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Feeding the 9 billion

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IN the period immediately before and after the General Election in the UK, discussion of food security has mainly centred around the national agenda. However, the recent flooding in Pakistan has pushed the issue back into the global context in which it needs to be considered. The floods, and the likely consequences for food security in the region, provide an appropriate, if unwelcome, backdrop for the publication by the Royal Society last week of a collection of review articles on food security and the factors likely to affect world food production up to the year 2050.

The articles were commissioned under the Government's Foresight programme, which aims to make use of scientific and other evidence to help politicians think systematically about the future and which, a few years ago, produced a valuable report on tackling infectious diseases (VR, May 6, 2006, vol 158, p 605). They have been published together in a themed issue of Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society called 'Food security: feeding the world in 2050', which is freely available online.*

In an introduction, John Beddington, the Government's chief scientific adviser, notes that, following the productivity increases of the Green Revolution in the mid-20th century, food prices in major world markets have been at a historical low for several decades. However, he says, by 2050, this situation is set to change significantly: 'The global population will have increased by nearly a third to 9 billion, and diets will have changed with increasing affluence, leading to a much increased demand for food. At the same time, the food supply may be threatened, as agriculture will have to compete with industry and municipal uses for energy and water. Climate change will also have adverse impacts on production in some areas.'

The challenge, he points out, is not only to increase food production, but to do so in a way that is sustainable, reducing greenhouse gas emissions and preserving biodiversity. In addition, food systems must be made more resilient to economic and climatic volatility. There is also the challenge of ending world hunger; currently, about 1 billion people go hungry each day.

A total of 21 reviews are included in the collection, with the first few papers exploring the main factors affecting demand for food, such as population growth, changing consumption patterns, urbanisation and trends in income distribution. A second set of papers examines trends in future food supply, covering crops, livestock, fisheries and aquaculture, as well as food from wild animals and plants. A third section considers the impact of outside factors such as climate change and competition for water, energy and land, while further papers examine issues such as food system economics, food wastage and links between food systems and health.

The article on livestock production highlights the highly dynamic nature of the global livestock sector and the difficulties inherent in trying to predict future trends. In the developed world, demand for livestock products is stagnating while, in developing countries, demand is likely to rise. In the future, production will increasingly be affected by competition for natural resources, particularly land and water, by competition between food and feed, and by the need to operate in a carbon-constrained economy. Developments in breeding, nutrition and animal health will continue to contribute to increased production, but, at the same time, demand for livestock products could also be moderated by socioeconomic factors such as human health concerns and changing sociocultural values, including attitudes to animal welfare. All in all, there is much uncertainty as to how these factors will play out in different regions in the coming decades.

Taken together, the papers highlight the extent of the challenges facing humanity over the next 40 years and it is interesting to consider the areas in which veterinary expertise might be employed in helping to ensure that the issues discussed are addressed. Meanwhile, an overarching review at the start of the collection draws the important conclusion that, given sufficient political will, sustainable food production and availability can be achieved with the concerted application of current technologies and investment in research to enable the food system to cope with the challenges ahead. According to Professor Beddington, 'The need for action is urgent given the time required for investment in research to deliver the new technologies to those who need them, and for political and social change to take place.' On an issue where national interests often take precedence, but where a global perspective is vital, perhaps the biggest challenge will be in ensuring that the necessary political will is there.

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