World leaders need to begin laying the tracks for an industrial-revolution-like transformation if they want to stop the overstressed global food system from spiraling further out of control, a report commissioned by the British government says.
The report, which was compiled by 400 scientists spread across 34 countries, calls for improved governance at all points along the global food chain to diminish the increasing swings in price and supply that are feeding social and political unrest.
While much of the international food-crisis research published in recent years has focused on how the world needs to produce more food by 2050 to feed the 9.5 billion people projected to inhabit it, the British report suggests the remedial ingredient most needed by power brokers is not science or research, but another underutilized asset: political will.
"We think it's an issue of political will and leadership, rather than the need for vast amounts of money," said Charles Godfray, an Oxford University researcher and one of the report's lead authors. "It's not just a question of producing more food. The whole of the food system needs to be looked at."
The timing of the report's release is apt: For months, volatile commodity prices and fears over a crisis have kept food security near the top of policymakers' agendas. News emerged last week that G20 working groups are under way to tackle food price swings and, for the first time, a special meeting of agriculture ministers from influential and emerging nations will be convened. Food riots coincided with the fall of Tunisia's government; onion shortages prompted protests in India. All of that came on the heels of a United Nations announcement that staple food prices had hit record highs, outstripping crisis levels reached in 2008 that tipped off riots in Haiti and West and Central Africa.
Unless urgent action is taken to reverse the course of world food policy, the chaos will only deepen, the report warns.
"If one looks in total at the civil unrest we've seen in low- and middle-income countries in the last while, it's something we might see more of if we don't get food security right," Prof. Godfray said.
At risk is more than just food prices, which the report suggests could soon double in some categories. Progress on other agendas, including climate change, energy, economic development and poverty will remain sluggish unless their interconnectivity with the food chain is addressed.
A ROLE FOR GOVERNMENTS
Governments will have to reinvent the way they look at food and related policy. The report, which is called The Future of Farming and Food and is published by a science department think tank called Foresight, calls for more stringent political and economic governance in the food sector and beyond. On the economic side, that means calming panicked reactions to ease market volatility such as protectionist trade embargoes and hoarding; it also means policymakers need to view food as "a unique class of commodity" that can have far-reaching implications.
Politically, the report suggests governments need to muster the will to insist on making productivity gains that meet sustainability targets (meaning resources are not used at rates that exceed the capacity of the Earth to replace them). Instead of handing out agricultural subsidies that benefit local farmers, governments should consider rewarding the adoption of sustainable production systems. If globalization is "made to work" via more liberalized trade policies and improved accessibility to markets, Prof. Godfray said, price shocks would be more easily buffered and global food security would be an achievable goal.
Big changes in the private sector will feature prominently in any roadmap to global food security rehabilitation. Although it sounds daunting, Prof. Godfray said, researchers believe the markets can be channeled to work in favour of sustainability. But retailers will need incentives. In closed-door meetings with British researchers, representatives from some of the world's top food retailers expressed frustration at the lack of return on investments aimed at boosting sustainability. "They were actually saying there is a role for government in creating a level playing field - standards in sustainability - such that they could invest and get a better return," Prof. Godfray said.
Consumer demand for unsustainable goods will also have to be harnessed. That includes meat, the production of which creates a huge drag on the environment. "It would just be impossible for the global population to consume meat at the rate that we do in North America and Europe," Prof. Godfray said. He pointed to recent trends in sustainable seafood as an example. In supermarkets around the world, seafood selections are being refined to weed out unsustainable species, and consumer demand for those species has dropped.
Consumers - and changing their behavior - are key factors in the complicated food security equation. Not only will shoppers have to consider letting their guard down on genetically modified and cloned livestock, "in light of the magnitude of the challenges" to global food security, people will have to begin thinking of themselves as global citizens, and responsible ones. "It's a terrible cliché to say this, but we're all in this together," Prof. Godfray said. The trouble is that, in developed nations, where concerns over obesity and overconsumption trump worries over shortages and access to food, consumers don't necessarily see the connection between the food they throw out, for example, and starving people on the other side of the world.
According to the report, between 30 and 50 per cent of all food grown worldwide is wasted, either before or after it reaches the consumer. Lowering that number, instead of producing surplus food, will be critical to feeding the world's booming population in a sustainable way. How to start? Build up "food literacy" in developed nations. "The informed consumer can effect change in the food system by choosing to purchase items that promote sustainability, equitability or other desirable goals," the report said. "Building a societal consensus for action will be key to modifying demand."