By Max Clarke

A new report, published today by Foresight, the Government’s futures think tank, argues for fundamental change to the global food system, and beyond if a rapidly expanding global population is to be fed over the next 40 years.

The Foresight project ‘Global Food and Farming Futures’ has examined how a rapidly expanding global population can be fed in a healthy and sustainable way. Multiple threats are converging on the food system, including changes in the climate, competition for resources such as water supply and energy, and changing consumption patterns provide considerable challenges to sustaining the world’s food supply.

Professor Sir John Beddington, the Government’s Chief Scientific Adviser and Head of the Foresight programme, said:

“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 project has helped to identify a wide range of possible actions that can meet the challenges facing food and farming, both now and in the future.”
Welcoming today's report, David Willetts- Minister for Universities and Science- said:

“Scientific evidence is fundamental to good policy-making. Robust research helps us plan for the future and prepare for a wide range of important challenges including climate change, terrorism, health and in this case, food security.

“I welcome Foresight’s latest report on the future of global food and farming. The UK is world-leading in this area of scientific research and I’m impressed that this study has not only looked at the issues in such depth but also pulled together such an impressive range of global experts.”

The report’s main findings are:

• Threat of hunger could increase: Efforts to end hunger internationally are already stalling, and without decisive action food prices could rise substantially over the next 40 years making the situation worse. This will affect us all - as more of the world suffers from hunger social tensions will increase, as will the threat of conflict and migration. Wider economic growth will also be affected.

• The global food system is living outside its means, consuming resources faster than are naturally replenished. It must be redesigned to bring sustainability centre stage: Substantial changes will be required throughout the food system and related areas, such as water use, energy use and addressing climate change, if food security is to be provided for a predicted nine billion or more people out to 2050.

• There is no quick fix: The potential threats converging on the global food system are so great that action is needed across many fronts, from changing diets to eliminating food waste.

Professor Beddington added:
“With the global population set to rise and food prices likely to increase, it is crucial that a wide range of complementary actions from policy makers, farmers and businesses are taken now. Urgent change is required throughout the food system to bring sustainability centre stage and end hunger. It is also vital for other areas, such as climate change mitigation, conflict, and economic growth.”

Three important areas for change include:

• Minimising waste in all areas of the food system: An amount of food equivalent to about a quarter of today’s annual production could potentially be saved by 2050 if the current estimate of global food waste is halved.

• Balancing future demand and supply in the food system: This could include helping businesses to measure the environmental impacts of food so that consumers can choose products that promote sustainability.

• Improving governance of the global food system: It is important to reduce subsidies and trade barriers that disadvantage poor countries. The project’s economic modelling shows how trade restrictions can amplify shocks in the food system, raising prices further.

The challenges identified in the report show an urgent need to link food and agriculture policy to wider global governance agendas such as climate change mitigation, biodiversity and international development. Without this link a decision in one area could compromise important objectives in another.

The report, sponsored by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Department for International Development, outlines the findings of an extensive two-year study. It has involved around 400 experts from about 35 countries and considered food and farming in oceans and freshwater environments as well as on the land.

Environment Secretary Caroline Spelman said:
“We need a global, integrated approach to food security, one that looks beyond the food system to the inseparable goals of reducing poverty, tackling climate change and reducing biodiversity loss — and the UK Government is determined to show the international leadership needed to make that happen.

“We can unlock an agricultural revolution in the developing world, which would benefit the poorest the most, simply by improving access to knowledge and technology, creating better access to markets and investing in infrastructure.
“To fuel this revolution, we must open up global markets, boost global trade and make reforms that help the poorest. Trade restrictions must be avoided, especially at times of scarcity. And we must manage price volatility by building trust and cooperation — and in particular by creating greater transparency around the true levels of food stocks.”

International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell said:
“With one seventh of the world’s population still hungry, this report is a clarion call to arms. The food price crisis in 2008 increased the number of people suffering from hunger by 150 million. Today reports of increasing food prices once again fill the news — and it’s clear from this new study that price volatility is only set to increase in the future making further food price spikes inevitable.

“Internationally, those with the least spend the largest proportion of their income on food, so food price shocks hit the poorest hardest and can have long term impacts on their health. Britain is already working to tackle malnutrition, improve agriculture, and get new research into the hands of the poorest people. Steps taken now and pushed through over the next few decades to stabilise global markets, reduce volatility and prioritise agriculture will have a disproportionate effect on ensuring food security for a predicted nine billion people by 2050.”