Our Planet, Our Health strategy. SHEFS will generate much needed evidence to help policy makers deliver healthy food systems in the face of future environmental and demographic change.

Diet-related risk factors are the leading cause of diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and cancer in low-and middle-income countries, which bear 84% of the global burden of all disease. Food systems in these countries are changing rapidly in response to demographic changes such as urbanisation and increasing incomes, and the impacts of major environmental changes such as water scarcity and increasing temperatures.

The research will be focussed in India and South Africa, and will investigate the interactions between environment, food systems and health, pinpointing the relationships that are critical for achieving sustainable health outcomes.

India faces a double burden of diet-related ill health and mortality. Around 40% of children under five suffer from chronic under-nutrition, or stunting, which can have long-term impacts on physical and mental development. The burden of diet-related chronic illnesses in adults, such as diabetes, is also rising and there is inequality in food systems across the country. Major environmental stresses are also having a considerable impact, such as drought in Central India, which has affected more than 330 million people.

Food and nutrition inequality is also a key problem in South Africa, where 25% of children are stunted, yet more than a quarter of adults are obese. South Africa is under pressure from consumer trends, which have turned the country from a net exporter to net importer of food. This has led to a sudden transition from food systems dependent on small-scale rural farming to large and less diverse industrial farming.

Alan Dangour, Professor of Food and Nutrition for Global Health at the School and Principal Investigator for SHEFS, said: "As the world's population increases, with a growing divide in food security and big environmental changes, ensuring healthy and sustainable diets for all is a major challenge. In many countries, the gap between rural and urban communities and changing food trends have seen a rise in both under-nourished children and adults suffering from a range of diet-related conditions, each with serious health consequences.

"This new project will examine people's diets, map the origins of their food and the supply chain, as well as investigating the environmental impacts of dietary patterns and risks such as water contamination in local farming.  We hope to provide important evidence for policy makers on how best to solve the threats to both population health and the planet's resources."

SHEFS is a collaboration of researchers from London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, UCL, SOAS, University of Aberdeen, City University London, Royal Veterinary College, Public Health Foundation India, University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa and the Food Foundation.

Findings from the programme will also support ongoing initiatives such as the Decade of Action on Nutrition, launched at the UN General Assembly in 2016, which aims to reduce the number of children who suffer from stunting, estimated at 156 million worldwide.

SHEFS builds on three existing studies into global food systems and health, supported by the Wellcome Trust and led by Prof Dangour and colleagues from the Leverhulme Centre for Integrative Research in Agriculture and Health (LCIRAH). These studies are investigating the environmental impacts of diets in India; the health, economic and environmental impacts of palm oil in Thailand; and the impact of ongoing and future environmental stresses on food security and health.

Wellcome funded projects led by Prof Dangour and colleagues (listed under 'Global food systems and health') include:

  • Sustainable and Healthy Food Systems (SHEFS)
  • Sustainable and Healthy Diets in India (SAHDI)
  • Palm Oil: Sustainability, Health and Economics (POSHE)
  • Future diets and health: how will environmental changes affect food availability, food consumption and health? (FUDAH)
Short Courses

LSHTM's short courses provide opportunities to study specialised topics across a broad range of public and global health fields. From AMR to vaccines, travel medicine to clinical trials, and modelling to malaria, refresh your skills and join one of our short courses today.