Our Planet, Our Health: partnerships and projects we've funded

Global food systems: partnerships

Sustainable and Healthy Food Systems (SHEFS)

Partnership lead: Professor Alan Dangour, London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, UK

Food systems, from farm production to the food environments influencing consumer choice, are changing rapidly around the world.

Current food systems face important challenges in providing nutritious and environmentally sustainable food for all. The complex nature of these systems means that solutions are not always simple or obvious.

The SHEFS programme aims to map and quantify these interactions through case studies in India and South Africa, and provide policy makers with novel and interdisciplinary research evidence.

The partnership will also focus on how to best engage with decision makers and other stakeholders, to co-develop policies for sustainable and healthy diets for all.

Co-applicants

Livestock, Environment and People (LEAP)

Partnership lead: Professor Charles Godfray, University of Oxford, UK

What we choose to eat is one of the most important determinants of human and environmental health worldwide. Animal-sourced foods in particular, such as meat and dairy, are major contributors.

This partnership is evaluating the relationships between food, environment and health on a global level, and exploring what motivates individuals' food choices.

The highly interdisciplinary research includes a strong focus on the social science, economic and political aspects of food. It will also involve partnering with Sainsbury's, to test how changes in demand for animal-sourced food could be achieved.

Co-applicants

Global food systems: projects

Sustainable and Healthy Diets in India (SAHDI)

Project lead: Dr Alan Dangour

London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, University of Aberdeen and the Public Health Foundation of India

Food systems and diets are changing in India because of rising incomes, urbanisation and globalisation. This is contributing to a steep rise in non-communicable diseases, such as diabetes. Changing food systems may also have implications for the environment, including fresh water resources and greenhouse gas emissions. 

The SAHDI project brings together nutrition, public health, agriculture and environmental science expertise from India and the UK.   

The project has two main research objectives: to understand the impact of diets in India on health and the environment; and to identify the changes to consumption patterns or production that are necessary to ensure sustainable and healthy diets.

So far the team has produced novel estimates of the greenhouse gas emissions and water footprints of a set of newly defined and distinct Indian dietary patterns. One of their key findings is that diets in India generate half the greenhouse gas emissions of those in the UK. But there is considerable variation between dietary patterns – rice-based diets have ~67% greater emissions per calorie than wheat-based diets. Another key finding is that diets in India rely on double the volume of irrigation water than those in Europe. This has implications for freshwater resources in India. 

Further results from the project’s initial phase will be used to explore the health impacts of reducing the water use associated with diets.

In SAHDI’s second phase, the team will focus on providing new evidence to inform policy on the likely changes in dominant dietary patterns in India up to 2030. With a particular focus on groundwater availability, the researchers will identify how the Indian agricultural sector will be able to deliver sufficient nutritious food for the entire population. 

The SAHDI team is also working to develop an engagement programme with local schools. It will include citizen science activities around the theme of diets, agriculture, the environment and health.

Palm Oil: Sustainability, Health and Economics (POSHE)

Project leads: Professor Bhavani Shankar and Professor Richard Smith

SOAS, University of London, and the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine

There is little awareness about the pervasiveness of palm oil in our food. Its prevalence in European and Asian diets mean it is now the most consumed oil in the world. While many of its qualities make it an attractive cooking ingredient, its health and environmental consequences are significant.

Previously, experts had only looked at aspects of palm oil in isolation. This study uses a transdisciplinary framework to consider three aspects of palm oil: health, environmental and economic effects.

The study focuses on Thailand, a significant producer and consumer of palm oil. Researchers are developing a model to look at the trade-offs between palm oil’s health, environmental and economic effects. The model will simulate different policies, for example palm oil taxation or investment in new edible oils. Using these findings, they will develop recommendations for the Thai government about the most feasible and effective courses of action.

This project has been extended to consider wider palm oil trading relationships in the Asian region and deepen the analysis of alternative uses of palm oil in Thailand, in particular biofuel production.

Spatial, social and environmental determinants of malnutrition in Africa: a pilot in Kenya

Project lead: Dr Jay Berkley

KEMRI-Wellcome Trust Research Programme, Kenya, and the University of Oxford

Determinants and drivers of malnutrition in sub-Saharan Africa are poorly understood. While poverty and food security are recognised as determinants of malnutrition, factors relating to urbanisation haven’t been fully addressed. Without tackling these underlying factors, nutritional interventions are often ineffective.

This project seeks to understand how malnutrition is distributed in Kenya. The research team want to get a more accurate picture of what the drivers are and how malnutrition has varied over time, following trends in price, agriculture and urbanisation.

However, understanding the distribution of malnutrition and its underlying drivers in isolation won’t help to predict whether an intervention will work. By partnering with UNICEF, the project hopes to improve the delivery of interventions.  

Piloting this project in Kenya will help to assess whether the determinants of malnutrition have been understood well enough to make predictive models and map malnutrition in other African countries, and to test the efficacy of various interventions.

Quantifying the human health value of global fisheries

Project lead: Dr Christopher Golden

Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health, USA

Around 2 billion people across the world rely on subsistence fisheries to meet their basic nutrient needs. But fisheries worldwide are dealing with many challenges. These include unsustainable harvesting, habitat destruction and climate change impacts such as ocean acidification. 

There has been little scientific research exploring how fishery declines are impacting disability and diseases like micronutrient deficiency among the global poor.

This collaboration measures the nutritional value of seafood around the world. The data will help researchers determine how expected changes in global fish stocks may affect nutrition within populations.

The project also considers how changes to fisheries affect the health of populations differently. By combining data from several existing mega-databases, researchers are developing a global model of fisheries and their impacts on health.

A paper in Nature shows how the project is impacting policy, calling for policymakers and international agencies to pay more attention to human health when deciding how to manage marine environments.

Environmental and nutritional interventions for improving cardiovascular health in rural China

Project leads: Professor Majid Ezzati and Professor Xudong Yang

Imperial College London and Tsinghua University, China

About 230 million people in China suffer from cardiovascular disease (CVD), according to the World Health Organization. China’s diverse geography, climate and population structures mean factors leading to CVD vary by region.

A research collaboration is investigating the environmental and nutritional factors that lead to CVD. The team are identifying better ways to measure short- and long-term exposure to the disease. They also want to find new, earlier biomarkers of CVD.

Once researchers have identified the environmental and dietary determinants of CVD in different parts of the country, they will develop and test region-specific interventions to prevent or reduce disease. For example, in northern China, people burn more fuel for warmth. This makes them more susceptible to indoor air pollution and consequently CVD. Such a complex challenge must take into account types of housing, as well as local fuel availability and infrastructure, to develop practical, feasible interventions.

Solutions will have social aspects as well as technical considerations. Working with social scientists, researchers will explore the cultural, social and behavioural factors that influence acceptance of a particular intervention. This will enable collaborators to develop more successful interventions.

Mini-livestock: insects as sustainable and healthy food

Project lead: Professor Marcel Dicke

Wageningen University, Netherlands

Feeding the world’s growing population both healthily and sustainably is a major challenge for current and future generations. Insects are a potential food source, needing relatively little land and feed. They are now being considered as alternative protein, with higher levels of nutritious minerals than conventional meat.

A research team is exploring insects as a source of micronutrients, particularly those with high levels of iron or zinc.

Researchers are exploring how best to cultivate insects as a food source. Insects can be reared on organic side-streams, such as food waste. Various side-streams are being studied as potential feed for selected species. The team will also investigate whether humans can absorb the minerals from insects through bioavailability studies.

The first nutritional pilot studies are being delivered in the Netherlands, but the team plans to expand to East Africa. In this region, around 2 billion people already eat insects, and 2,000 species are known to be consumed. 

In the long-term, researchers want to develop cultural acceptance to promote insects as a food source globally.

Connecting dietary behaviours to health and the environment

Project lead: Professor Diego Rose

Tulane University School of Public Health and Tropical Medicine, USA

In high-income countries such as the USA, both health outcomes and environmental impact are affected by diet. So far, little research has considered individual dietary choices on health and environmental outcomes.

A team of researchers are filling this research gap. They are studying individuals’ diets in the USA, and are addressing health and environmental outcomes. One hypothesis they will test is whether self-selected healthy diets produce lower greenhouse gas emissions.

Researchers are developing a database of the environmental impact of foods, and linking this to US diets and individual nutritional health outcomes. They will use additional datasets to simulate various policy scenarios. For example, information policy could be an important step to encouraging people to eat healthier and more environmentally sound diets, but little work has been done on this in the USA.

Combining expertise in nutrition, food security, medical epidemiology and health economics, the team hopes that this research will stimulate an expansion of work in the area and foster cross-disciplinary work between the nutrition, health and environmental science communities.

Duckweed: a new sustainable protein source to feed the world

Project lead: Dr Ingrid van der Meer

The Plant Research Institute at Wageningen UR

Duckweed is one of the fastest biomass producers in the world. This easy-to-cultivate plant also has very high protein content, and could help to sustainably provide protein to a growing global population. However, the European Union and the Novel Food Regulation needs more evidence to confirm duckweed is safe for human consumption.

This project is analysing how safe and nutritious duckweed would be as human food. Researchers are analysing different duckweed ecotypes for critical traits such as nutritional content, pathogen resistance and growth rate. 

They will also check if any anti-nutritional compounds, such as allergens, contaminants, toxins and calcium oxalate are present. These compounds can be toxic in high doses, and are found in some duckweed.

Researchers will then study in-vitro digestibility, followed by human intervention studies. They will monitor the rate of amino acid uptake in the blood once a person has consumed duckweed, and compare this to other proteins, like soy.

The team will then conduct consumer surveys to investigate how willing individuals and the food industry are to using products made from duckweed protein. Researchers hope that the project will ensure that human safety can be guaranteed in the development of this new protein source.

Future diets and health: how will environmental changes affect food availability, food consumption and health?

Project lead: Dr Alan Dangour

The London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, Imperial College London and Harvard University 

Over the coming decades, multiple environmental changes are likely to lead to significant shifts in global food production and quality. So far, there has been little understanding about how this will affect the nutrition and health of populations globally.

A collaborative research group is taking an interdisciplinary approach to map the links between environmental change, food availability, food quality, dietary intake, nutrition and health.

Researchers are creating a framework to capture pathways – ranging from a global to a household scale – through which environmental changes may impact health and nutrition. They will focus on the impact of these environmental changes on fruit and vegetable yield, nutritional content and consumption. They have selected the UK, Mexico and Ethiopia as case study countries, and will apply the framework to predict the future health of these countries’ populations based on likely environmental changes.

The project is identifying where policy-level interventions can have the greatest impact on different parts of the food system. This will develop knowledge and understanding to enable policymakers to better support the health of their populations over the next 20 to 30 years.

Urban environments: partnerships

What makes cities healthy, equitable and environmentally sustainable? Lessons from Latin America

Partnership lead: Professor Ana Diez Roux, Drexel University, USA

More than half the world's population live in urban areas. By 2050 this will be more than 70%. The intersection of social, natural and built environments in cities brings many benefits, but also creates challenges for human health and the environment.

Using ten countries in highly-urbanised Latin America, this work will quantify the contributions that complex changes across urban factors have on health and the environment. It will also evaluate the impacts of a range of current and newly-introduced urban policies during the course of the programme, to recommend policy solutions.

The team is made up of an interdisciplinary network of researchers and experts across the region, which will help ensure that findings are translated into action. 

Co-applicants

Revitalising Informal Settlements and their Environments (RISE)

Partnership lead: Professor Rebekah Brown, Monash University, Australia

Informal settlements are home to more than 1 billion people worldwide. They account for much of the urban growth in low- and middle-income countries and face challenges with sanitation, water provision and public health.

The use of conventional 'big pipes' approaches involving large infrastructure for transporting water, which have changed little in 150 years, have major financial, environmental and societal costs, and are impractical in low-resource settings.

This partnership will instead build ecologically and economically sustainable water infrastructure, such as grass channels, wetlands and natural filters, in 24 informal settlements in Indonesia and Fiji. The team will then test to see if these solutions lead to improved environmental and health outcomes, and assess their viability for scale-up in other regions around the world.

Co-applicants

Urban environments: projects

Sustainable Healthy Urban Environments (SHUE)

Project lead: Professor Paul Wilkinson

London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, Institute of Public Health, Federal University of Bahia, The Complex Built Environment Systems Group at University College London and The Energy and Resource Institute (TERI), Delhi 

As urban populations grow, cities develop a demand for resources beyond current limits of sustainability. Change is needed to help reduce local and global environmental impacts, but little evidence exists on which city characteristics are associated with variations in health-related exposures, behaviours and outcomes.

The collaborative SHUE project is building up a database of a globally distributed selected sample of cities and their populations to identify the inter-relationship between city characteristics, their use of energy and other resources, and health-related behaviours and exposures.

Using a combination of comparative analyses and health modelling, researchers are assessing the potential health impact of realistic options for more sustainable strategies in areas including transport policy and infrastructure. By developing definite examples, researchers are identifying principles to promote health and sustainability that can be applied more widely.

This project has been extended to improve the quality, utility and longevity of the database.

Factoring long-term health impacts into urban development

Project lead: Professor Judy Orme

University of West England Bristol, db+a, University of Bath, University of Washington 

By 2050, the planet will need to support 9 billion people, and most will be living in urban areas. There is an urgent need to increase our understanding of both the current and future health impacts of the urban environment and climate change on city dwellers. Crucially we need to explore how those responsible for urban development can factor long-term health outcomes into their decision-making.

This ambitious project aims to show decision makers how poor-quality urban development has hidden costs for society. 

Some health impacts – such as those caused by heatwaves and air pollution – manifest themselves quickly, but others – such as changing weather patterns and non-communicable diseases – take a much longer time to show trends. Using an economic perspective, researchers are quantifying current and future health costs and benefits of urban environments, to make health impacts a priority in urban development planning. 

By working with urban development agencies, such as city authorities, they are exploring barriers and opportunities for collaborative work. This will lead to a better understanding of what is feasible.

This cross-disciplinary project combines expertise from economics, public health and ecology, and is supported by a panel of experts in urban development, policy and impact.

Healthy and sustainable low-income housing

Project lead: Professor Paul Wilkinson

London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine, University College London, University of Cape Town, the Centre for Urban and Regional Excellence, Delhi, and the Mexico EcoCasa project

Poor housing can lead to a range of avoidable health risks, due to factors like indoor air pollution, poor heating and dampness. Evidence suggests that housing interventions can both improve health and promote environmental sustainability.

Expanding on previous work in the UK, a research team is exploring how to improve low-income housing in the UK, New Delhi, Mexico and Cape Town to protect health and environmental sustainability.

The project considers characteristics of housing which can help protect and enhance health while also meeting climate change mitigation targets. Researchers are engaging with locals in each location to better understand housing needs. They are also conducting surveys to collect information on house design, construction and use. By monitoring temperature and particle concentration inside houses, researchers can develop models exploring how house designs and materials may be adapted to improve health and sustainability.

These models will help to show the potential health effects of design and the indoor environment. 

Researchers are informing local partners and policymakers about the best housing for health and sustainability goals. Using the models, researchers can also estimate the relative costs and benefits of choosing sustainable healthy housing designs.

Environmental change: projects

Long-term impacts of environmental change on health

Project lead: Professor Elizabeth Frankenberg

Duke University, UCLA and SurveyMETER

The 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami devastated many communities along the coastline of Aceh, Indonesia.

Shortly after the tsunami hit, the Study of the Tsunami Aftermath and Recovery (STAR) project began. This was a collaboration between researchers at Duke University, UCLA and SurveyMETER (Indonesia). Over a decade, they collected longitudinal data on the health of people affected by the disaster.

In a new phase of the project, researchers are collecting data on several key biological health and nutrition markers, including measures of cholesterol, diabetes risks and inflammation. These indicators allow researchers to gain a better understanding of long-term health outcomes and precursors to various non-communicable diseases.

Health impacts of the tsunami vary with factors such as age, gender and socioeconomic status. Researchers seek to understand whether then unborn children whose mothers were exposed to a great deal of stress are particularly likely to show poor long-term health outcomes. Identifying those people most vulnerable to negative effects could be key in targeting help for these groups in future disasters.

Health impacts of a climate change adaptation strategy to address drinking-water salinity in coastal Bangladesh

Project leads:  Dr Md Mahbubur Rahman, Dr Abu Mohd Naser Titu, Dr Leanne Unicomb

International Center for Diarrhoeal Disease Research, Emory University, Dhaka University, University College London and Stanford University

Climate change is causing the salt concentration of drinking water in Bangladesh to rise, putting the population’s health at risk. People drinking saline water have high blood pressure, an important risk factor for cardiovascular diseases and stroke.

Managed aquifer recharge (MAR) is one way to provide a sustainable source of drinking water. This collaborative project will assess whether MAR is beneficial to health, and whether it will remain effective after expected environmental changes.

It will also investigate whether government strategies for climate change and disaster management can integrate MAR.

If the results of this study are positive, MAR could be rolled out across coastal Bangladesh as well as other Asian mega-deltas.

Consequences of seasonal movements for infectious diseases in a changing climate

Project leads: Dr Jessica Metcalf 

Princeton University, Harvard School of Public Health and the University of Southampton 

Variations in human aggregation driven by climate can affect the incidence of diseases, including outbreaks. However, the dynamics of the relationship between climate, human movement and disease is difficult to characterise and remains poorly understood.

This project is examining what human aggregation means for many infectious diseases, using seasonality as a unique probe. Seasonal population movements, which result in repeated migration patterns linked to agriculture and fisheries, provide a way to examine the dependence of movement on climate and the consequences for disease.

The project aims to quantify and model seasonal human movement patterns, their dependence on climate, and their consequences for disease. The team will amass a unique cross-disciplinary data repository incorporating climate model output, human mobility data (such as from mobile phone data records) and disease data.

Using this data, researchers will explore the potential effects of climate change on health vulnerabilities and define beneficial strategies with direct impacts on disease control and treatment. For instance, this could provide insights into where it would be most effective to distribute bednets or run vaccination programmes.