The facts of food security

02 February 2016

Interview with

Tim Benton, University of Leeds

In today's scientific world, why are people still going hungry and what what moreHarvest do we need to solve the food security challenge? Tim Benton is Professor of population ecology at Leeds University and the UK Champion for Global Food Security. He outlines the problems and possible solutions to Chris Smith...

Tim - Food security roughly means having access to sufficient, safe and nutritious food for a healthy life and, clearly, when this term is used, most people think about the 800 million people or thereabouts who suffer chronic daily hunger but it's also important to the poorest in all societies.  So, for example, in the developed world the poorest often have access to lots of cheap calories in terms of fat and sugar, but very poor nutrition and that leads to an association between poverty and obesity, and obesity and other diseases like diabetes.  So food security is not just about starving people in Africa, it is about health, nutrition, and well being, and all of the things that flow from those.

Chris - It sounds slightly paradoxical, doesn't it, that - in a bigger world and a hungrier world - that actually one of the problems could be obesity; but, as you say, food security equals good nutrition too...

Tim - Absolutely.  Yes.

Chris - Now how is the situation actually evolving or changing?  We know that world population is increasing; it's increasing at the rate of maybe 1% per year, which doesn't sound like much, but if you do the compound interest formula that's a doubling every 70 years or so.  Hence the prediction of as many as maybe 10-12 billion by 2050?

Tim - Yes, so there were two things.  One is the population growth and the other one is as on average as the world gets richer, people eat different things and they eat perhaps more intensively produced food, which comes with a bit of an environmental impact.  The projections are that over the next 35 years, up to mid-century, demand for food is set to rise by between 50 and 100% depending on who you listen to.  And that's absolutely not impossible because over the last 35 years, looking back over the same time, production has increased by just over 100%.  The issue, I think, is not over whether we can do it but whether we can do it in a way that's sustainable.

Chris - Can we just go business as usual?  If we just carry on as we are, will we just run out of food?

Tim - I don't think we will run out of food.  I think this issue is that the environment will suffer.  It's not just that, at the moment, a quarter of the world's soils are degraded, agriculture is the biggest threat to biodiversity, a huge polluter of water through nitrogen fertilizer but, actually, agriculture and food between them, in terms of the greenhouse gases they emit, accounts for about the same as all lighting, all cars, all air travel,all washing machines, all heating, and all air conditioning. That means that if we carry on in the way that we're going with yields growing in the way that they are and demand growing in the way that it is, by 20150 agriculture and food will account for about 2 degrees of global warming. And that is more than all that the governments have just signed up to try and limit in Paris, and if we miss the Paris targets through agriculture and food alone, then clearly there isn't any space for any of the other things that we use energy for and that locks us into a world of 4 or 5 degrees of global warming by the end of the century, which is truly horrific to think about.

Chris - Should we not just invest the money, instead of trying to, as they put in "The Martian" so well, "science the hell out of this" and increase our food production... shouldn't we just get to the nub of what's causing this, which is there are just too many people, and spend the money on population control instead?

Tim - I don't think it's just that there were too many people.  I think it's also that we place very significant demands on the environment to produce what we want.  So, for example, if you look at the fact that about a third of the world's production is lost or wasted; if you look at the 2 billion people that are overweight and consume too many calories, and if you look at the amount of resources that we grow and feed to livestock for meat production.  If we changed our diets, we could easily reduce demand by somewhere up to about a half.  So it's not just about how do we grow more food, although clearly we do have to grow more food?  It's also what are the ways that we can change the societal demand so that we can live within the planetary boundaries.

Chris - So to meet those obligations, and to avoid destroying the planet in the way you've outlined, and probably leading to the gross increase in the amount of CO2 and, therefore, the attendant climate change it may drive.  What's this going to take?  What do we have to do right here and now?

Tim - Well.  So I think the three broad classes of solution; one is that we can do better in the field, we can improve yields - we know we can improve yields using modern biotechnology and modern plant breeding - whether or not it's GM is another discussion.  But we can also increase efficiency of our agriculture either by changing the plants or by using smarter machines or we can improve the way that we use land and use land much more smartly to reduce some of the environmental impacts. Clearly, there's a lot we can do to reduce waste, which is the second of the three things.  At the moment, Europe and North America throws away from the home about the equivalent of all production from Sub Saharan Africa, each year.  So it's that sort of scale of things. And the third basket is the changed diets.  So, in an American situation, I did the analysis last year, a family of four eating an average amount of meat, driving two cars an average amount, they emit more greenhouse gases from the meat than they do from driving the cars.  So, just by reducing their meat to about half of what they would normally do, is about as equivalent of getting rid of a family car. Perfectly possible to do.

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