The Tasty Issue of Food Security

07 March 2013

Interview with

Professor Tim Benton, University of Leeds

We're all used to popping down to the supermarket and choosing our groceries from the rows and rows of food available, but with the global population rapidly expanding, experts feel that in the future, our ability to supply food on this scale is not going to be able to meet our demands. We were joined by Professor Tim Benton from the University of Leeds and the UK champion for food security to find out how hungry we are to fix this issue.  

Chris - So, first of all, just define for us food security. What does that term actually mean?

Tim - So, the term means that everybody has access to food at all times and in all places, sufficient to meet their needs for nutrition and health.

Chris - There are 7 billion of us on Earth now we think or thereabout. Are we currently feeding everybody because I keep seeing reports in the news and so on, of people in famine states?

Tim - We are producing enough food around the world at the moment to feed everybody in terms of the amount of calories. The issue I think is going to get more acute into the future because we have a projected growth in demand, driven as you say by population growth by the increasing global middle class, and by increasing urbanization which changes our attitude to food, and we see it much more as a wastable thing.

So, the projected growth in demand over the next 40 years is a 60% increase Supermarketand at the same time, we're going to have less land, we're going to have all sorts of constraints around these sort of nitrogen fertiliser and pesticides and so on. We're going to have to be much more sustainable in our production because we're getting to the point where we can't carry on using the natural capital that we've been using in the soils and eroding the soils, and so on. We're going to have less water. At the moment, we use about 70% of the world's water on agriculture and in the future, we can't expect to use that amount. And then we got climate change and climate change is going to take out a whole chunk of our yields.

So, on the one hand, we've got a projected increase of demand of 60 or so percent and then on the other hand, we got a whole batch of constraints that are going to stop us doing it. And we're noticing now the imbalance between demand and supply because in the last 5 years, we've had three big food price spikes and the first one in 2007 and 2008. It was contributory to the civil unrest in the Arab spring and we all have a kind of history that when food gets expensive, riots break out. The French revolution came from "Let them eat cake" from Mary Antoinette when bread prices went through the roof. So, it's not just a matter of sub-Saharan African starving children. In UK at the moment, there are about 3 million people on the verge of malnutrition and the poorest in any society get hit hard.

Chris - Given that rather sombre review that you just offered, what can we do about it?  Is it just a question of saying, "Right, population lies at the heart of this." We have to stop the population increase because if we did, that would stop 60% of the problem straightaway your figures. On the other hand, can we throw science at this? 

Tim - So, population growth is just one of the drivers of demand and even if we stop population growth, the increase in wealth with the growing global economy means that the poor people want to eat more meat, more expensive to produce food and so on. So, even if we stopped people breathing which is a horrendous thought to think about, but even if we did, there will still be an increase in demand. 

So, part of the solution has got to be about managing our relationship with food, managing our demand, reducing waste at the moment in North America or in Europe. The amount of food that's thrown away is the equivalent of all of the production in sub-Saharan Africa, so we can do things around waste. We can clearly do things around production, given that we've got a finite amount of land, use the land that is already converted to agriculture, to grow food more efficiently, and then there are a whole host of things that we can do around that production from a science perspective, from an ecological science perspective to make it sustainable. From a human behaviour perspective, our attitudes to food, as well as the issues to do with population growth and economic growth.

Ginny - Africa is the only continent with a greater ability to grow food than a demand from its population. Have you started to see this effect in the continent?

Tim - Yeah, absolutely. Africa is working very, very hard to grow its agriculture production. I think the scary thing is although it's got a certain amount of what is sometimes termed as spare land, although from an ecological perspective that's arguable, the issues of climate change and the future ability to produce the food that we think it might be able too might be impaired. But certainly in terms of the potential at the moment given the current climate, there is a huge amount of growth that is possible and in parts of Africa, that growth is starting to happen.

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