09:37am Sunday 20 October 2019

Diet and sustainability key to feeding the world

Professor Richard Tiffin

What is Food Security?

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Centre for Food Security at Reading

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On Monday, a three-year project examining the global food system reported on its findings. The Foresight report, Global Food and Farming Futures, led by Sir John Beddington, the Government’s Chief Scientific Advisor, has one main question: how can a future global population of nine billion people all be fed healthily and sustainably?

The answer is, of course, with extreme difficulty. But we don’t have a choice: ensuring food security is a human problem that we must solve. Education and research are key in this and the report considers how new science and policy can best address the future challenges.

Concern for the security of the world’s food supplies is at an unprecedented level. Growing population, combined with climatic change and increased competition for water and for land, mean that we are confronted with the challenge of doubling food production by 2050 in an increasingly constrained environment.

A focus on good nutrition and the environmental consequences of food production is as important, if not more important, as increased food supply in tackling the threats to global food security, in both developed and developing countries.

Having enough food to eat is, of course, a human right and many people across the world struggle in this basic requirement. Over the last 40 years we have focused on overcoming hunger, but our success in increasing the production of staple crops has come at great cost, both to agricultural diversity and community health. It is estimated that specialist birds have declined 30% in 40 years in Europe and North America. Globally, it is estimated that 1 billion people are undernourished, 2 billion people suffer from micronutrient deficiency and that 1.2 billion people are overweight.

Addressing these challenges is complex. Raising the genetic potential of our crops is undoubtedly a significant part of the solution. However it is also important to ensure that this yield potential is fulfilled in a sustainable way. To do this requires a focus on the agricultural and ecological systems within which our food production is embedded. We must also recognise that consumers and producers are responsible for choosing the ways in which food is produced, used and consumed.

Diets are likely to be increasingly dependent on animal sources of protein and farmers do not necessarily adopt practices which lead to the fulfilment of potential yield. Reducing the levels of waste in the system offers a further way of food availability.

The University’s new Centre for Food Security has a similar agenda to that of Foresight. We want to harness the research excellence at Reading that is looking for solutions to the issues raised in the report. In particular research is focused on three interconnected strands:diet and health, sustainable agriculture and biodiversity.

The complexity of the issues surrounding food security means that we cannot just consider the journey from the farm to the plate in isolation; we must also consider the environmental consequences of our actions, nutritional considerations and the societal factors represented by economics and behaviour.

Eating more fruit and vegetables is good for our health. Many of our fruit and vegetables are imported however and we have to think of the impacts of increased consumption in this context. Freighting produce around the world has the potential to increase the carbon footprint of our food production.

Producing fresh produce in developing countries might increase the incomes of the producers in those countries but it might also displace the production of local staples and therefore have an adverse impact on diets in those countries.

Climate change has the potential to raise yields of some crops in temperate climates but the accompanying changes in seasonal patterns might put the crops out of rhythm with their pollinators or may increase the probability of an extreme event damaging the developing flowers that are essential for the crop.

It is evident that an integrated systemic approach to the problems of food security is required. The UK has one of the most technologically advanced food industries in the world and some of the most advanced science that could potentially be brought to bear on the problem. We also have a limited number of research platforms which are well placed to integrate this knowledge in our universities that have historically been strong in Agri-Food research.

Recent history has not been kind to some of these institutions however. It is therefore vital, with the heightened interest in Agri-food research, that initiatives such as the Centre for Food Security at Reading succeed to give a focus for relevant research in non-specialist universities and research centres to be integrated as is evidently required from the discussion above.


For more information, please contact Rona Cheeseman, press officer, on 0118 378 7388 or email r.cheeseman@reading.ac.uk

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