Food for thought

Posted on: 21 September 2022 in Issue 3

With an exponentially growing population, millions of more mouths to feed and our current food systems being more strained and environmentally damaging than ever before, it’s vital that we find sustainable alternatives to manage this.

Dr Charlotte Hardman, Senior Lecturer in the Department of Psychology, explains the impacts of our current practices, and the challenges and benefits of creating a sustainable food system. She also outlines some of the local efforts to make Liverpool’s food systems more sustainable. 

A problematic supply chain

Our food systems are very complex and encompass everything from how our food is produced, grown and harvested, to how it is transported, sold, consumed and ultimately how it ends up on our plate. Dr Hardman explains how our current approach to this supply chain has damaging effects on the environment: “One example is meat production, which requires a huge amount of land to not only rear animals, but also to grow animal feed. Destroying natural habitats in the process, it’s staggering to see the disparity in the amount of food we yield compared to the vast amount of land used during this process.”

Food miles associated with imported foods as well as the amount of single-use plastic that is used to ‘protect’ and package it, also present key issues: “I think people are becoming more aware of the damaging impacts our food system has on the planet, but it’s not always easy to consume the foods which are deemed more sustainable,” explained Dr Hardman.

“Often the healthier or more sustainable foods are those which are more expensive or less accessible to certain population groups, and this is just one example of the inequalities in our food system,” she adds.

Dr Charotte Hardman, Senior Lecture in the Department of Psychology 

Access to sustainable food systems

“I think it's quite difficult to definitively say that one food is good for the environment and another isn't because inevitably one food might be better in one metric and worse in another,” notes Dr Hardman.

“The challenge is taking this complex information and translating it into something that consumers from across different demographic groups can understand,” she adds.

Dr Hardman explains that there are lots of small actions we can do to create a more sustainable food system: “It can be as simple as shopping locally more often and buying seasonal ingredients to reduce the number of steps in the supply chain, as well as the more obvious action of eating less meat, which significantly reduces your carbon footprint.”

“Similarly, things like composting to reduce food waste and reducing the number of products you buy packaged in single-use plastic can all help to create a more sustainable system,” she explains.

However, many people may not have the means to take these sustainable steps and Dr Hardman notes that in order for us to see improvements on a large scale, more widespread changes need to happen: “If we can make foods which are good for the environment easier to access, more affordable and educate people on how to use these ingredients, we are more likely to start to see a change in our system. It’s about removing these key barriers in order to create a fairer and more sustainable landscape,” she adds.

Researching benefits of home food growing

As part of the research project Rurban Revolution, which looked to identify the benefits of urban greening and food growing to our health, sustainability and resilience, Dr Hardman found that there is a much wider pool of benefits to growing our own food. Following the completion of Rurban Revolution in September 2021, Dr Hardman and her colleagues published a paper on the role of home food growing in perceived food insecurity and well-being during the early COVID-19 lockdown: “We found that those who grew their own food during the early stages of the pandemic had better levels of well-being and felt less concerned about food supply issues compared to people who didn't grow their own food.”

Having identified the wealth of benefits growing our own food can bring, Dr Hardman and her collaborators set up the Liverpool Food Growers Network, which aims to improve connections between local food growing organisations, whilst also providing the opportunity to work with academic researchers from the University to help them evidence their environmental impact.


Community garden outside the Central Teaching Hub

Local action and opportunity

Dr Hardman outlines how some of the key local Food Network organisations are promoting sustainable food in Liverpool: “From organisations like Farm Urban, who are building hydroponic systems and developing educational outreach programmes in local schools, to the various community gardens who are growing fresh fruit and veg, there’s plenty going on in the city.”

Having seen the positive impact the Liverpool Food Network was having, Dr Hardman wanted to apply this to the University. “I looked around campus and saw so much space that could be better put to use. This is where the idea for ‘Sowing the Seeds of Sustainability’ started, which has been funded by the University’s Sustainability Fund” she explained.

“Initially, we have made use of the pre-existing garden outside the Central Teaching Hub and have begun growing fruit and vegetables that can then be harvested by staff and students who volunteer with us. The pipe dream is that we can raise the profile of food growing to staff and students at the University, and ultimately develop many different gardens on campus, growing healthy food with no packaging, creating new green spaces and contributing to positive wellbeing,” she explained. “It would be amazing if we could then use the food we grow in University catering, to really shorten those supply chains and contribute our own sustainable food system,” she notes.

The Sowing the Seeds of Sustainability volunteer sessions run every Wednesday from 14:00 – 15:00 in the Central Teach Hub (CTH) garden. “They are open to both staff and students and are a great way to learn new skills, meet new people, reduce stress levels and lower your carbon footprint,” says Dr Hardman.

Through a small step in a much larger issue, the CTH garden is an example of how we can begin to improve and create more sustainable food systems at a local level. If all large organisations began to work on initiatives such as this, it would start to change our perception of how we consume food.

Find out more

For more information about how to get involved with the Sowing the Seeds of Sustainability gardening volunteering, visit the Guild website. To find out more about Dr Hardman and her research, visit her staff webpage.