New research: Beanz Meanz … – a healthier diet, a cleaner environment, and an innovative approach to UK food production

Research will tackle challenges of childhood obesity and sustainable food systems

A newly launched research project to help tackle the issue of unhealthy foods – which are high in fat, sugar and salt – will assess how nutritious beans can be grown in the UK, as part of a new, innovative approach to food production and the diet of the nation.

Beans grown in the UK would reduce the need for imported beans, such as haricots, and would therefore cut their carbon footprint.

The project, which is led by the University of Oxford’s Food Systems Transformation Group at the Environmental Change Institute, is a collaboration between the universities of Hull, Hertfordshire, Liverpool, Warwick and Oxford.

Professor Gerald Midgley, Co-Director of the Centre for Systems Studies at the University of Hull, is leading a strand of the research focused on systemic innovation – the co-ordination of innovations across multiple business organisations and other stakeholders to deliver a new set of interlinked products, services and ways to utilise them.

Professor Midgley said: “While the project is focused on a simple, newly-cultivated bean – it could have significant economic, health and environmental benefits, which will be assessed in the research.

“We particularly want to encourage children to eat more beans as an ingredient in healthier meals, to tackle the growing problem of childhood obesity, and build healthy habits that they can take back to their families.

“However, to realise this potential, a new food system has to be developed in the UK to grow the beans, deliver them to market and integrate them into our children’s diets.

“The part of the research led by Hull will look at how ‘systems thinking’ (holistic planning, looking at the local-to-global impacts of innovation, and supporting the collaboration of multiple organisations) can enhance the formation and co-ordination of this food system.

“Because the bean can be grown in the UK climate, it has the potential to reduce both the need for imported beans and their carbon footprint.”

Thinking beyond the can: Mainstreaming UK-grown beans in healthy meals (or BeanMeals for short), led by Dr John Ingram at the University of Oxford, is one of 11 projects in a new £14 million UKRI programme that aims to address the challenges of obesity and public health; sustainable food systems; and consumption patterns. The BeanMeals research project is one of the largest grants – at £2.2 million.

The BeanMeals project, which is based in Leicestershire, starts with the question of how to promote healthy diets through bean-based school meals, and then works backwards through the supply chain to bean processing and growing.

Crossing research disciplines with innovation topics, the project aims to determine how best to bring about systemic innovation, as well as analyse the health, environment and enterprise benefits of the transformed system.

Dr John Ingram, Principal Investigator for BeanMeals, said: “BeanMeals has the potential to create wide-ranging impact, from systemic innovation in institutional catering and home-cooking through the use of healthier ingredients, to new public procurement practises and increased demand for locally grown products.

“We are looking forward to working with Leicestershire County Council, Leicester City Council, Food for Life and the Leicester and Leicestershire Enterprise Partnership (LLEP), and other local and national stakeholders. These organisations all see the potential for enhanced outcomes for health, enterprise and the environment.”

This latest investment is part of UKRI’s ‘Transforming UK Food Systems’ Strategic Priorities Fund (SPF) Programme, adding to the earlier £29 million awards across four large consortia projects and a Centre for Doctoral Training (CDT).

Professor Guy Poppy, Programme Director of the Transforming the UK Food Systems SPF Programme, said:

“The 11 new projects joining our consortia means we now have a network of more than 37 UK research organisations across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. That network is also supported by approximately 200 additional stakeholder organisations, including private sector colleagues and other government departments and agencies.

“The range of projects engaged in the SPF Programme will help to address the complex challenges we face around dietary choice and methods of farming, and will help to ensure there is sustainable and healthy food for everyone in the UK.”

The BeanMeals research team pulls together expertise from UK research institutions, spanning areas such as food systems, agroeconomics, systemic innovation, food policy, legume breeding, public health and behaviour change:

  • John Ingram, University of Oxford (PI)
  • Gerald Midgley, University of Hull (CoI)
  • David Barling, University of Hertfordshire (CoI)
  • Angela Dickinson, University of Hertfordshire (CoI)
  • Charlotte Hardman, University of Liverpool (CoI)
  • Eric Holub, University of Warwick (CoI)
  • Monika Zurek, University of Oxford (CoI)

Find out more about the Transforming the UK Food System for Healthy People and a Healthy Environment SPF programme

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