In October 2019, we celebrated N8 AgriFood at our International conference ‘Creating solutions for a sustainable food system‘.

We wanted to share what we had achieved since 2015 and celebrate our successful collaboration across the N8 universities with the agrifood community.

Below you can read more about the last five years, taking you through our journey from how we began and how we have evolved, right through to the future plans for our collaboration.

 

 

 

In May 2015, a cohort of leading academics from the 8 most research intensive universities in the North of England secured an £8 million grant from the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) to fund the N8 AgriFood Programme.

This was matched by a further £8 million from the 8 universities themselves with them each contributing £1 million. Across the institutions, they shared vital expertise covering all aspects of the food system.

Together the universities of Durham, Lancaster, Leeds, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Sheffield and York committed to delivering an integrated, large scale, multidisciplinary collaboration.

The aim was to explore solutions to the long term global challenge of providing sufficient, safe and nutritious food for a growing, increasingly affluent population.

An internal launch event was held in Newcastle in December 2015, where more than 140 academics and stakeholders exchanged ideas on how the UK’s businesses and universities could work together to answer some of the world’s most pressing food and agriculture related issues.

As the N8 AgriFood project started to take shape, it was publicly unveiled. The official launch was a two day summit in Manchester during June 2016.

The event featured more than 50 speakers addressing challenges around sustainable food production and resilient supply chains, as well as improved consumption and health.

Ten new professorial appointments were subsequently made across the N8 universities. In addition to this, Knowledge Exchange Fellows (KEFs) were appointed at each institution.

Speaking at the launch event, N8 AgriFood Academic Director, Professor Katherine Denby, said: “We cannot grow our way out of this problem. We have to try to change the way that we behave.”

Explaining the thinking behind the formation of the partnership, Professor Denby added: “To address the challenges of food security, we are going to need a very interdisciplinary programme.

“We are looking at how to grow food more sustainably and make better use of our scarce water and land resources.”

However, she said these factors were only part of the issue. “We need to look at our supply chains and how to make them more resilient to the shocks of sudden extreme weather events or economic turmoil. We also need to look at the way we behave as consumers of food,” she explained.

It was agreed that the N8 AgriFood programme would confront the breadth of the food security challenge through three research themes:

  • Sustainable food production
  • Resilient supply chains
  • Improved consumption and health

As the programme has evolved, the three themes have given way to a whole food systems approach, but they remain a good mechanism for the wide ranging activities to be grouped. Click on the images to find out more.

Funding innovative agrifood research was a main objective of the programme and over the last five years over 180 projects have been initiated through N8 AgriFood funding.

These have been collaborative projects involving academics from the different N8 universities often involving vital collaborations with external stakeholders from across the food system.

N8 AgriFood delivered funding for research through two pump priming schemes, which are now closed. They had wide-ranging impacts.

  • Local pump priming
    This scheme was the catalyst for new multidisciplinary collaborations across the N8 universities with external agrifood stakeholders. There have been 170 projects funded. Projects with budgets of up to £15,000 have involved at least two N8 institutions and been instrumental in developing ideas for future funding proposals. Projects have also led to publications, new collaborative PhD studentships, MSc industry placements, undergraduate internships and dissemination activities, as well as new agrifood stakeholder partnerships and more substantial funding.
  • Strategic pump priming
    Strategic pump priming funds were awarded to ten projects across the programme. With budgets of up to £30,000, these multidisciplinary projects have brought together new groups of N8 researchers and agrifood stakeholders to address key challenges in global food security. The projects have involved multiple disciplines and led to major funding bids for large agrifood projects.

Results from the pump priming projects have been impressive with 23 external funding awards, 9 new collaborative PhD studentships and 43 agrifood stakeholder partnerships either being developed or strengthened. Furthermore, these co-designed projects form an excellent platform to drive future innovation.

In addition to the pump priming schemes, N8 AgriFood ran a series of Industry Innovation Forums to develop collaborations between industry and the N8 universities. Facilitated workshops on specific topics brought together researchers working on business critical areas.

This has led to further collaboration around projects and funding bids, as well as strengthened partnerships across the programme. In particular some of these have contributed to N8 AgriFood’s innovation work.

Driving much of N8 AgriFood’s early activity was the programme’s cohort of Knowledge Exchange Fellows (KEFs). At its height, the KEFs made up of a team of 18 academics across the N8 institutions.

With at least one KEF in operation at each of the 8 universities, the team worked to link N8 AgriFood with external organisations such as industry, government bodies, small to medium businesses, non-governmental organisations and charities, to develop collaborative research solutions to current agrifood challenges.

The programme’s KEFs were a key driver behind the N8 AgriFood Urban Agriculture Cluster.

The cluster has been established to provide a mechanism to understand and address the changing landscape of agricultural practices and policies in the UK.

It aims to explore interdisciplinary and translational challenge-based research across four key innovation themes:

  • Emerging technology and innovation
  • Current farming practices including demand and delivery
  • Society and health
  • Agricultural technology business and economics

The N8 universities are home to an increasing cohort of PhD students actively researching a range of agrifood topics.

The academics involved in the N8 AgriFood programme wanted to ensure PhD students at the 8 universities had the opportunity to benefit from the unique nature of the programme and the expertise within it.

To achieve this the academics created the N8 AgriFood Doctoral Training Seminar Series.

Each of the N8 universities has hosted their own seminar as part of the series with topics aimed at broadening students’ perception of the food system and helping them see where their research can have impact.

N8 AgriFood has also collaborated with the Interdisciplinary Food Systems Learning and Training (IFSTAL) Programme and the Centre for Climate Change and Sustainability Studies at the University of Ghana to organise an International Food Systems Summer School in Accra, Ghana.

The training brought together PhD students from Ghana, Kenya, Uganda, United Kingdom and Tanzania, along with early career agrifood professionals in Ghana.

Sunshine across fieldsIn 2020, five years on from securing its initial funding, N8 AgriFood had met and in most cases exceeded its original success criteria.

Since being established in 2015, the programme has created a successful platform for collaboration, leading to a transformation in the research culture among individuals and disciplines in the N8 universities.

The N8 AgriFood programme has:

  • Delivered external funding to the N8 universities for large interdisciplinary projects.
  • Created new industrial and stakeholder partnerships.
  • Elevated the international profile of agrifood research across all of the N8 universities.

Academic research provides valuable evidence to inform policy. Researchers have been sharing their expertise and knowledge of the food system to provide evidence for agrifood policies, as well as to influence policy development at a regional, national and international level.

The programme has also pursued international relationships to develop strategic international partnerships in China, Argentina and the USA.

N8 AgriFood has positioned itself as a vital platform for collaboration with the expertise and enthusiasm to tackle the challenge of global food security.

Train tracks and fieldsAs the original HEFCE grant comes to an end, the universities continue to support the programme as we move into a new phase of activity, including addressing the latest set of challenges highlighted by both the COVID-19 pandemic and Brexit.

We will focus our efforts on the increasingly recognised urgent global crisis to provide sufficient, affordable, safe and nutritious food within a sustainable and resilient food system.

In addition, our Food Systems Policy Hub aims to address critical evidence gaps and provides us with a vital opportunity to inform the UK National Food Strategy in a post-Brexit world.

Sustainable food systems will play a critical role in meeting international, national and university sustainability targets including zero carbon emissions

N8 AgriFood is in a unique position to contribute by bringing together multiple stakeholders across food production and supply, through to consumption and nutrition.

Moving forward the programme can use its interdisciplinary leadership position and breadth of capacity to provide a strong voice in a sector which requires innovative and sustainable solutions.