Deadly diets: understanding the global food system

Two of the greatest issues facing humanity are hunger and obesity. Through her teaching, research, articles and publications, Senior Lecturer in Geography, Dr Liz Young, is increasing the understanding of these inextricably linked problems and encouraging changes that might reduce some of the worst aspects of our contemporary diets.

Joining Staffordshire University in 1991, after spending ten years as a student, lecturer and researcher in the United States – and influenced by her PhD into the causes and effects of the great famines of the 1840s – Dr Young focused her attention on the causes of contemporary famine.

The geography behind supermarket shelves

“My work is all about food and what people eat,” she says. “Specifically, it is about why some people have too much food and others have too little. My teaching explores the geography behind the supermarket shelves and the networks that link us and our food to people and places around the world.

Most importantly, it examines the implications of global dietary changes over recent decades. I try to understand why and how diets have changed and investigate whether these changes are good for us, others and the environment. I also investigate how today’s changing diets in China, India and Asia are resulting in a greater incidence of the so-called ‘diseases of affluence’.

Exploring the injustices of the food system

Published in 1997 and entitled ‘World Hunger’, Dr Young’s first book set out to explore the processes which govern access to food in what she describes as the ‘global supermarket’. She exposed some of the factors that help explain the diversity of diets in the modern world and why almost a billion people globally have too little to eat. 

“I felt I needed to explore the injustices of the global food system in order to uncover why hunger persisted, while agricultural production increased and genetic engineering revolutionised food production and distribution,” she comments.

Why one billion go hungry

Now underway with her latest book, ‘A perspective on food and development’, Dr Young intends to build on her original work whilst examining several baffling dilemmas that have emerged in recent years. “The most blatant weakness of our current food system is that it fails to feed approximately one billion people adequately each year, yet manages to overfeed 800 million people worldwide,” she adds.

The manifestations of malnutrition

“Perhaps, most bizarrely, obesity now appears alongside malnutrition in the developing world. My new text will consider both manifestations of malnutrition and strive to understand them with reference to the political economy of international trade and development.

“Food, its production, distribution and consumption are receiving more attention than ever before. Talk of food crises is appearing in all major media outlets and debate still rages on over the collapse of the Doha round of the World Trade Organisation in 2008. As affluent customers agonise over food miles, millions still struggle to command a basic diet. Quite clearly, the paradox that exists within the global food system is one that the world urgently needs to resolve.”

Making an real impact in research

Around the globe and across the UK, researchers from Staffordshire University is are making a real impact. From providing sustainable solutions to the problems faced by society, to transforming lives, tackling global issues and stimulating flexible new ways of teaching and learning, our academics,  - and graduates and research students - are helping to make the world a much better place.