By John Thompson and Erik Millstone, STEPS Centre Food and Agriculture Co-Convenors
A new report from the UK Government-commissioned study into Global Food and Farming Futures has called for urgent action to improve food security in the UK and around the world and to avert global hunger. The Foresight report on The Future of Food and Farming: Challenges and Choices for Global Sustainability recognises that the current food system is unsustainable and will fail to end hunger unless radically redesigned.
At the launch in London last Tuesday, Professor Sir John Beddington, the Chief Scientific Adviser to the UK Government who initiated and oversaw the project, stressed that the two-year study “provides compelling evidence for governments to act now.” He declared “the era of cheap food is at an end”, with the real prices of key crops estimated to rise 50-100% during the next 40 years, if productivity growth no longer keeps pace with rising demand for food at a time of rapid environmental, social and technological change.
The Foresight report presents a dark picture of the future: one in which a global food crisis could be triggered by a surge in demand for food and energy by 50% and for fresh water by 30%, at a time when governments must also combat climate change. In his opening address, Prof Beddington characterised this convergence of drivers of change as a “perfect storm”, because the interaction of these complex, interlocking forces operating within the same time may create a crisis with global consequences. He pointed out that this chilling scenario is not inevitable, but it is plausible.
This crisis narrative has more than a tinge of neo-Malthusianism about it and has framed the Global Food and Farming Futures project since its inception. Fortunately, it has been toned down slightly in the new Foresight report. Yet it remains the central conceptual thread running through the entire document and featured in the launch presentations, which emphasised production and consumption-oriented responses to the triple challenges of chronic hunger, malnutrition and obesity over political economic solutions that would address underlying structural constraints and focus on distributional issues and the politics of food allocation more forcefully. Thus, a big part of the Foresight agenda calls for producing a great deal more food for a rapidly growing population with new and old technologies alike. As Prof Charles Godfray of Oxford University and Chair of the Lead Expert Group that guided the project argued in his talk, if food supplies are to increase sufficiently to prevent widespread starvation as the global population heads towards 9 billion by 2050, a new agricultural revolution is needed, one focused on promoting “Sustainable Intensification” – i.e. a method of enlisting all technologies, including genetic modification, to grow more food on the same land area – about 4.6bn hectares – without damaging the environment or requiring excessive inputs of fertiliser, water or energy.
To a degree, this idea of “Sustainable Intensification” is similar to the “Doubly Green Revolution” concept put forward by Gordon Conway well over a decade ago. However, both concepts, while positive in principle, are likely to be highly contentious and difficult to implement in practice. Like the first Green Revolution, such a transformation towards more intensive production will entail convincing millions of farmers to adopt a range of new, often-expensive and hard-to-obtain inputs and, as a result, will confront well-documented barriers to technological change in developing country agriculture. With its environmental overtones, it will also face a number of new obstacles, including a divergence between the interests of policy-makers and farmers; a policy context biased in favour of input-intensive agriculture; and the fact that many environmentally friendly technologies often have relatively high set-up costs. At least in the short run, institutional constraints and corporate biases in favour of commodity crops in which they can maintain control over intellectual property rights over staple food crops (global public goods) will limit the contribution of agricultural biotechnology to overcoming these obstacles. For these reasons, the first Green Revolution may be an overly optimistic model for a shift to a more intensive and sustainable production system.
The Foresight emphasis on “Sustainable Intensification” focuses rather narrowly on farm-level agricultural production and perhaps misses the wider debate about how to encourage appropriate innovation systems that respond to the diversity of needs of highly differentiated farming communities, and how, through such processes, to offer a wide range of technology choice through various combinations of routes – public and private, group-based and individual, deploying scientific and indigenous knowledge. There is a need to use a diversity of technologies and practices too and develop robust institutions, at both local level, but also critically at national and international levels, which see the challenge of technology innovation and development in a more rounded, comprehensive way.
But growing more food more intensively and sustainably may not be sufficient on its own. As Charles Godfray observed, action must also be taken on addressing waste across the entire food chain, as this will be important for any strategy to feed some eight billion people sustainably and equitably by 2030. The Foresight study reports that least 30% of food grown – and as much as 50% according to some estimates – is lost or wasted before or after it reaches consumers. Evidence collected for the study shows that a realistic target would be to halve the amount of food wasted by 2050, which would cut the amount of food required by a quarter of today’s production. This requires not only new food processing and storage techniques, but empowering consumers to become more food literate.
Professor Lawrence Haddad, Director of the Institute of Development Studies and another member of the Lead Expert Group, stressed the shocking fact that hunger is not a major political issue at the moment. But it should be, as an estimated 925 million people still lack enough to eat and another 1 billion suffer from ‘hidden hunger’ because essential nutrients are missing from their diets. He observed that the task is difficult because the food system is working for the majority of people, while those suffering hunger or at risk of malnutrition have least influence on decision-making. Conversely, a further one billion people are “substantially over-consuming”, spawning a new public health epidemic involving the chronic diseases associated with obesity.
This focus on food politics is to be welcomed, but we would have liked to have seen it dealt with in a much more systematic and robust way in the report. As it stands, the discussion about the need to improve governance of the international food system remains rather underdeveloped and disappointingly short on specifics. Nevertheless, economic modelling for the Foresight study does show how perverse trade restrictions can amplify shocks and add to price volatility, as in the 2007-08 food price spike, which led to an extra 100 million people going hungry. Thus, the report calls for the need to reduce agricultural subsidies to farmers in rich (OECD) countries and dismantle trade barriers that disadvantage poor countries. It also recognises that smallholder farmers in poor countries need more public policy support, for example to increase investments in agricultural research and extension services. Finally, the report stresses that for the world to be free of hunger, there has to be physical, economic and social access to food. However, to tackle these multifaceted distributional issues, a more potent and consistent consensus on tackling the root causes of hunger is needed. To achieve this, the Foresight Future of Food and Farming study argues that strong levels of “political courage and leadership” will be required, along with coordinated action across a range of scales to carry this through, but how this would be done is not adequately addressed in the report.
Two key UK Government ministers who attended the launch – Caroline Spelman, the Secretary of State for the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) and Stephen O’Brien, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for the Department for International Development (DFID) – welcomed the report and said they would push for global action on food security.
Responding to the Foresight’s report’s recommendations, Ms Spelman noted, “This is a report that must not gather dust… We need a global, integrated approach to food security, one that looks beyond the food system to the inseparable goals of reducing poverty, tackling climate change and reducing biodiversity loss – and the UK Government is determined to show the international leadership needed to make that happen We can unlock an agricultural revolution in the developing world, which would benefit the poorest the most, simply by improving access to knowledge and technology, creating better access to markets and investing in infrastructure.”
She went on to say, “We must apply a food security lens to all issues we address. We must also align our policies across government and use the UK’s buying power to drive change. This global challenge requires a global response.”
Stephen O’Brien remarked, “Substantial actions are needed in three areas: (1) invest in sustainable production (2) reduce waste and (3) improve governance of the food system. All actors must be involved – public sector, private sector and civil society – and the role of agriculture must be given higher priority in international development. Land-based development is where we can have the biggest impact in reducing rural poverty in developing countries while producing enough food to provide for a growing global population needs a sustained focus on agriculture.”
Both ministers emphasised that as well as boosting economic growth, investment in agriculture means that poorest countries are able to feed their populations and are more resilient to shocks and stresses caused by changing global food prices and climate change.
Of course, while we wholeheartedly endorse this view and the call for positive and sustained action based on the key recommendations emerging from the Foresight Future of Food and Farming report, the proof of the pudding will, as always, be in the eating.
>> Foresight report and other supporting documents
>> STEPS Centre: Food and Agriculture
>>Biotechnology Research Archive: Poverty reduction and food security – impacts of GM crops
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