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Foresight on food

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‘THE case for urgent action in the global food system is now compelling. We are at a unique moment in history as diverse factors converge to affect the demand, production and distribution of food over the next 20 to 40 years. The needs of a growing world population will need to be satisfied as critical resources such as water, energy and land become increasingly scarce. The food system must become sustainable, whilst adapting to climate change and substantially contributing to climate change mitigation. There is also a need to redouble efforts to address hunger, which continues to affect so many.’

So says Professor Sir John Beddington, the Government's chief scientific adviser, in his foreword to a report published this week called ‘The future of food and farming: challenges and choices for global sustainability’. The report presents a strong case for acting now to prevent future food shortages, and does so comprehensively and in some depth. Like a report on tackling infectious diseases published in 2006 (VR, May 6, 2006, vol 158, p 605), it has been produced under the Government Office for Science's Foresight programme, which applies scientific expertise to identifying future challenges and finding ways of dealing with them. Several hundred experts from a wide range of disciplines have been involved in the project, and the final report, along with supporting project reports and papers, is freely available online at www.bis.gov.uk/foresight.

According to Professor Beddington, the Foresight study shows that the food system is already failing in at least two ways. ‘Firstly, it is unsustainable, with resources being used faster than they can be naturally replenished. Secondly, a billion people are going hungry with another billion people suffering from “hidden hunger”, whilst a billion people are over-consuming.’

The report calls for a fundamental change in the global food system, along with better governance, noting that much will have to change in order to feed a projected global population of 8 billion by 2030, and probably more than 9 billion by 2050. Worldwide, demand for a more varied, high-quality diet will increase, it says, and this demand will have to be met as competition for land, water and energy intensifies, and the effects of climate change become increasingly apparent. It describes addressing climate change and achieving sustainability in the global food system as ‘dual imperatives’, suggesting that ‘nothing less is required than a redesign of the whole food system to bring sustainability to the fore.’

On the environmental impact of livestock production, the report calls for production systems that ‘maximise the efficiency of inputs such as water and energy, and minimise the trade-off between the production of animal feed and crops for human consumption’. It describes reducing greenhouse gas emissions from livestock as ‘an important global good’, and suggests that ‘regulatory frameworks and incentives, as well as publicly funded investment in research and development aimed at reducing emissions and other environmental harm’ should be a priority. It also suggests that efforts should be made to influence food consumption patterns.

The report argues that the increase in food production cannot be achieved at the expense of increasing the amount of land devoted to agriculture. It says that much can be done by better application of existing knowledge and technology, and by reducing wastage, but argues that research into new technologies is essential in view of the magnitude of the task. It also argues that the opportunities offered by new technologies should not be neglected and that decisions about their acceptability need to be made in the context of competing risks, with the costs of not using the technology being taken into account. More generally, it calls for a reversal of the low priority currently afforded to research on agriculture, fisheries and the food system, noting among other things that research in nutrition and related sciences offers ‘substantial prospects for improving the efficiency and sustainability of animal production (both livestock and aquaculture)’.

Coincidentally, the Foresight report has been published at the start of World Veterinary Year, which celebrates the 250th anniversary of the modern veterinary profession, following the founding of the world's first veterinary school in Lyon in 1761. The year is being used to highlight the profession's many roles, including its role in food security (VR, January 22, 2011, vol 168, p 65). The veterinary profession has played, and must continue to play, a significant part in efforts to improve world food security, both in research and in the field, as illustrated, for example, by its role in the eradication of rinderpest, which is discussed in an article on p 96 of this issue. Nevertheless, the report does prompt the question of whether this is an area in which the profession needs to increase its commitment in the years ahead.

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