The Oxford Martin Future of Food Programme and The British Museum hosted a one day Conference on the 23rd August 2018, Oxford Martin School, Oxford
The challenge of feeding an ever increasing population requires a whole food systems approach to agricultural and food security research, in order to deliver productive, resilient and sustainable food and farming. The environmental challenges posed by agriculture are huge, contributing to greenhouse gas emissions, localised pollution, and water, forest, land and biodiversity loss. Conversely, climate change, water scarcity, rising global temperatures, and extreme weather will also have severe long-term effects on agricultural production. Archaeological, historical, and anthropological research are all underdeveloped resources in modern agricultural sustainability studies, but are tools well-suited to investigating food security and agricultural development over time under different challenges.
The interdisciplinary speakers examined this issue from a number of different perspectives. The day kicked off with Dr John Ingram, ECI, University of Oxford, looking at the evolution of the food system and how the fundamental aspects have not differed greatly from those early agrarian-based systems. John highlighted the need to look at the food system as a whole in order to understand why and how the actors, activities and outcomes changed and the lessons that these insights can bring for the future. Following on Dr Philippa Ryan from the British Museum and co-organiser of the day discussed her ethnographic work in Sudan looking at crop choices through time. In particular, Philippa pointed out that although many of the current ‘minor’ crops have less market value, they are more low-input, arid and heat tolerant, and ‘risk-free’ than the newer cash crops,and also that their history in the archaeological record suggests their suitability to regional environmental conditions. She then spoke about the creation and distribution of a community orientated book as part of her AHRC GCRF project ‘Nubian traditional knowledge and agricultural resilience’. Also working in Africa, Dr Daryl Stump, University of York, provided an important example of how archaeology can have a role in sustainability assessments by looking at land use through time.
Prof Naomi Sykes, University of Exeter, spoke about two AHRC funded projects ‘Cultural and Scientific Perceptions of Human-Chicken Interactions’ and ‘Going Places: Empowering women, enhancing heritage and increasing chicken production in Ethiopia’. These projects looked at the evolution of the chicken to better understand its role in modern sustainability in Africa, especially in relation to women’s livelihoods. Our final speaker for the morning was William Rubel who provided an interesting perspective on the preference for Triticum aestivum sp. aestivumthrough history and its dominance in our food system today.