EurSafe22: Transforming Food Systems conference

22 September 2022

This year’s EurSafe (European Society for Agricultural and Food Ethics) conference took place 7-10th September in Edinburgh.

Inter-disciplinary researchers from across Europe and beyond gathered to share the latest thinking on the ethical, societal and policy issues around agriculture, agricultural biotechnologies, aquaculture, animal use, food and the food supply chain.

Over 90 presentations delivered in parallel sessions focused on the need to transform our food systems effectively, ethically and sustainably to meet the multiple challenges of feeding a growing population without exacerbating the climate emergency.

The meeting kicked off with a series of pre-conference workshops during which participants were able to discuss topics such as the ethics of eating insects, food and social responsibility, and justice in food system transformation.

At the Opening Reception at the University of Edinburgh Playfair Library, Old College, Mairi Gougeon, Scottish Government Cabinet Secretary for Rural Affairs and Islands, and David Argyle, Head of the Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies, welcomed delegates. The Cabinet Secretary’s speech emphasized the importance of maintaining high standards of animal welfare and of considering the social, environmental, and economic impacts of the proposed solutions to achieve transformative systemic changes to mitigate the current health, energy and climate crises.

Diet: The problem and the solution

The first Plenary Session delivered by Professor Lotte Holm at the University of Copenhagen, addressed the consumption challenges in transforming food systems. In order to establish a new food culture that is both healthy and environmentally sustainable, all components of food consumption practice need to change, from the idea of what is considered to be ‘proper’ eating to the expectations of time to (and expense of) preparing a varied and more plant-based diet. Based on her research on food consumption in Denmark, Holm suggests that coordinated action and a variety of strategies, including public health campaigns, taxation and manipulation of product availability, are required to achieve long-lasting changes in diet.

Parallel sessions on day 1 covered research on food governance, animal ethics, land ethics, novel foods and genome editing. Among the themes that were explored were the generation of local food identities, ways to ensure the inclusion of missing voices in the debate of planetary boundaries, the acceptability of novel foods and their nutritional value. 

Keeping an open mind on biotech

In the second Plenary Session, Professor Bruce Whitelaw, Director of the Roslin Institute, University of Edinburgh, spoke about the opportunities that new technologies offer for improving the sustainability of the food supply. In addition to describing some examples, such as using genetic technologies to generate pigs that are resistant to Porcine Reproductive and Respiratory Syndrome (PRRS), he talked about the need for honest and transparent dialogue, based on knowledge and inclusive of all stakeholders, to manage the risks and benefits that such technologies afford.

Day 2 of the conference covered sessions on animal breeding, supply chains, food waste and veterinary education and practice. Ann Bruce, Senior Lecturer at The University of Edinburgh, Innogen member and co-chair of the conference organising committee, chaired a session on Grassland and the role of livestock in transformed food systems in which the future of the livestock sector was discussed.

Small steps, big change

In the third Plenary Session, featuring Joe Bailey from RSPCA Assured, David Finlay from the Ethical Dairy, Anne-Marie Neeteson from Aviagen and Andrew Whitley from Scotland the Bread, practical examples of transforming the food system were presented and discussed. All panellists agreed that by taking small steps — whether through labelling initiatives, agroecology and breeding practices or establishing local supply networks — it is possible to achieve durable change and future-proof farmers.  

Parallel sessions on day 3 addressed further ethical aspects of transforming food systems, including the use of antimicrobials and rewilding. Geoff Simm, Director of the Global Academy of Agriculture and Food Systems, University of Edinburgh, delivered the final Plenary Session entitled: ‘How will we feed 11 billion people sustainably and ethically?’ He proposed a raft of solutions to accelerate the systemic change that is required. These include farming system innovations (vertical / precision / circular farming), novel foods and feeds and ‘lower impact’ livestock, as well as social, economic and political innovations and interventions.

Donald Bruce, Managing Director of Edinethics Ltd. and co-chair of the conference organising committee, closed the conference by inviting Teea Kortetmäki, University of Tampere, Herwig Grimm, University of Veterinary Medicine Vienna, and Franck Meijboom, Utrecht University to reflect on this year’s conference.

“The conference has presented different maps of knowledge of how we may transform the food system, varying in scale from the global to DNA base pairs”, Kortetmäki said. She reflected that ethical research questions are increasingly inter-disciplinary. She called for more collaboration across fields and highlighted the urgency of translating Eursafe research to food policy makers and food system professionals.

Grimm took Andrew Whitley’s (Scotland the Bread) comment to heart – how did we get into this mess with our food and how do we get out of it? The changes required will involve winning people over in order to transform both their thinking and their habits, without forgetting about those likely to lose out from the new propositions.

New EurSafe President Franck Meijboom was struck by the Cabinet Secretary Mairi Gugeon’s remark on the timeliness of the conference. Issues of food security, food safety and food quality have been addressed at previous EurSafe conferences but the very food systems themselves are now in question too. 

All the papers presented at the conference are available in the open access book:

Transforming food systems: ethics, innovation and responsibility

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