Action research: Birmingham as a laboratory. City choices, Changing demand, Changing landscapes

In 2016 we asked ourselves what role, if any, a city like ours could play in making a positive difference to food resilience and sustainability for others as well as ourselves, given the parlous state of the world’s resources. (see our horizon scanning report: Back from the Future.)

We decided Birmingham could play a role. So we devised an Action Research programme in which Birmingham is a ‘laboratory’ for a series of experiments.

They’re summarised in this ‘bike’ infographic, designed by the ultra-talented Oliver Tomlinson, founder of TDL Creative:

This Action Research is part evidence-based, and part (what we call) ‘Narrativium‘ based; i.e. using the arts as a means to amplify and disseminate the research.

We’ve started to analyse data through our Archetypal Household project. We’re also in the process, in collaboration with IBM among others to analyse point-of-sale (POS) data.

And, as the bike infographic indicates, we’ve negotiated with communities for their involvement. One is Castle Vale, another is Impact Hub Birmingham, which represents a demographic not geographic community. We’ve also recently won an Awards For All programme in Bartley Green, and we’ll be working with people within that community, too.

We’ve also set up a small group of experts in what we’re calling the SCOFFS unit to advise us on tools, apps and context.

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Can changes in demand make a difference
We can’t increase food supplies within the city; over 99.99% of all we eat and drink is grown outside the city boundaries. (That’s not to say food businesses in the city don’t add value to the food brought it; they undoubtedly do.)

In this blogpost in October 2016, I quoted Tim Benton: We recognise that demand for food is driving emissions and work to change that to meet the supply-side improvements halfway.” Could we here in this city change our our diets, change our food demand and be a measurable element of meeting the ‘supply-side improvements halfway”?

Would people be motivated to change their diet in order to change the agricultural landscape?
Conversations with various communities around the city told us are highly motivated to contribute to Birmingham making a positive difference to to global food resilience and sustainability.

What should we change, and how could we measure change and its impact?
This city, as others, has a global footprint. As elsewhere, too, citizens consume food and drink with zero or low nutritional vale. Few, however, recognise that consumption of these products impacts global food resilience, security and sustainability.

We recognised that VAT is a useful metric as only food and drink products with zero or low nutritional value carry standard-rate VAT. Using food and drink categories listed by HMRC, our analysis of Defra stats showed 30% of UK household food and drink spend is on VAT-rated products, with a further 4% spent on cakes and pastries. (For historical reasons, cakes and pastries carry 0% VAT.)

Would changing diets have economic impact? 
We also investigated what the cost was of poor diet; we found that for every £1 we spend on food and drink, it costs £0.90 to deal with its dietary impact, costs which are mostly locally borne — and our analysis didn’t include dental costs (for which we couldn’t find data, but are still searching!), nor mental health costs related to diet, nor the costs of recycling (we’ve calculated that the City Council has to recycle or otherwise dispose of 132M bottle and cans from Coca Cola alone.)

note: This project was called Community Choices, Changing diets, changing landscapes. This has now morphed into City Choices: Changing demand, Changing landscapes to reflect the impact of different socio-political decision-making. We think, too, that ‘demand‘ is a more appropriate word than ‘diet’, as we think it better indicates social responsibilities and the common good..