A team from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM) and the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) recently hosted a launch workshop for the Sustainable and Healthy Food Systems(SHEFS) programme, a new interdisciplinary research partnership being driven by nine international partners.

The Wellcome Trust’s Our Planet, Our Health Programme is funding the four-year project.

Around 40 people took part in the workshop held on 30 October in Kloof, with a variety of institutions represented, including LSHTM, the Colleges of Health SciencesHumanities and Agriculture, Engineering and Science (CAES) at UKZN, Rhodes University and the University of the Witwatersrand. Representatives from the governmental departments of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF), KZN Health, and KZN Agriculture and Rural Development (DARD) were present, alongside representatives of the uMgungundlovu (UMDM), Msunduzi and eThekwini municipalities. Other organisations represented at the workshop included the Institute of Natural Resources (INR) and WILDLANDS.

Co-investigator Professor Rob Slotow of UKZN said the purpose of the day was to listen to different perspectives and learn from participants.

‘We hope this will be something that will help everyone with their own work as they implement agendas for improved livelihoods and welfare for our people,’ said Slotow.

Professor Alan Dangour, Principal Investigator from LSHTM gave an overview of SHEFS goals as well as a conceptual framework for the programme.

‘We’re talking about the intersection of agriculture, the environment, food systems, nutrition and health; a critical intersection which has rarely been studied and is never really discussed at policy levels,’ said Dangour.

The large, inter-institutional programme features work in South Africa, India and the United Kingdom. Researchers are investigating food systems under significant pressure from demographic changes, shifts in dietary patterns, land use changes and urbanisation. These result in undernourishment and a rise in non-communicable diseases, leading to substantial economic losses and environmental degradation.

‘The aim of SHEFS is to provide policymakers with novel, inter-disciplinary research evidence to define future food system policies that deliver nutritious and healthy foods in a sustainable and equitable manner,’ said Dangour.

This is achieved by engagement with relevant sectors and policy-makers to co-develop policies that provide access to healthy and sustainable diets. Researchers will conduct innovative research in new ways, and think about interventions on large and small scales to deliver healthy and sustainable food systems for all.

The workshop included presentations on the nexus points of agriculture, health and the environment. Presenters included Professor Anna Meyer-Weitz of UKZN’s School of Applied Human Sciences, UKZN’s Head of Psychiatry Professor Bongani Chiliza, Crop Science Research Associate Dr Tafadzwa Mabhaudhi, Dr Cathy Sutherland of the School of Built Environment and Development Studies, Dr Sean O’Donoghue of eThekwini’s Climate Protection Branch, and UKZN SHEFS Research Project Manager Dr Rashieda Davids.

Participants took part in a number of collaborative activities to give perspective on the nexus points and chart a way forward. Some key areas of concern that will become focuses of further research that could improve policy include: smallholder farmers increasing crop diversity, the living environment, especially of the poor, health literacy, and youth vulnerability in the context of food systems.

Words and photograph: Christine Cuénod