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What you need to know about the future of food

Hannah Rowlands, from the Oxford Martin Programme on the Future of Food, explores the challenges and issues around tackling global food security.

The theme of this year's World Food Day is family farming, which brings together the importance of ensuring global food security and achieving sustainable development in the world's poorest countries. But why are these such important issues? And why is it so difficult to find solutions that tick all the boxes?


What is the food system?The global food system is a vast and hugely complex set of interactions involving the production, processing, transport and consumption of food in both rich and poor countries.We have to consider the governance and economics of food production, its sustainability, the degree to which we waste food, and how food production affects the natural environment.We also have to think about how food affects health and well-being, including nutrition, obesity and food safety.


What are the challenges facing our food system?

Population rise is one of the biggest challenges facing our food system. Not only is world population projected to reach nine billion by 2050, but people will be richer, which is a good thing.However, richer people demand a more varied diet, and that means more resources.SustainabilityAt a time when there is ever greater demand for food, there are also greater pressures on our food supply from climate change, soil degradation and limited water supplies.The way we currently produce our food is literally unsustainable and undermines our capacity to produce more food in the future.

Equitability & development

Just less than one billion people go to bed hungry each night and approximately another billion lack vital micro-nutrients. At the other end of the spectrum, more than one billion people are now overweight or obese. And people at both of these extremes are often present in the same country.There are major global problems around economic development and access to food for the world's poorest, as well as diet choices for those with better access to food.


What can we do?

Don't be disheartened, there's lots that can and is being done to reduce the number of people going hungry and ensure food security. But remember that everything we do must be seen through the twin prisms of increasing sustainability and improving the lot of the world's poorest.


Produce more

We need to produce more food in order to feed the additional two billion people expected to be living on our planet by 2050. There has been lots of success in the past century in increasing the yields of existing crops, but many of the successes of initiatives such as the Green Revolution have come at a high environmental cost.If we want to keep producing more food, it must be done on existing farmland - we can't afford to convert forests, wetlands or grasslands to agriculture as this would greatly increase greenhouse gas emissions and the loss of biodiversity and important ecosystem services.This approach, of increasing food production from existing farmland while minimising pressure on the environment, is known as "sustainable intensification", and is a concept that we have been developing and discussing at Oxford University.

Technological solutions

There are many exciting technological solutions that are likely to help improve food production and food security. These include genetically modified crops, which are already being developed to be drought resistant, for example, or to provide essential nutrients that might otherwise be absent in the diet.

Artificial meat is another technology that might help reduce the environmental impact of our meat-rich diets, since cows produce a lot of the greenhouse gas, methane.Demand lessAnother way to approach global food security is to look at what food people are eating and find ways to change diets so that we can both improve health and reduce the impact on the environment. This is a contentious issue and is not always considered in the debate about food security.

Food waste is one area that most people agree is a no-brainer for improving the situation. In developed countries, most food waste is from households and commercial premises. There's a lot of scope here to reduce waste and save money at the same time. In the developing world, food is wasted more at the production end because farmers don't have good storage facilities or the transport infrastructure to get their produce to market.Cutting down the amount of meat we eat, especially beef, could have a big effect on the environmental impact of our diets. There's also the potential win-win for health here - eating less red meat is good for reducing the risk of heart disease.Good, old-fashioned agricultural researchOn top of this, we shouldn't forget the more traditional, and perhaps less glamorous, subjects such as agronomy and soil science, which have become rather unfashionable in recent years. And in developing countries, a lot of the "yield gap", the difference between actual and potential yields, could be closed by applying existing technologies from the developed world.


And so...

Food is not like other commodities: we must have it to live. If we are going to "solve" global food security, we will need to take all the approaches available, including high-tech innovation, traditional crop science and moderating food demand. Food security is central to achieving all the economic, environmental and development goals of humanity in the 21st century. If we fail on food we fail on everything.


Hannah Rowlands is the Co-ordinator for the Oxford Martin Programme on the Future of Food, at the Oxford Martin School, University of Oxford.

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