Transdisciplinary data assemblages for a socio-historical understanding of the formation of Caribbean food systems

Lead Research Organisation: University of Exeter
Department Name: Institute of Health Research


A systems approach is needed to address the so far intractable global challenge of malnutrition leading to chronic diseases in all but the poorest countries in the world. The governments of the Caribbean Community have recognised the challenge of high obesity and chronic disease rates in their social and economic development and committed to policy solutions that improve local healthy food production and consumption. We are building on GCRF feasibility research undertaken by historians and health researchers to understand the evolution of Jamaica's foodscapes from 1945 to the present, as these have been shaped by profound historical and social changes to family and work life and local and global food systems over the past century. From this work, we identified together with stakeholders that there is an urgent need to develop cross-disciplinary networks and methods that make more systematic and innovative use of existing data sources that can significantly inform policy action. Data describing food systems - from food pricing, consumption patterns, import rates, land usage to disease trends - are inherently relational and transdisciplinary, and require researchers to cross disciplinary and sectoral boundaries to inform evidence-based policy. However, data sources in LMICs are often under-used, overlooked, fragmented and unlinked. In this proposed project we ask how transdisciplinary socio-historical data can be systematically assembled to understand the temporal complexity of Caribbean food systems. We will convene a Symposium on Transdiciplinary Data Assemblage at the University of Exeter to learn from leading international scholars who work in this and related fields such as Big Data and systems thinking and grapple with similar questions. Early Career Researchers at Exeter and the University of the West Indies will then collaborate to develop processes to systematically identify, appraise and assemble meaningful data sources for the historical evolution of Jamaica's food system from the Second World War to today. This will be made available to a range of national, regional and international stakeholders from research, policy and practice as an online "data assemblage index" that signposts and explains meaningful data linkages or assemblages and their uses. The usefulness of our method of transdisciplinary assemblages will finally be tested together with critical stakeholders by using the index to co-design worked examples and strategies such as building a business case for communal, edible gardens. We propose that we need to harness this historical perspective to inform policy and practice strategies for better future nutrition and health that are embedded in and meaningful to local communities.

Planned Impact

Relevance: Chronic non-communicable diseases (NCDs) are responsible for the vast majority of deaths in all but the poorest countries in the world, an urgent concern beyond the public health field for governments, society at large, and regional and international organisations. The UN high-level declaration on the prevention of NCDs has committed governments to taking concerted action in particular for low and middle income countries (LMICs). This has been spearheaded by the Caribbean Community (CARICOM) as their Port of Spain NCD Declaration in 2007 brought together Heads of Government to lead to a call to action, and their commitment was renewed in 2016. A central policy focus concerns healthy nutrition. CARICOM's regional food and nutrition security policy and action plan that highlights the commitment to improve the nutritional status, especially of the poor and vulnerable, to address the NCD crisis.

Who will benefit: As we found in previous research with these stakeholders [MR/N005384/1; MR/P025250/1], multi-sectoral collaborations require sustained partnerships and more concrete guidance as to how best to address recognised challenges such as the proliferation of processed and fast foods. Direct beneficiaries of this project will be policymakers in both public health and urban planning, as well as civil society organisations such as health NGOs represented by our partner the Healthy Caribbean Coalition, as key institutions involved in both community outreach work and lobbying governments. This includes governments in the selected countries but also regional policymakers in the Caribbean. The project will most markedly benefit our LMIC partner institution, the Caribbean Institute for Health Research (CAIHR) at the University of the West Indies (UWI) Mona, Jamaica, whose mandate is to deliver research that addresses regional and global health priorities, working closely with regional stakeholders such as the Caribbean Public Health Agency, CARICOM, and the Pan American Health Organization. Furthermore, policymakers of governments in regions that are similarly vulnerable can benefit from the findings of this project; through our existing connections through current (NIHR, MRC, AHRC and ESRC) GCRF funding with Africa and South Pacific, which all also focus on social determinants of NCDs, we aim to bring in new partners from other regions when we disseminate findings.

How will they benefit: To accelerate policy action to fulfil the CARICOM targets agreed in the Port of Spain NCD Declaration, the project's short term aim is to establish a sustainable partnership between the academic partners - connecting academics across humanities, medical, social and life science faculties in the UK and the Caribbean through this project - and government and non-government stakeholders, by building capacity and accessibility to existing datasets to inform the complex challenge of creating healthy food environments in the Caribbean with new strategies. We started working with some of these partners in a prior partnership building grant [MR/R024324/1] and they explicitly identified this capacity gap of using and linking existing data as an urgent need, including for government and civil society organisations involved in monitoring and evaluation activities. A key product of the project will be a data assemblage index of relevant local and regional datasets and a toolkit with worked examples to inform current regeneration plans and outreach activities. In the medium to longer term, we will establish a comprehensive programme of research that includes understanding of underlying mechanism that drive public health challenges and limitations in effective NCD prevention more widely to include physical inactivity, smoking and excessive alcohol consumption in the region and beyond. Part of our dissemination will provide our stakeholders with clear guidance how our insights can be applied to these larger challenges.


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