School kids digest the future of food

Monday 9 March 2009

Locally produced and organic food is best for us and the environment. True or false? More than 90 secondary school children will be chewing over that question during a one day multi-activity event organised as part of the Economic and Social Research Council's Festival of Social Science on the 13 March. 

As there's no straightforward answer to the question, event organiser Dr Sigrid Stagl points out, then 15-17 year-olds from six schools in Cambridge, Leeds and Brighton/Lewes will spend the day considering the complexities of the food we eat from a range of unusual angles. 

School children from schools in Brighton/Lewes will visit three types of retail outlets: the 'corner' shop, Infinity Foods and Tesco to discover how much information is available to consumers on organic, Fair Trade and locally produced food. Following the visits, pupils will design posters to outline their key findings.

Pupils from Cambridge will visit an organic farm accompanied by a creative writer. The pupils will each write a poem expressing their feelings about organically grown food.

A panel of experts including natural scientists from Leeds and Cranfield and social scientists from Manchester and representatives from the Soil Association will take part in a 'Question Time' style debate with pupils from schools in Leeds.

In the afternoon session, the students will take part in a videoconference at their local university to share their experiences and findings, and offer their suggestions for future policies.

"Our aim is to help young people think through the key issues of our food system and the food we eat, which is something which affects all of us," explains researcher Dr Stagl. "By using different formats including poetry, debate, poster design and videoconferencing, we hope to capture everyone's imagination. We organised something similar during last year's Festival of Science week and it was a huge success so we are aiming to build on that."

The event is designed to draw young people's attention to the enormous complexity of achieving sustainable food for the future. "There's no simple answers concerning the sustainability of our food system," Dr Stagl points out. "Many believe that organic production is better for the environment, but is that always true? The overall environmental impact of food depends also on the means and distance of transport and on the level of processing. For example, organic vegetables that travelled from a distant place and are sold frozen, may be less environmentally friendly than conventionally produced and freshly sold food. But, if we ban organic food being flown in from abroad, how will that impact on the livelihoods of the producers in the Global South?"

Researchers also point to the tension of choosing between organic and Fair Trade food. Many consumers wish to buy organic and Fair Trade, but often have to choose between the two in the supermarket. Which one is more important? Also, can we feed the world within the restrictions of organic farming or is GM production the only way to secure affordable food for all? And, in the current economic climate, are more sustainable food options simply too pricey for the average consumer?

"We hope the day will encourage young people to really think about the intricacies of what's involved in the food we eat and we are confident they will emerge with some really interesting ideas and policy suggestions for others to consider," Dr Stagl says.

For further information contact

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Notes for editors

  1. The three events take place on Friday 13 March from 10.00 - 16.00 at the following venues:
    • Department of Land Economy, University of Cambridge
    • Faculty of Biological Sciences, University of Leeds
    • Science and Technology Policy Research, University of Sussex.
  2. In total, six schools are sending a total of 90 pupils to this one day event. Members of the press are welcome to attend the event at a specified time. Please contact Dr Sigrid Stagl at to arrange.
  3. Dr Sigrid Stagl is the Principal Investigator of a three year research project (Jan 06 - Dec 09), 'An integrated analysis of scale effects in alternative agriculture systems'. This project is funded through the Rural Economy and Land Use (RELU) programme of the Economic and Social Research Council, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC).
  4. The Festival of Social Science week is organised by the Economic and Social Research Council and runs from 6 - 15 March 2009, alongside National Science and Engineering Week. It celebrates some of the country's leading social science research, giving an exciting opportunity to show everyone what the UK's social scientists are doing and demonstrating how their work makes a difference to all our lives.
  5. The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is the UK's largest funding agency for research and postgraduate training relating to social and economic issues. It supports independent, high quality research which impacts on business, the public sector and the third sector. The ESRC's planned total expenditure in 2008/09 is £203 million. At any one time the ESRC supports over 4,000 researchers and postgraduate students in academic institutions and research policy institutes.