Cefas: New Initiatives Tackle the Challenges of Making Food Truly Sustainable

Cefas: New Initiatives Tackle the Challenges of Making Food Truly Sustainable

Cefas: New Initiatives Tackle the Challenges of Making Food Truly Sustainable

This article was originally published on cefas.co.uk on 9th November 2023

A new paper published today sets out a vision for incorporating the fundamentals of sustainability into the design of entire food systems. The paper, Operationalising One Health for Food Systems, published in the journal One Earth, describes the challenges of producing food that is safe, nutritious, economically viable, equitable and environmentally benign across a country’s food system.

The paper argues that the main challenge to sustainable food systems is in dealing with the many hazards associated with the food supply chain, stretching from those that limit supply – like pests, pathogens or chemical contamination – through to the ways that food production drives environmental degradation, including greenhouse gas emissions or fertilisers that damage river biodiversity.

(Image credit: One Earth, Cell Press)

One food wheel diagram.

Hazard control mainly happens inside of individual food sectors like maize crops, beef husbandry or prawn aquaculture, with little attention to how these sectors link and to how the hazards might spread between the sectors. Assessing each hazard individually is also problematic because it will not give the whole picture on their combined impacts on food supply or the environment. Crucially, we also lack the methods to look across all hazards and food sectors, to make informed decisions on which to prioritise.

The answer to this, according to the authors, lies in applying One Health principles to the whole food system. One Health is a concept that aims to optimise the health of humans, animals, plants and ecosystems, with each being equally important. Our paper proposes a ‘One Food’ approach where all food sectors are considered together, incorporating all hazards and the links between them.

The paper is an initiative of the One Food programme, a collaboration between the UK and South African governments, with partners from academia, intergovernmental organisations, industry and NGOs. The programme is developing a food risk tool that combines hazards across food sectors to identify and prioritise intervention strategies. It also examines the policy changes that will be needed to allow a food systems approach to be achieved and how stakeholders can take the movement forward.

Here at Cefas we understand well how land and sea are connected and that the food we produce must balance safety and adequate supply against environmental protection. We are delighted to bring together colleagues from across the food spectrum.

Neil Hornby, Chief Executive of the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science (Programme Lead)

This paper sets out our ambition for a future where animal and plant health experts work alongside environmental and social specialists to solve pressing food problems.

Ian Brown, Director of Scientific Services at the UK Animal and Plant Health Agency, the UK programme co-leads

The topic is discussed in the first of the new Cefas Unchatted Waters podcast series, where Cefas’ Chief Scientist, Professor Grant Stentiford and the One Food lead Dr Julie Bremner consider how these principles can be applied to produce safe and sustainable seafood. The programme will present its work in the 2nd One Food Community Forum on the 28th of November 2023 which is open for registrations currently on the One Food Community website. The One Food programme is funded by the Global Centre on Biodiversity for Climate (GCBC) which is a UK Official Development Assistance (ODA) research and development programme that funds research into natural solutions to climate change and poverty.

Delivering climate resilience through safe and sustainable food systems (OneFood project)

Country: South Africa

Partners: UK: Centre for Environment Fisheries & Aquaculture Science (Cefas), Animal & Plant Health Agency (APHA); South Africa: Department of Science and Innovation , (DSI); Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR); Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC); National Agricultural Marketing Council, (NAMC); Agricultural Research Council, (ARC); Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment, (DFFE); FCDO SIN regional office; Intergovernmental: FAO; plus 13 other partners.

Summary: The indivisible link between food production and nature means that actions on food security impact the environment and vice versa. Climate change adds further complexity to this problem and the combination of these facts is thus a difficult balance that requires a clear understanding of the impacts associated with exploitation of the natural resources and the needs of the communities consuming the food. Hazards drive inefficiencies in food systems. These include those that impact food production and those hazards posed to the environment by production itself. To date, little consideration has been afforded to linkages between specific hazards in driving inefficiencies within and between food sectors, or the impact that multiple hazards have on food system efficiency and sustainability. In addition, appropriate investment in hazard control has not been articulated relative to potential gains for biodiversity, or to reductions in climate impacts resulting from improved food sector efficiency. The OneFood project places hazard profiling and management at the heart of environmentally, economically, and socially sustainable food system design. It seeks to develop new tools for calculating the impacts of hazards occurring between food sectors and considers the consequences for human, animal and plant health and the environment. The project maps hazards across and between food sectors with selected partner countries, will inform modelling of terrestrial and aquatic sectors applicable across multiple geographic and food sector contexts and will examine the food systems in the context of the Sustainable Development Goals, as well as biodiversity targets.

Related links: OneFood Community website


TerraViva Sustainable Landscape Approach (TerraViva project)

Gaitania, a coffee-growing community of the municipality of Planadas in the southern Tolima department of Colombia, is marked by several challenges: a prevailing monocropping production system for washed Arabica coffee, unsustainable agricultural practices, a complex history of social armed conflict, and a lack of access to markets. The absence of a landscape approach also makes decisions regarding biodiversity, climate change, and livelihoods a farm-by-farm issue at the will of each producer.

This project aims to foster a sustainable landscape approach in a post-conflict region. With initial GCBC R&D funding, the Sustainable Agriculture Network (SAN) and its partners sought to understand the situational context of the Gaitania region and the interactions of governance structures, communities, and socio-economic factors with the interconnected patchwork of different land uses, ecosystems, and land cover. Research entailed mapping all relevant stakeholders that play a role in the landscape and interviewing them at length. This includes political actors, farmer organisations and cooperatives, the local environmental regulator agency, and smallholder producers from the villages which are represented by essential governance bodies called Community Action Boards. Representatives from these communities also took part in workshops where the TerraViva consortium deployed a Community Capitals Framework (CCF) research approach which allowed the consortium to view the various elements, resources, and relationships within a community from a systems perspective.

The CCF focused mainly on the assets of a community rather than on community needs and deficits. It divides a communities’ assets into natural, human, social, cultural, built, financial, and political capitals and focuses on the interaction among the seven capitals and the resulting impacts across them. Guiding questions helped the community take an appreciative approach to analyse the various capitals and how they could be leveraged to strengthen or generate more assets. Additional efforts to understand the context of Gaitania’s coffee production included the mapping of the coffee value chain, drone-assisted cartography, and desk research using secondary data sources. A study to determine the applicability of a payment for ecosystem services model in the context of the Colombian regulations and institutions was also carried out.

Positive Impacts

Culminating with a participatory multi-stakeholder dialogue, the research results will lead to the creation of a Common Territorial Agenda – a long-term development vision built from the perspective of local stakeholders to enable innovative, systemic interventions by balancing environmental, social, and economic goals of the region’s stakeholders. However, the exploratory process itself has already yielded positive impacts with the community. The differentiated approach taken to build solutions – by recognising the community’s preponderant role in the decision making to build the Common Territorial Agenda – opened spaces for smallholder producers to think broadly and collectively about the state and future of their landscape.

The CCF workshops also raised local awareness of the opportunitiesthat Gaitania’s many assets present for the community’s development and of the negative environmental and social impacts of coffee farming and production caused by the current practices implemented by smallholder farmers. Further impacts will occur once the Common Territorial Agenda is implemented and will be measurable in the long term. 


Transportation was the greatest challenge faced during the implementation of the research project due the distances from Gaitania to the main population center of Planadas and each of the villages. Difficulties were compounded by the poor state of the roads and variable weather. Travelling by day and having a local informant that could report on the weather conditions were important mitigating factors to address these challenges. Given the history of armed conflict in the area, additional safety measures were implemented, however, safety issues were not present during the work performed in situ. Maintaining constant contact with Community Action Board presidents to monitor potential safety issues was also important.

The project encountered participation challenges by two of the six villages targeted to take part in the pilot project. The lack of participation was largely owed to post-conflict recovery and peacebuilding efforts that included many unsuccessful international cooperation pilot projects that lacked sustainability and impactful results. Identifying the community capitals using the CCF was an important approach to differentiate this project and help with future plans. Maintaining a strong local presence in the Gaitania was also an important way to build rapport and trust with locals and community leaders.

Lessons learnt and next steps

This research project was designed to be replicable in many productive landscapes and tested in a complex region like Gaitania precisely to increase its replicability. As landscapes are social constructs, building trust with the targeted community is pivotal to ensure continued and active community engagement. This demands local presence, constant communication with community leaders, transparency during the process, and communication of results. Understanding the local context is also a critical factor for project success.

In a community like Gaitania, historical complexities can interfere with the technical aspects of project implementation. Therefore, social awareness and sensibility are necessary for productive and respectful interactions between field staff and community members.

Co-owning the One Food principle with the South African government (One Food project)

The One Food project seeks to develop a Food Risk Tool to assess and mitigate multiple hazards across the entire food system and to transform the way actors (governments, researchers, industry, third sector) perceive and work on food production to ensure economic, environmental, and social sustainability. Since such a transition is impossible without full buy-in from partner country policymakers, the project worked to secure South African government co-ownership of the concept.

This was achieved by targeted engagement with government departments through a series of scoping, workshops, and follow-up engagements. The project also supported in-country research and capacity development to expand the research on tools to assess the hazards present across food systems, linking multiple food sectors (e.g., farming, fishing, aquaculture, hunting) and multiple hazards (e.g., food safety hazards, pollution hazards, biodiversity hazards, climate hazards). This was done through a South African research fellowship scheme designed to support 8 postdoctoral fellows and up to 14 MSc studentships.

Positive Impacts

The South African Government Department of Science and Innovation (DSI), the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), and the Agricultural Research Council (ARC) have agreed to co-fund elements of the project. They are employing a coordinator and are considering allocating a full-time staff member to lead the project concept from the South African side. The departments are also championing the project in internal fora, leading upcoming workshops, and working with the UK project team to identify a second country to expand the concept to. DSI and ARCH have also fully endorsed the scheme and have agreed to ‘own’ and co-fund the fellowships. CSIR has agreed to oversee the scheme and to fund a scheme coordinator.


Since One Food is such a broad project, there were challenges with navigating South African government departments to identify the best suited agency to take a lead and then to ensure other government departments remained engaged with the project. These challenges are overcome by having a strong stakeholder strategy informed by local expertise, a dedicated project engagement workshop at the inception phase, and a dedicated UK engagement lead to manage the diverse stakeholders and their needs.

The research fellowship scheme required negotiation with government departments and research councils with different priorities and personnel rules. This presented challenges in gaining agreement on the details of the fellowships and the employment and inclusivity processes that should be applied. The project is overcoming these by drawing on advice from stakeholders familiar with the South African government landscape (particularly from Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office) and by developing pragmatic solutions to meet the requirements of the different actors and to accommodate South African government priorities.

Lessons learnt and next steps

This intervention has demonstrated that these types of projects are best led by UK Government departments rather than academia or NGOs. This results in more traction within overseas Governments which, with support from the local FCDO’s Science Innovation Network and other global initiatives that are already linked to a government (e.g., United Nations Environment Programme, Food and Agriculture Organization, etc.), leads to higher engagement and likelihood of successful delivery with partner countries.

The research fellowship scheme is an excellent way to support career development in collaborating countries and particularly to support under-represented groups. It is important to understand the scientific and research context to ensure fellowships are pitched at a useful level (undergraduate, graduate, or postdoctoral level) and understand how the fellowships might help future career opportunities. Diplomacy and compromise are key.

Developing novel seaweed cultivars from wild populations (Innovative Seaweed Aquaculture project ASTEC)

Seaweeds form some of the most productive systems in the marine environment. They support an immense diversity of species, provide valuable ecosystem services, and play an important role in mitigating climate change as major carbon sinks. Seaweed cultivation offers the potential for a nature-based, carbon neutral, and climate resilient solution to restore seaweed communities globally. Upscaling seaweed production offers a new, powerful approach to enhance community resilience, re-build natural seaweed communities, increase biodiversity, and enhance ecosystem services. It can also provide a socially acceptable means of restoring a communities’ local environment whilst maintaining economically sustainable livelihoods.

Eucheumatoids are tropical red seaweeds frequently used in the food and cosmetics industries. Increases in pest and disease outbreaks due to accelerating climate change, loss of genetic diversity, and biosecurity issues have led to seaweed production in Malaysia declining by 45% between 2012 and 2020, with catastrophic socio-economic impacts on the communities reliant on seaweed production. To address these challenges, there is an urgent need for new temperature-resilient cultivars derived from indigenous wild stocks, which can enhance the climate resilience of cultured stocks.

Positive Impacts

This project works with indigenous seaweed farming communities in Malaysia to collect populations from the wild for domestication trials at a research farm in Sabah. This has resulted in the discovery of new temperature-resilient cultivars that are brought into cultivation to enhance the climate resilience of cultured stocks in Malaysia. This is crucial to ensure the sustainability of the eucheumatoid industry despite the global climate change issues.


The major challenge during the project was the impact of the water currents on farmed seaweeds. The conventional method of tying the seaweeds onto the cultivation lines using plastic ties (called ‘tie-ties’) led to high levels of seaweed loss from the lines and increased fish and turtle predation. Consequently, growth rates could not to be measured. To solve this problem, the wild eucheumatoids were placed into the nylon nets. Unfortunately, this method also proved ineffective as silt from the seabed covered the nets and smothered the seaweeds.

Following discussions with the local farmers, new baskets were deployed with a larger mesh-size to prevent the entrapment of silt. The eucheumatoids were placed into the new nets for 2-3 weeks to enable sufficient growth before tying onto the cultivation lines. This solved the problem and reduced the effects of fish and turtle predation.

Lessons learnt and next steps

The outcome of this project was to develop new temperature-resilient cultivars that can be used by seaweed farmers in Malaysia. A system was developed for coastal seaweed cultivation of new cultivars that can be replicated throughout Malaysia. Site selection, however, was found to be extremely important, particularly the levels of siltation in the water column, which can suppress eucheumatoid growth rates.