Looking at the challenges expected in the area of food and farming over the next 40 years
This article has been adapted from executive summary of the Foresight report on the future of food and farming. All figures have been sourced from the Food Statistics Pocketbook 2012.
About the report
This Foresight report was produced for the Government as a result of a project involving around 400 leading experts and players from about 35 low-, middle- and high-income countries. It takes a long-term look forward to 2050 and addresses the challenges expected in the area of food and farming over the next 40 years.
To explore the pressures on the global food system between now and 2050 and identify the decisions that policy makers need to take today, and in the years ahead, to ensure that a global population rising to nine billion or more can be fed sustainably and equitably.
The report takes a broad, global view of the food system and the context in which it operates. The views of a diverse range of players are taken into account, from African smallholders to multinational retailers.
Overview: The need for change
Challenge A: Balancing future demand and supply sustainably
Challenge B: Addressing the threat of future volatility in the food system
Challenge C: Achieving global access to food and ending hunger
Challenge D: Meeting the challenges of a low emissions world
Challenge E: Maintaining biodiversity and ecosystem services while feeding the world
Conclusion: Priorities for action
Many current systems of food production are unsustainable and, without change, will continue to degrade the environment. They may contribute to climate change, loss of biodiversity and may compromise the world’s capacity to produce food in future. Environmental concerns include:
Soil erosion and salination
Reliance on fossil fuel-derived energy
Fossil fuel use, especially in the production of fertilisers and pesticides
Emissions of greenhouse gases and other pollutants
Water extraction for irrigation that exceeds the rate of replenishment
Hunger remains widespread, with 925 million people lacking access to sufficient carbohydrates, fats and protein. Another billion are thought to suffer from ‘hidden hunger’, lacking vitamins and minerals. Meanwhile, a billion people are substantially over-consuming, spawning a new public health epidemic involving chronic conditions such as type-two diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
The challenges ahead
The global food system will experience an unprecedented confluence of pressures over the next 40 years:
Global population size will increase from seven billion (2012), to 8 bn (2030), to over 9 bn (2050)
Many people are likely to be wealthier, creating more demand for a varied, high-quality diet including meat and fish
The effects of climate change will become increasingly apparent and the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to a changing climate will become imperative
Globalisation will continue, exposing the food system to novel economic and political pressures
Competition for land, water and energy will intensify
Any one of these pressures (or ‘drivers of change’) would present substantial challenges to food security. Together they constitute a major threat that requires a strategic reappraisal of how the world is fed.
Food systems around the world
Food systems of different countries are linked at all levels, from farm to plate. The majority of economic value is added beyond the farm gate. In high-income countries in particular, food processing and retail count for a significant proportion of the end-cost of food products.
Food systems around the world involved a number of players. By exerting choice, consumers can influence food production and supply. Meanwhile, companies within the food system can hold great political and societal influence, and can also shape consumer preferences. In making decisions to alter complex food systems, care must be taken to assess the complex ramifications that may result.
When making policy decisions it is important to take account of areas including: energy, water supply, land use, the sea, ecosystem services and biodiversity. Issues of volatility, sustainability, climate change and hunger are also of great importance. This report will address all of these issues to give an in-depth overview of the challenges facing the global food system.
Food produced outside of the farm
Whilst a large amount of food is produced on land farms, the role of fisheries and aquaculture must not be overlooked since around a billion people– including many of the world’s poor – rely on fish as their main source of animal protein. Many vulnerable communities also obtain a significant amount of food from the wild, which increases their resilience to food shocks – such as droughts and plagues.
As the food system grows, it will place increasing demands on energy, water supply and land. If both economic development and global sustainability are to be delivered, significant changes will need to be made to the world’s food systems. Four key areas for change have been identified:
Producing food sustainably through knowledge, technology and best practice
Containing demand for the most resource-intensive types of food
Minimising waste in all areas of the food system
Improving governance of the food system to increase food productivity and sustainability
Importantly, the solution is not just to produce more food, or change diets, or eliminate waste. The whole food system must be redesigned in order to bring sustainability to the fore.
Using existing knowledge
It has been estimated that by applying existing knowledge and technology only, average agricultural yields in many parts of Africa could increase threefold from an average of one ton per hectare to almost three tons per hectare. Similarly, global productivity in aquaculture could be raised by around 40% with relatively little input.
The changes suggested here relate mostly to middle- and low-income countries because it is here that policy interventions can have the greatest impact on yields. The suggestions include:
Increasing the skills and knowledge base of food producers (often women) in both low‑income and high-income countries
Improving the functioning of markets to facilitate entrepreneurship, particularly in low-income countries. This can increase household revenue, livelihood diversification (so that people don’t risk the vulnerability associated with rely on a single source of income) and the strength of rural economies
Making capital more accessible to enable producers to invest in new and better farming or fishing methods, diversify into new activities and access markets
Strengthening rights to land and natural resources, such as water, fisheries and forests. Uncertainty can be a major disincentive to investment in food production
Improving physical infrastructure (roads, ports, storage, communications) to facilitate access to markets and strengthen rural economies. In some African countries, transport costs can be as high as 77% of the value of their exports.
Investing in new science and technology
Although existing knowledge can increase productivity, new innovations are required to raise the limits of sustainable production and address new threats, such as virulent pests and diseases.
It is also important to address new challenges, notably the challenge of climate change adaptation. The report suggests:
Developing new varieties or breeds of crops, livestock and aquatic organisms e.g. crops that are resistant to increased drought, flooding and salinity resulting from climate change
Preserving multiple varieties, rare breeds and closely related wild relatives of domesticated species to maintain a genetic bank of variation for the selection of novel traits
Advancing nutrition to improve the efficiency and sustainability of production of both livestock and aquaculture
Advancing soil sciences for a better understanding of constraints to crop production. Aim to better manage soils to preserve their ecosystem functions, reduce pollutant run-off and cut greenhouse gas emissions.
It has been estimated that as much as 30% of all food grown worldwide may be lost or wasted before and after it reaches the consumer. Waste is defined as spanning the entire food supply chain (from field to fork), and includes food that is fit for human consumption but intentionally used as animal feed.
Reducing waste will decrease pressure on resources, lower greenhouse gas emissions and cut the need for landfill. Halving the total amount of food waste by 2050 is considered to be a realistic target. This could reduce the current food demand by around 25%.
Rising food prices should act as an incentive for waste reduction. However, policy interventions are also required. The report suggests:
Deploying existing knowledge and technology in storage and transport infrastructure. Many simple and traditional technologies can substantially reduce post-harvest waste. Investment should also be given to developing new technologies
Reforming markets to reduce large seasonal wastages. In many cases, the spread of information can allow producers to make better decisions about the best times to supply to markets
Campaigning to highlight the extent of waste and the financial benefits of reducing it. Specific programmes targeting consumers, companies in the supply chain and those providing meals commercially
Developing cheap, mass-produced sensor technology to detect spoilage of perishable foods. Would allow a more sophisticated food management than current ‘best before’ date labels.
Different foods differ greatly in the amount of resources that are required for their production. It is therefore important to address the issue of what – rather than simply how much – food is in demand. Policy can influence this by seeking to change people’s diets. Possible policies include:
Economic interventions, such as taxing non-preferred food types
‘Choice editing’, such as encouraging retailers to limit consumer choice and enhance accesses to better foods
Campaigns to change behaviour, such as education, advertising and school or workplace programmes
Changing behaviour is difficult, but not impossible, and requires a concerted effort over long timescales. Campaigns can also be undermined by commercial interests. For example, the five-a-day campaign for fruit and vegetable consumption has been associated with some food stuffs that do not offer the same nutritional benefits as those foods it was initially intended to promote.
It is therefore important that policy makers follow a number of guiding principles, notably:
Better decisions are made by an informed consumer
Simple, consistent and trusted information on food is important
Government intervention ideally requires agreement throughout society
The problem with meat
It is often argued that the amount of meat consumed in high- and middle-income should be reduced. This would reduce demand for grain, lower greenhouse gas emissions and positively affect health.
However, low income households in the UK have been sensitive to recent rises in food prices and have struggled to afford quality meat. For example, between 2007 and 2010 they bought 26% less carcase (non-processed) meat. They also bought 25% less fruit and 16% fewer vegetables during the same period.
Volatility in the past and in the future
Global food markets experience high levels of volatility, with food prices often fluctuating by large amounts. This can negatively affect both consumers and producers due to the disruption that occurs in cases of particularly severe fluctuations.
If food markets are particularly volatile, economic and political destability can occur – effects most heavily felt in low-income countries where the poor can experience increased hunger as a result of spikes in food prices. For example, food price increases were identified as a major factor in the 2011 rioting that broke out in the Algerian capital of Algiers (BBC, 7 January 2011).
Such ‘spikes’ in food prices can result from strong influencing factors – or ‘shocks’ – outside of the food system itself. For example, oil crises in the early 1970s created dramatic fluctuations in food prices. To a lesser extent, food prices spiked in 2007-08 (see below graph).
Factors contributing to 2007-08 food price spike
A steady increase in global food demand, particularly due to economic growth in middle-income countries
An increase in energy prices and regulatory changes which encouraged the production of biofuels on agricultural land
A series of poor wheat harvests in 2006 and 2007 in agriculturally important regions, such as Australia
A general decrease or ‘rundown’ in the value of commodity stocks worldwide. Commodity speculation possibly played a part too
The tightening of export restrictions by governments in some important producer countries, which worsened the situation
Future volatility may be affected by:
Armed conflict and breakdown of regional or national governance
Economic globalisation and international trade
Shocks in other commodities, particularly in the price of oil
Continuing improvements in crop protection and biotechnology
The cultural importance of certain foods, which can lead to government interventions to reduce price volatility.
Policy implications relating to future volatility
While the amount of volatility remains uncertain, price spikes in the future are inevitable. Policy makers must ask:
What levels of volatility are considered ‘acceptable’, and should governments intervene to attempt to control volatility within defined bounds?
How can the negative consequences of volatility be mitigated, and which interventions would be most effective?
Is it better to develop mechanisms to protect producers or consumers from the effects of volatility and, if so, how?
To what extent should collective action and planning at the international level (for example the G20) occur to protect the poorest from the worst effects of volatility?
Policy interventions to reduce volatility have a number of associated costs. Ultimately, they are expensive and require the investment of resources that could be used elsewhere. Any interventions also risk marking problems worse by distorting markets, bringing political interests to the fore or having other unintended consequences.
Although policy makers can attempt to influence food prices, they are likely to be more effective if they provide safety nets for poor consumers and producers.
Millennium Development Goal 1 aims to halve the number of undernourished people from 16% in 1990, to 8% in 2015. As of 2010, 13.5% of the world’s population was undernourished. Whilst some countries have already met their target – such as China in the early 2000s – many countries in Africa and south Asia are unlikely to meet the Goal. Ultimately, worldwide progress has been slow.
For people to be free of hunger, there has to be physical, economic and social access to food. Indeed, many of the factors affecting access lie outside of the food system itself. Strong political leadership is therefore required to improve global access to food.
Making agriculture work harder to reduce hunger
In the countries where hunger is most chronic (south Asia and sub-Saharan Africa) agriculture can make a major contribution to its eradication. Technologies, institutions, infrastructure and information should be used to increase equitable and diverse food production at affordable prices.
Greater effort needs to be made in ensuring that poor farmers and those experiencing chronic hunger are included in the development of technology. Small-scale farming has also been neglected and needs to be considered in policy decisions.
Measures in the broader food system
Hunger cannot be ended by agriculture alone. Other policies and investments to increase food access, reduce differences in gender power and improve nutrition status are vital.
Social protection measures, such as cash transfers, can help vulnerable household adapt to a range of shocks. However, due to cost, this policy may only feasible for the poorest 10% of the population.
Efforts to end hunger
The World Bank and the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) of the UN should work together to develop more appropriate hunger outcomes. Governments need to monitor the levels and perceptions of hunger, as well as the commitments and inputs dedicated to ending it.
At a local level, social accountability can empower the poorest and strengthen the delivery of services that seek to end hunger. At a global level, the UN is leading a worldwide effort to build enforceable international law recognising the ‘right to food’. However, it remains to be seen whether this is helping to leverage resources to accelerate hunger reduction.
The food system and greenhouse gases – past and future
Agriculture contributes an estimated 12-14% of greenhouse gas emissions – a figure that includes the production of fertiliser. However, when costs beyond the farm gate (such as those associated with transport and processing) are included, the figure rises to at least 30%.
Globally, greenhouse gas emissions are likely to rise in the decades ahead. However, the European Union has put in place legislation to reduce emission by 20% between 1990 and 2020. The UK has gone further, setting a legally binding target to reduce emissions by 34% by 2020 and at least 80% by 2050 (based on the 1990 levels).
The food system in a low-carbon world – policy implications
Since the organic compounds in the top 30 cm of soil contain as much carbon as the entire atmosphere does, changes in agricultural practices have the potential to affect the net movement of greenhouse gases between the land and the atmosphere. Such shifts could impact substantially on climate change.
But, although it is important that agriculture and food production are included in attempts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, such efforts could affect plans to reduce hunger.
Ethical issues are raised as to which geographical and economic ground should bear the costs of climate change mitigation – and which cannot afford to do so. For example, the poorest farmers may not be able to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions with such changes negatively impacting on their yield or monthly income. This, in turn, could perpetuate problems of hunger and poverty.
Possible low-emissions farming policies
Creating of market incentives for producers, such as grants, subsidies or taxes
Introducing mandatory emission standards by implementing direct regulations on producers
Using market pressures and consumer choices to drive low-emission produce. Requires active and informed consumers, as well as accurate and trusted labeling and certification of products
Voluntary or non-profit driven measures as part of a corporate social responsibility ethos within the industry
In implementing such policies, decision-makers should be aware of the following points:
Reducing emissions can occur without loss of agricultural productivity
Developments in science or technology can increase agricultural efficiency and reduce greenhouse gas emissions
Where emissions reduction negatively affects agricultural yields, interventions should be chosen to achieve the greatest reductions at the least cost
There is an important link between climate change mitigation and the food system
Due to their interdependence, policies in conservation and in food security are increasingly being thought of together. As such, the report makes clear that global food supply will need to increase with increasingly less impact on the environment and without the use of substantially more land. In sum, sustainable intensification is a necessity.
Foresight’s definition of sustainability
The principle of sustainability implies the use of resources at rates that do not exceed the capacity of the earth to replace them:
Water is consumed in water basins at rates that can be replenished by inflows and rainfall
Greenhouse gas emissions are balanced by carbon fixation and storage
Soil degradation and biodiversity loss are halted, and pollutants do not accumulate in the environment
Capture fisheries and other renewable resources are not depleted beyond their capacity to recover
Sustainability also extends to economic and social factors:
Food production and economic growth must create sufficient wealth to maintain a viable and healthy workforce
Skills must be transmitted to future generations of producers
Finally, sustainability involves resilience. This means that the food system, including its human and organisational components, must be robust to shocks and stresses.
The imperative to preserve tropical rain forests
Much of the land that could be brought into agriculture is currently covered by tropical rainforest. Pressure from expanding agriculture has been a major factor leading to recent tropical deforestation, especially in South America (where conversion to soybean and cattle ranching is the greatest pressure) and south-east Asia (owing to oil palm conversion).
Deforestation for the purpose of agriculture has a number of very adverse effects:
Large one-off amounts of greenhouse gases are emitted
The land’s subsequent ability to take up greenhouse gases is reduced
The local climate may directly be affected or damaged
Biodiversity may be lost immediately
Indigenous groups may be displaced
The Report concludes that there will hardly ever be a case to convert forests, especially tropical rainforests, to food production.
Policy suggestions for sustainable intensification
Land has to be managed for multiple functions, such as food production, supporting rural economies, flood management and protection of biodiversity. In order to cope with such challenges, a number of policies can be implemented.
Meanwhile, for fisheries to become biodiversity-sensitive, it is suggested that they consider:
Controlling illegal fishing
Reducing by-catch (unintended types of fish) by improving fishing gear
More specific actions such as creating protected zones
Defining and protecting endangered species
Controlling stock movements
Banning destructive fishing methods
Restricting predator culls
Given the diversity of challenges that have been outlined in the report, there is no single approach that can meet them all. Instead, it is concluded that there are a number of priorities for action:
Spread best practice to ensure that existing knowledge can be implemented by those involved in agriculture around the world
Invest in new knowledge to increase agricultural yields. Because of the lag-time associated with implementing innovations, advancements need to be made now
Make sustainable food production central in development. Pro-poor models of growth must be implemented to help farmers in low- and middle-income countries
Work on the assumption that there is little new land for agriculture. The report concludes that major expansion is unwise as this will contribute to greenhouse gas emissions
Ensure long-term sustainability of fish stocks. With very few of the world’s fish stocks not currently being exploited, there is an urgent need for reform in national and international governance
Promote sustainable intensification. More food needs to be produced on the same amount of land in a sustainable way. Efficiency is key
Include the environment in food system economics. The food system relies on the ecosystem, which is therefore of economic value. Any harm to the environment will be detrimental to the food system
Reduce waste – both in high- and low-income countries. Food is wasted at all stages of the food chain: in high-income countries waste tends to be concentrated at the consumer end and in low-income countries more towards the producer’s
Improve the evidence base upon which decisions are made and develop quantitative methods to assess progress. An global, spatially specific and open-source data set can help policy makers make decisions
Anticipate major issues with water availability for food production. Whilst there are a number of inputs for food production that will be under pressure in the future, competition for water supplies is likely to be experienced first.
Work to change consumption patterns. Informed consumers can positively change the food system by choosing items that promote sustainability, equitability or other desirable goals.
Empower citizens to hold themselves and all other players to account for their efforts to improve the global food system. ICTs provide opportunities to monitor and feedback on such efforts
Overview: This decision-making task aims to encourage students to think through the complexities of the global food systems. Addressing global challenges, they must think strategically about the players involved to provide relevant solutions.
You are a policy maker from the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations. Having read this report, you now have an overview of the current state of global food systems and of the challenges they face over the next four decades.
Since the FAO has limited resources, you are tasked with selecting one of the 12 ‘priorities for action’ listed above. Consider which priorities you feel are most pressing, can be solved with the least resources and have the potential to positively affect the most people.
Having selected your priority, you must devise a practical policy solution. This will involve using the information from the report to:
Clearly state the problems associated with the current system, in reference to your chose priority (if appropriate, use data to support your claims)
List the possible policy options available to you (many solutions are already listed in the report, but you should also research and devise your own)
Present a strong and evidenced case for a single policy action to address your chose priority (ensure that you deliver global solutions with a persuasive argument)
Outline the involvement of various players (governments, businesses, non-governmental organisations, consumers) in the proposed policy
The proposal can be presented as either: 2-3 sheets of A4, a presentation or a poster. Students can work either individually or in groups.
It is best to keep your data analysis and policy proposal focused, evidencing just a few examples in significant detail. In addition to this summary report, you may find it useful to refer to Defra’s Food Statistics Pocketbook 2012.
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