What good food research could do

Professor Tim Lang considers why history matters for UK food-related research, and argues for more good food research

The UK has a long and rich tradition of outstanding food-related research. Almost as soon as industrialisation began at the cusp of the 18th and 19th centuries, people began to see the chance to apply its fruits to farming and food. This took at least two research directions. One was to use chemistry to unpick what made things grow. Another was to use it off the land to ‘industrialise’ food. One focussed on life itself and the other on labour.

One of the first food transnationals to incorporate research was the Anglo-German-Uruguayan-Argentine meat extract behemoth which produced Bovril and later Oxo, applying the science pioneered by Justus von Liebig at Giessen.1 As food chains became longer, the opportunities for fraud emerged, applying both crude and sometimes sophisticated science. This distortion of research is beautifully summarised in the classic account by Ingeborg Paulus in 1973,2 and again more recently and very readably by Bee Wilson3.

“The data… makes it clear that the food system needs to change pretty dramatically.”

A long fight ensued throughout the 19th century to clean up British food. Although an early chemist (Frederick Accum) first exposed adulteration in 1820,4 it was not until The Lancet’s founding editor, Thomas Wakley MP,  created an arms-length Lancet Analytic and Sanitary Commission run by Arthur Hill Hassall, that the clean-up really began. The grand-sounding Commission (actually tiny!) gave its exposés to The Times and The Lancet, with Wakley trumpeting in the Commons. This was an early example of brilliant UK food campaigning with a small number of people wearing multiple hats! They were effective in winning legal change but, arguably, the right of the British people to have decent, safe good quality food wasn’t finally settled until various amendments to the 1865 Act were strengthened decades later5. But the battle over food quality and the role of research had begun in earnest.

Why does this history matter? Because here we are in the early 21st century, with ample evidence that the food system has serious flaws again and the role of research is implicated. So much R&D works for the food system rather than unpicking its impact. Some consequences are intended by researcher – such as the systematic mining of the environment or deliberate ‘ultra-processing’ of mass foods – and some are unintended. I don’t think anyone sets out deliberately to spread childhood obesity or to break the NHS by externalising vast healthcare costs from ever cheaper food.  Yet the food system nevertheless is locked into a self-defeating illogicality, with researchers compromised too often.

What do we need ahead? More public and independent research.  And more interdisciplinary pursuit of ‘big picture solutions’. Why? Because the data show conclusively that dietary change is now the biggest source of premature death and (perhaps more ominously) healthcare costs. 6 7 The data also make clear that the food system needs to change pretty dramatically from its current intensification and over-production (particularly of animals), and that the ecosystems on which Darwinian ecological diversity depends are being most actively destroyed by what ought to be a means of subsistence – food.

No discipline or perspective has the answer to this systemic challenge. It requires more collaborative, less self-serving research. Universities have not helped with their football league approach to the Research Excellence Framework (‘REF’).

“In the UK, our food research agenda is currently paralysed by the enormity of Brexit


I’m not all gloomy, however. Some great research comes out, clearly in and for the public interest, while ticking the REF boxes. The policy pick-up, however, is weak. There’s a failure of politics at present with regard to food. Vast data and studies point to the need to restructure the food system, but too little happens.

Here in the UK, our food research agenda is currently paralysed by the enormity of Brexit8. Yet this is precisely the moment where we should stop and ask fundamental questions about what sort of food research is most needed to put the UK (and other rich nations) onto a more sustainable track, and to shift food culture amongst the general public more rapidly than has ever happened other than in wartime. This requires interdisciplinary research, and more social science, not just the Life Sciences’ pursuit of ever more microscopic dynamics, fascinating though those may be.

Helping deliver sustainable diets from sustainable food systems surely ought to be the framework for all food research.

Tim Lang is Professor of Food Policy, Centre for Food Policy, Dept Sociology, School of Arts & Social Sciences, City, University of London.

1 Lewowicz, L., LEMCO (2016) Un coloso de la industria carnica en Fray Bentos, Uruguay [The Meat Industry’s colossus in Fray Bentos].  Montevideo Uruguay: INAC.
2 Paulus, I. (1974) The search for pure food. Oxford: Martin Robertson
3 Wilson, B., Swindled: From Poison Sweets to Counterfeit Coffee (2008) The Dark History of the Food Cheats. London: John Murray.
4 Accum, F. (1820) A treatise on adulterations of food and culinary poisons. London: Longman
5 Lang, T. (2016) Food, the law and public health: Three models of the relationship. Public Health,120(October): p. 30-41
6 Global Burden of Disease study 2010, Global Burden of Disease Study 2010. The Lancet, 2013. 380(9859): p. 861-2066. http://www.thelancet.com/themed/global-burden-of-disease
7 WHO (2015) WHO estimates of the global burden of foodborne diseases: Foodborne diseases burden epidemiology reference group 2007-2015. Geneva. p. 225.
8 Lang, T., E.P. Millstone, and T. Marsden (2017) Food and Brexit. University of Sussex Science Policy Research Unit: Brighton. https://tinyurl.com/y9lp63dq