Producing a POSTnote: exploring food system resilience during COVID-19

N8 AgriFood teamed up with the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST), which runs a Policy Fellowship process, offering a three-month placement to doctoral students with the chance to gain valuable policy experience. The placement was awarded to Joe Llanos, a fourth year PhD student at the University of Sheffield. Here, Joe looks back on his time working in Westminster.

Joe Llanos in Westminster
Joe Llanos in Westminster

In January, I began a three-month placement with POST, funded and supported by N8 AgriFood. The objective of the placement is for PhD researchers like myself to gain first-hand experience of working with policymakers, including producing a briefing note for MPs and Peers on a current topical issue.

These briefings, called POSTnotes, are concise, independent and balanced reports that enable policymakers to take evidence-based decisions on current topical issues.

The POSTnote I have been working on looks at the issue of resilience in the food system. I aim to outline how resilience is defined, why it is needed and what a more resilient UK food system could look like, as well as possible ways to achieve it.

I have been asked to reflect on my time working with the excellent team at POST. When I first applied for N8 AgriFood’s POST fellowship scheme, I was excited by the chance to learn new things, meet new people and get a taste of life in Parliament and the policy arena. However, I can safely say I had no idea how valuable the experience would prove to be.

As well as having the opportunity to work inside Parliament and witness first-hand the response to the unprecedented crisis of COVID-19, I’ve also been able to work with some amazing people, improve my skill-sets and gain valuable experiences for my career going forwards.

How it all began

After moving to London, the first few weeks of my placement were all about getting to grips with working in Westminster, learning the ins and outs of Parliament and delving into my topic of food system resilience. As a final year PhD student at the University of Sheffield, my research looks at soil biodiversity and agriculture, so I had some experience of working on a small subsection of the wider food system.

Having the opportunity to look at the broader context of my research was fascinating, and I suddenly found myself grappling with unfamiliar papers and new terms covering all the different aspects of food from across the environmental, socioeconomic, health and political spheres. This early deep dive into the topic was essential for me to get to grips with the complexities involved in the food system, and I was supported by my advisor from POST along the way. There were a number of other POST Fellows working on different topics who started at the same time, and we benefited from collective training on how to effectively conduct literature reviews, find good sources of information and shape our writing for policymakers.

Getting lost in Westminster

Alongside getting to grips with our topic, we were encouraged to get out into the Parliamentary estate and immerse ourselves in the goings on of Parliament. We were given a tour of the two Houses, where we learnt all about the incredible history of democracy in the UK. For example, did you know that the Government and opposition benches in the House of Commons are two sword lengths apart? I didn’t either.

Attending meetings and events with MPs and Peers, watching Prime Minister’s Questions from the balcony and getting lost in the maze of corridors and staircases between the House of Commons and House of Lords became regular activities. POST also arranged training and meetings with staff from Select Committees and other Parliamentary departments, so we could learn about the structures of Parliament and how scientific evidence is used when building policy.

Meeting the experts

In February, I began the next phase of my placement. This involved interviewing experts from academia, industry, NGOs and the Government to shape the content of the briefing and delve into the resilience of the food system further. I spoke with more than 20 experts and our conversations covered all different aspects of food.

They ranged from discussing specific technologies used in the food system, to broader questions about its moral responsibilities – and everything in between. I feel very lucky to have had so many insightful conversations on such an important and timely topic. Having seen some of the amazing research taking place outside of London, I was keen to get contributions from across the country, and I’m very grateful for all the experts who gave up their time to talk to me, including those involved in the N8 AgriFood programme.

The arrival of COVID-19

Towards the end of February, cases of COVID-19 began to rise here in the UK. Parliament began to offer new guidelines on working and talk of a ‘virtual Parliament’ began, something unprecedented in its 700-year history. It was around this time, when I developed mild symptoms of COVID-19 and followed the instructions to self isolate.

During my self isolation, the decision was taken for POST staff to move to remote working and all the necessary arrangements were quickly put into place. After completing my self isolation and with only a few weeks left on my accommodation contract, I boarded an almost empty coach back to Sheffield just before the lockdown to continue the rest of my placement from home.

Despite the unexpected conclusion of my placement, the experience has really highlighted the important behind-the-scenes work that goes into making sure Parliament runs smoothly and can perform its duties. Under normal circumstances there are thousands of staff working hard to achieve this, and this was even more evident with the rapid switch to remote working and establishment of a virtual Parliament.

The POST team have also responded quickly to the COVID-19 crisis, putting together a database of relevant experts and producing a number of quick response briefings that summarise the current evidence available. Getting reliable, accurate and timely information to policymakers is crucial, and so POST’s work is needed now more than ever.

What’s next?

I have now finished writing my POSTnote on resilience in the food system, which is going through an extensive process of review before publication. The outbreaks of panic buying in supermarkets and the difficulties of securing workers to harvest domestic produce have shown that COVID-19 is posing significant challenges to our food system. The issue of food system resilience and therefore the POSTnote have never been more relevant. I hope that when it is published it will be a helpful review, which enables policymakers to make important decisions that promote a more resilient and sustainable food system.

For me, it will be back to finishing my PhD and writing up my thesis. Although my time working in Parliament has come to an end, the things I have learnt, experiences I have had and the brilliant people I have met along the way will stay with me for a long time.

You can read Joe’s POSTnote entitled ‘A resilient UK food system’ here. For more information about POST and to view their current work, please visit the POST website.