Food must be a higher priority for decision-makers around the world to ward off disaster in decades to come, concludes a major report from the UK; and new technologies like GM and cloning should not be ruled out but acceptability weighed against the costs of not using them.
The Foresight Food and Farming Futures report is the culmination of a major project involving 400 experts and stakeholders in 35 countries around the world. Led by the John Beddington, the UK’s chief scientific adviser, it was commissioned by the government to provide some signposts to policy-makers faced with juggling competing pressures in the food system.
With global population tipped to reach 8 billion by 2030 (from nearly 7 billion today) and possibly 9 billion by 2050, tough questions are being asked about whether the current food system will be able to feed the extra mouths on existing resources – sustainably and equitably.
The report draws attention to the current failings of the food system today, not just as witnessed during the food price spikes of 2007/8: Decisive action is needed to tackle hunger and access to macronutrients, which currently affects 925m people worldwide; and to address sustainability issues in many food production systems.
The report concludes that: “The global food system between now and 2050 will face enormous challenges, as great as any that it has confronted in the past”, and gives a “stark warning for both current and future decision-makers on the consequences of inaction”.
“To address the unprecedented challenges that lie ahead the food system needs to change more radically in the coming decades than ever before, including during the Industrial and Green Revolutions.”
Five key challenges
Prof Beddington said 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 report identifies five key challenges for the future, which need to be addressed in a pragmatic way in order to prevent future shocks to food supply – and to anticipate and manage future stresses:
Balancing future supply and demand to ensure affordability
Ensuring stability in food supplies, and protecting the most vulnerable from any volatility
Achieving global access and ending hunger, and recognising the difference between potentially feeding everyone and full food security
Managing contribution of the food system to mitigating climate change
Maintaining biodiversity and ecosystem services while feeding the world
What to make of new technologies
Part of the report addresses the role of emerging – and controversial – technologies in the future food supply, such as genetically modified foods and foods from cloned animals and their offspring.
It says that investment in research is essential in light of the food security challenges on the horizon – but the human and environmental safety must be rigorously established in a transparent manner.
New technologies should not be excluded on a priori moral or ethical grounds, although contrary views should be taking into account – but acceptability should be determined by balancing competing risks, including the potential risks of not utilising new technology.
The report emphasises that appropriate technology has the potential to be very valuable to the world’s poorest. However it says: “New technologies may alter the relationship between commercial interests and food producers, and this must be taken into account when designing governance of the food system”.
The Foresight report has been welcomed by the UK Food and Drink Federation.
Andrew Kuyk, director of sustainability, said: “The report highlights that tackling the issue of future food security against the background of climate change is now an urgent problem and that business as usual is no longer an option.
“FDF has consistently called for sustainable food production – producing more, from less and with less environmental impact – to be made a key strategic priority for the UK.”
Kuyk added that “forthcoming review of the EU’s Common Agriculture Policy provides a further opportunity for us to make the case for radical reform to end protectionist agricultural policies and allow us to play our full part in helping to meet these challenges.”
Key UK government figures have also hailed the report: In their preface, Caroline Spelman, secretary of state for environment, food and rural affairs, and Andrew Mitchell, secretary of state for international development, said they will be “jointly acting on the project’s findings”.