How can we best use our knowledge to achieve change in food systems?

How can we best use our knowledge to achieve change in food systems?

How can we best use our knowledge to achieve change in food systems?

By Tanya Zerbian and Christopher Yap

20th April 2023

How can researchers and activists help each other use data and evidence more effectively to influence food policy? A research collaboration between two UKRI-funded teams, FixOurFood and H3, is on the case.

For many years, the persistence of food challenges has been a matter of heated debate. Researchers, civil society and activists are increasingly frustrated by the lack of ambitious, joined-up policy to deliver significant change across the food system, not least in relation to unequal access to food and environmental degradation. This is not for want of evidence. Decades of research have enhanced our understanding of the climate crisis and issues of inequalities and public health, as well as the critical role that food systems can play in addressing these problems. Why then is evidence of the scale of the challenge not enough to spur policymakers and politicians into action?

The gap between food knowledge and food policy in the UK highlights a wider problem: how to communicate evidence more effectively to policymakers. For academic researchers, many studies have pointed to innovative ‘research communication’ strategies. However, academics are only one set of actors in the process of producing, using, and disseminating knowledge (i.e., facts, information, and understandings of a subject) to influence food policy.

This project begins from the idea that the intersection between knowledge and policy is complex and includes a wide range of organisations, institutions and networks across different sectors: NGOs, academic institutions, community-based organisations and think tanks, among others. We’re academics, so we use the term ‘knowledge-policy interfaces’ to describe this intersection, referring to the places where interaction, engagement and debate take place between organisations producing knowledge and evidence and those that put evidence into action through policy and other interventions.

This idea pushes us to engage with the different dynamics, including political and social processes, that affect the journey of knowledge from producers to users. What do knowledge-policy interfaces reveal about the forms of knowledge and evidence that are effective for influencing policy decisions and which forms of knowledge are undervalued? What strategies are useful in handling the potential unbalanced relations arising from these dynamics?

In the UK, a rich array of civil society organisations, such as charities, NGOs, community-based organisations, networks and think tanks, produce and communicate research and evidence related to different parts of the food system. These food organisations can be crucial in changing the course of food policy through advocating, campaigning, reporting progress towards change, and demonstrating the successful implementation of potential solutions. However, food organisations can also face many challenges in developing an evidence base that reaches policymakers and politicians successfully.

Building on the work of the Food Research Collaboration, this project aims to support collaborations between academia and food organisations in the UK to develop more effective strategies for using knowledge to influence food policy. As a start, we have identified relevant food organisations and mapped the ‘governance landscape’ that could influence their work in the UK. Based on this, we are conducting interviews with a diverse range of organisations that operate, in different ways, at knowledge-policy interfaces. To complement this work, we will look at their websites and relevant documents to build a picture of their campaigns, research projects and collaborative work.

The goal is to gain and share a sense of what works, in what contexts. Our findings will be published in a report and an academic paper. We hope to be able to outline which strategies seem to be more effective in influencing food policy through different forms of evidence, and to provide, if possible, a toolbox for organisations to better work out strategies for policy engagement.

About the authors


Dr Christopher Yap

Dr Christopher Yap is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Food Policy, at City, University of London. He is part of the FixOurFood research programme, examining the policy and governance dimensions of food systems transformation. His research focuses on the relationships between land, food systems, and governance.


Tanya Zerbian

Tanya Zerbian is a Research Fellow at the Centre for Food Policy working on a project funded by the Transforming UK Food Systems Programme Annual Project Synergy Fund to critically unpack knowledge-policy interfaces with regards to food systems in the UK. Her research focuses on the complex dynamics between civil society and food systems governance and how this influences food policy at the national and local level.

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