UKZN and representatives from the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) hosted a one-day research symposium in Durban for the Sustainable and Healthy Food Systems (SHEFS) programme – a large international, interdisciplinary research partnership.

The inter-institutional project – funded by the Wellcome Trust’s Our Planet, Our Health Programme – is focused on the intersection of the environment, food systems and health. Investigations are taking place in South Africa, India and the United Kingdom, and where the team are examining food systems under significant pressure from demographic changes, shifts in dietary patterns, environmental and land use changes, and urbanisation.

Around 40 researchers attended the Symposium, representing the colleges of Law and Management Studies (CLMS), Health Sciences (CHS), Humanities and Agriculture, and Engineering and Science (CAES). Disciplines represented included Nursing and Public Health, Psychology, Animal Sciences, Geography and Environmental Science, Crop Science, Grassland Science, Ecological Sciences, Food Security and Soil Science.

Representatives from the eThekwini Municipality also attended and presented at the Symposium.

The presentations delivered focused on a variety of areas of research, including systems thinking, undernutrition and overweight/obesity, power relations, human behaviour and health, crop and livestock agriculture, satellite remote sensing for rangelands, edible insect diversity, land use patterns, and ecosystem services, among others.

A keynote presentation from Ms Suhayfa Bhamjee from UKZN’s School of Law highlighted food security and human rights from the perspective of public interest litigation and the Constitutional Court.

‘It’s a really important project we’re working on because it is about health and human wellness, and we’re hoping to have a broad impact across South Africa in policy and in communities that we’re working with,’ said Professor Rob Slotow, SHEFS Lead Investigator from UKZN.

‘Part of the objective of the project is to be organic and open; we’re seeing it as a catalyst for a whole new way of doing research that has a very direct, practical, applied outcome that can really influence the way South Africa develops,’ he said.

‘Getting more and more people to join in from different disciplines gives us a whole new perspective when we look at things,’ said Slotow, expressing the objectives of the day as being to explore synergies within the diverse group and connect people to one another through their research.

‘It’s really exciting to see the enormous amount of highly relevant research now being conducted by the UKZN team,’ said Professor Alan Dangour, SHEFS Principal Investigator from LSHTM, who gave a presentation about the work of SHEFS.

‘What we’re doing in SHEFS is central to the quest for planetary health, defined as the health of human civilisation and the state of natural systems on which it depends,’ said Dangour, who went on to explain how SHEFS is producing research evidence that can be used to underpin national and regional policy.

Dangour encouraged SHEFS researchers to produce high quality evidence, ensure an understanding of local context, integrate and synthesise their work, engage across disciplines and with communities, and remain open and ready for new opportunities.

Words: Christine Cuénod