I recently travelled in India and on the flights read Ten Billion by Stephen Emmott. In it he describes the crises we face because of population growth, climate change, environmental degradation, water and energy shortage, etc. Sadly, Emmott concludes that we will not have the political will to make the decisions, change our habitats, and share the resources necessary to address the problems. Certainly India brings home the inequalities of the world’s resource distribution and illustrates what living on a planet with 10 billion people may be like.
However, while I too despair of our political will (we seem unable to pass a Farm Bill or agree a national budget), we cannot in good conscience despair about our future. So I was heartened to come across a study commissioned by the UK Government Office for Science, The Future of Food and Farming: Challenges and choices for global sustainability. The project aim was:
“To explore the pressures on the global food system between now and 2050 and identify the decisions that policy makers need to take today, and in the years ahead, to ensure that a global population rising to nine billion or more can be fed sustainably and equitably”.
It is an exhaustive study that doesn’t underestimate the challenges or the difficulties of implementing the changes and policies needed to address them. It is at times controversial. For example, the report concludes that we should not depend upon substantial additional land becoming available for food production because inevitably this would further accelerate deforestation and exacerbate climate change. Consequently, it argues that we must have sustainable intensification of food production in which we seek to maintain productivity with great efficiency of inputs and minimal environmental impact. It emphasizes that more widespread application of existing knowledge can have substantial positive impact on global food production, but that intensified research to mitigate the negative impacts of climate change, such as drought, salinity, and flooding, are crucial. The report also outlines strategies to reduce the 30% of food that is currently wasted and by so doing moderate the need for increasing our food supply.
Limited resources create a tremendous risk of civil disturbance, revolution, and war, so it is in the self-interest of the richer nations to strategically focus overseas aid on sustainable food security in poorer nations. Additional parts of the study speak to the sustainability of global fish stocks, the importance of including environmental impact in all economic analyses, and the need for changes in consumer behavior and how that might be achieved.
If you are interested in the global food challenge, and I assume you are because you are reading this blog, I suggest it is worth looking at. You won’t agree with it all, but you will feel better informed.
John Bramley is professor emeritus of Animal Sciences and Microbiology and Molecular Genetics, former Dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, and former Interim President at the University of Vermont.