News & Updates

The Geography of Food

I remember sitting in geography classes at school learning about volcanoes, tectonic plates and how we can use maps to find out why towns and industrial developments were built in certain areas because of nearby services such as railway links.

Maps were also used for public health purposes in 1848 when John Snow plotted the deaths of cholera cases in the third great cholera epidemic in London.  From this evidence and his knowledge of the disease he identified the Broad Street water pump as the source of the outbreak.

It is possible now to plot maps of pathogens such as E. coli O157 that cause disease and to compare cases to where people live, where there are farm animals and/or private water supplies. These maps can also help us understand how contact with farm animals, drinking from a private water supply and eating contaminated food could make us ill.

But how can geography be used to help Food Standards Scotland?

Geographical Information Systems (GIS)

My colleagues at FSS are progressing a key piece of work that plots and analyses various types of data onto maps. These maps are then classed as “Geographical Information Systems” and can be used across most areas of FSS’s remit.

GIS and healthy eating

FSS is developing a Scottish National Database of food businesses that comprises food manufacturers, retailers and restaurants.  When this is complete we can plot all of their locations onto a map.

As I have mentioned in a previous blog the Scottish diet is not as good as it could be, and this is partly due to the choices we make when buying food as well as the availability of healthy and affordable options. Using this tool will help us find out the range of food and drink available to adults and children. So for example it could be possible to help us understand the food environment around schools by producing a map of the types and numbers of all food retail outlets around secondary schools in Scotland.

GIS and traceability

It is important to keep track of food exports and imports to be able to check for consumers that food is what it says it is. If the origin is labelled Spain then it should be from Spain, and if it is labelled as an export of Scottish lamb then it should be that.

With Brexit approaching it is possible there will be new trade deals and there may be an increased frequency of foods becoming imported and exported through a number of Scottish ports. Being able to map this trade will provide a better understanding of the food chain and knowing the types of products that are being shipped. In the future this would allow risk based decisions on the level and intensity of inspection required, which could provide assurance to consumers that the products they are purchasing are what they say they are.

So as you can see geography is useful to help FSS achieve its objectives, and it was certainly worth paying attention to those geography lessons all those years ago!

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