The MRC Epidemiology Unit is leading one of four multi-million pound interdisciplinary research programmes awarded funding to support the transformation of the UK food system.

The research is being funded through the UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) Strategic Priorities Fund (SPF). Each of the five-year programmes will address issues such as obesity, sustainable agriculture and global warming, placing healthy people and a healthy natural environment at their centre

The Mandala Consortium

The Mandala Consortium, led by Professor Martin White, Professor of Population Health Research in the MRC Epidemiology Unit, University of Cambridge will focus on transforming urban food systems for planetary and population health. Centred on the city of Birmingham, this consortium brings together internationally renowned teams from the Universities of Cambridge, Birmingham, Warwick, Exeter, and the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

The Consortium aims to transform the urban food system and its relationship with its regional economy in the West Midlands. Mapping of the local food system will determine the most powerful levers for system change. These are likely to include new ways of procuring healthier and more sustainable foods in the public sector, and developing online systems to help businesses find and use more locally grown food. Interventions will be evaluated to demonstrate how food can be made healthier, more affordable and less harmful to the environment, but still profitable.

Prof White said:

“The COVID-19 pandemic quickly revealed the fragility of our food systems in the UK.

Recognised as a wake-up call in part 1 of the National Food Strategy (published in July 2020), we urgently need better understanding of how to transform future food systems so that they are more resilient and provide fairer access to healthier and more environmentally sustainable food for everyone.

Our research will focus intensely on the city of Birmingham and its 1.2 million residents to generate new evidence on how such system transformation can be achieved. 80% of the UK population lives in towns and cities, and Birmingham offer a uniquely diverse microcosm for our experiment.

Working with a distinctive group of partners from all sectors, and scientists from a wide range of disciplines, we will work together to identify how the food system works, and what changes can be made to achieve greater fairness, healthiness and sustainability, while maintaining economic viability.

The research will test a number of flagship interventions across the system to provide new evidence that can inform changes across the UK. We will work close with policymakers throughout to ensure the findings have maximal impact across the UK.”

Mandala was chosen as the name of the consortium because of the association of the word with representations of wholeness and interconnectedness.

Food system is centre stage

Professor Guy Poppy, Programme Director of the Transforming the UK Food Systems SPF programme, said:

“The COVID-19 pandemic quickly revealed the fragility of our food systems in the UK.

Never before has the role that the food system plays in both environmental and human health been so centre-stage. Major issues facing humanity such as addressing climate change and building back better post-COVID will be essential in improving health and wellbeing.

I am really excited by the ambitious and transformative projects we have selected for funding – every single person in the UK could benefit from this research and we will ensure that the best evidence is generated to answer and offer solutions to the questions which matter and the decisions which need to be made in Transforming the UK food system.”

A total of £24 million was awarded. The other projects to have received funding are:

  • Transformations to regenerative food systems, Professor Bob Doherty, University of York
  • Healthy soil, healthy food, healthy people (H3), Professor Peter Jackson, co-Director of the Institute for Sustainable Food, University of Sheffield
  • Co-production of healthy, sustainable food systems for disadvantaged communities, Professor Carol Wagstaff, University of Reading

Read more about these projects here.


The £47.5M Transforming the UK Food System for Healthy People and a Healthy Environment SPF programme is delivered by UKRI in partnership with:

  • the Global Food Security Programme
  • Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC)
  • Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC)
  • Medical Research Council (MRC)
  • Natural Environment Research Council (NERC)
  • Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra)
  • Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC)
  • Public Health England (PHE)
  • Innovate UK
  • Food Standards Agency (FSA).

It aims to fundamentally transform the UK food system by placing healthy people and a healthy natural environment at its centre, addressing questions around what we should eat, produce and manufacture and what we should import.

It takes into account the complex interactions between health, environment and socio-economic factors.

By co-designing research and training across disciplines and stakeholders, and joining up healthy and accessible consumption with sustainable food production and supply, this programme will deliver coherent evidence to enable concerted action from policy, business and civil society.