Healthy & Sustainable Food Systems

Key research questions

  • How do we develop resilient and productive food systems that provide low-impact, high-quality food through the development of sustainable food and farming practices?
  • As measures of health, how can we successfully monitor the public goods delivered by farming systems in the UK?
  • How can we support the development of best practice in decision-making for healthy and sustainable farming systems?
  • How can farmers monitor, improve and maintain good soil health in the context of sustainable production?

The importance of healthy and sustainable food systems

The increasing pressures on our food systems – including rising populations, climate change, biodiversity loss, soil degradation, environmental contamination, rising populations, and global health crises – call for a comprehensive and holistic systems approach to finding solutions. That means linking up individual disciplines and collaborating towards transformative change.

Our research in this area focuses on facilitating the development of healthy and sustainable farming and food systems. This ranges from growing regional and national good practice networks with stakeholders to developing online decision-aids.

We focus on testing, monitoring, and demonstrating agroecological practices and have developed a well-used method for sustainability assessment: the Public Goods (PG) Tool. The PG Tool has been developed and modified for different food and farming system contexts during the past decade.

Working on the principle that “The health of soilplantanimal and man is one and indivisible”, we understand the importance of a healthy soil as the foundation of a healthy, sustainable farm system and as such work to support farmers’ understanding of soil health through practical assessment ensuring a “living soil”.

Key elements of the theme

Participatory, interdisciplinary, collaborative, multi-actor networks; Decision support; Sustainable food systems; Environment and ecosystems; Farmers and Growers; Practical soil health assessment; Regional markets and value chains; Consumers and civil society.

Current projects

Agro-ecological soil management, EIP Operational Group (European Innovation Partnership)

This EIP operational group compares alternative soil assessment methods specifically for organic dairy systems (Albrecht method, Soil Respiration, etc.), working with the farmers David Wilson, Lyndon Edwards and Wil Armitage in 3-year field trials.

Soil Biology and Soil Health Partnership

Soil physics, chemistry and biology are interlinked and all play a role in maintaining productive agricultural and horticultural systems. While physical and chemical properties of soil are relatively well understood, the same is not necessarily true for soil biology. In recent years, interest in soil health has increased and a range of indicators for soil biology has been developed. These indicators, however, often have not been produced in parallel with the necessary guidance and tools to allow them to be exploited on farm.


The project aims to evaluate the ecological, agronomic, economic and social impacts of the pasture fed livestock approach to grazing management and its potential as the basis of a sustainable GB-wide system.


Crop diversification systems for the delivery of food, feed, industrial products and ecosystems services – from farm benefits to value-chain organisation.

Dartmoor ELMs Test and Trial

ORC is supporting Dartmoor National Park Authority Officers and the Voluntary Advisory Team in the development of a scorecard as part of their Dartmoor Environmental Land Management (ELMs) test and trial

Environmental Land Management Scheme: Test and Trials

The project aims to assess the public goods that are being delivered through agricultural practices, across two landscape areas using the Public Goods (PG) tool.

Relevant Publications

  • Mullender, Samantha; Sandor, Mignon; Pisanelli, Andrea; Kozyra, Jerzy; Borek, Robert; Ghaley, Bhim; Adrian, Gliga; von Oppenkowski, Moritz; Roesler, Tim; Salkanovic, Eldina; Smith, Jo; Smith, Laurence. (2020). A delphi-style approach for developing an integrated food/non-food system sustainability assessment tool. Environmental Impact Assessment Review. 84. 106415. 10.1016/j.eiar.2020.106415
  • Gerrard C, Smith L, Pearce B, Padel S, Hitchings R and Measures M., 2012 Public goods and farming. In: Farming for food and water security, 10. Sustainable Agriculture Reviews, no. 8380. Springer, Dodrecht Heidelberg New York London, pp. 1-22.
  • Smith, L.G., Padel, S., Pearce, B., Lampkin, N., Gerrard, C., Woodward, L., Fowler, S., and Measures, M., 2011. Assessing the public goods provided by organic agriculture: lessons learned from practice, in The third scientific conference of ISOFAR: Organic is life – knowledge for tomorrow, Neuhoff, D., Halberg, N., Rasmussen, I.A., Hermansen, J., Ssekyewa, C., and Mok, S., Editors: Namyangju, Republic of Korea. p. 59-63.
  • Vieweger, Anja; Döring, Thomas; Bloch, Ralf; Bachinger, Johannes; Klimek, Milena; Paxton, Rebecca; Woodward, Lawrence (2017). The IFOAM principle of health – how do organic farmers apply it in practice? Scientific Conference “Innovative Research for Organic Agriculture 3.0” 19th Organic World Congress, New Delhi, India, November 9-11, 2017
  • Paxton, Rebecca; Klimek, Milena; Vieweger, Anja; Döring, Thomas; Bloch, Ralf; Bachinger, Johann; Woodward, Lawrence (2017). The Role of Intuition in Managing Organic Farm System Health. Scientific Conference “Innovative Research for Organic Agriculture 3.0” 19th Organic World Congress, New Delhi, India, November 9-11, 2017
  • Vieweger, Anja; Bloch, Ralf; Klimek, Milena; Bachinger, Johann; Döring, Thomas (2016). Was macht einen gesunden Landwirtschaftsbetrieb aus? – Zum Prinzip Gesundheit in der ökologischen Landwirtschaft. Lebendige Erde, 03/2016, p30-32
  • Vieweger, Anja and Döring, Thomas (2015). Assessing health in agriculture – towards a common research framework for soils, plants, animals, humans and ecosystems. Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture, 95:3, p438-446, DOI: 10.1002/jsfa.6708
  • Döring, Thomas; Vieweger, Anja; Pautasso, Marco; Vaarst, Mette; Finckh, Maria and Wolfe, Martin (2015). Resilience as a universal criterion of health. Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture, 95:3, p455-465, DOI: 10.1002/jsfa.6539

ORC Researchers and staff

These ORC team members are currently involved in food system projects:
Head of Research