University of Warwick: Economist will help map the route to a healthier and fairer food system

The Mandala Consortium, a group of internationally renowned academics from the universities of Cambridge, Birmingham, Warwick, Exeter, and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, has been awarded a five-year grant by the UK Government for a research project which could transform the local urban food system and its relationship with the wider regional economy.

Focusing on the city of Birmingham, the team will map the current food system in the region, then explore what changes could provide fairer access to healthier and more environmentally sustainable food for everyone. Policy interventions could include making it easier for the public sector to buy healthier and more sustainable foods, or developing online systems to help businesses find and use more locally grown food.

Dr Thijs van Rens, Associate Professor of Economics at the University of Warwick, will play a key role in the team. He will take the lead on developing models of how people make choices about the food they eat, and assist with evaluating the impact of potential policy interventions.

Dr van Rens said: “One of the challenges facing this project is that we cannot evaluate the effect of proposed interventions that have not yet been implemented.

“Nor can we document the long-run effects of recent interventions with data analysis alone

“Therefore, we will develop a set of structural models of dietary choices, which will show how people’s choices are affected by the environment, of economic impacts of interventions on the food sector, and of long-run impacts.”

Dr van Rens has a longstanding research interest in economics of food and obesity, and the impact of food prices and household income on dietary choices. He served as an academic parliamentary fellow at the Health Select Committee, supporting its 2018 inquiry into the Government’s plans to tackle childhood obesity and leads the Warwick Obesity Network, which develops evidence-based policy and practitioner briefs supporting a new national strategy against obesity.

Professor Martin White, Professor of Population Health Research in the MRC Epidemiology Unit at the University of Cambridge, is leading the research project. Commenting on the project, he said: “The Covid-19 Pandemic quickly revealed the fragility of our food systems in the UK.

“We urgently need a better understanding of how to transform future food systems so that they are more resilient and provide fairer access to healthier and more environmentally sustainable food for everyone.

“Our research will focus intensely on the city of Birmingham and its 1.2 million residents to generate new evidence on how such system transformation can be achieved. 80% of the UK population lives in towns and cities, and Birmingham offer a uniquely diverse microcosm for our experiment.

“Working with a distinctive group of partners from all sectors, and scientists from a wide range of disciplines, we will work together to identify how the food system works, and what changes can be made to achieve greater fairness, healthiness and sustainability, while maintaining economic viability.

“The research will test a number of flagship interventions across the system to provide new evidence that can inform changes across the UK. We will work close with policymakers throughout to ensure the findings have maximal impact across the UK.”

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