Growing meat consumption in markets like China is putting pressure on stocks of soya

Growing meat consumption in markets like China is putting pressure on stocks of soya

The hugely complex issue of food security returned to the fore last week with the UN's new report on climate change - meaning the Westminster Food & Nutrition Forum's latest half-day conference on the very same subject was timely.

Representatives of industry, academia, NGOs and government met at the event in London's political heart of Whitehall on Thursday (3 April) to discuss the challenges that lay ahead. Climate change, over-consumption and the use of technology in agriculture were just some of the topics discussed - we brought a flavour of the event here.

There is a growing consensus that a warming climate has an impact on food production - putting supply firmly at the debate over food security.

"Even for a degree or two of warming, we are looking at reductions in yield," Professor Andy Challinor, Professor of Climate Impacts at the University of Leeds, as well as one of the authors of the food chapter within the new study from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), told the Westminster Food & Nutrition Forum.

However, the demands of a growing global population are just as important to consider as industry, government and academia wrestle over how to solve the issue.

We are already seeing the impacts of a growing global population, the changes in diet that brings and the effect on the consumption of certain commodities. Meat consumption, for example, is booming in China, which has led to rising demand for cattle and the commodities that feed them.

China's population is already seeing the impact of increasingly Westernised diet. "Over 50% of Chinese adults are already pre-diabetic today. It's a startling statistic," Dr John Ingram, ECI Food Systems Programme Leader at the Environmental Change Institute within the University of Oxford, told the event. "Another startling statistic is that 14% - that's 200,000 children - in one Chinese city alone are clinically obese. These are extraordinary numbers."

Such changes are also having an impact on crop production. There has been declining demand for meat in the West - it is emerging markets like China that is fuelling demand for cattle and their feed.

At the conference, Eugene Philhower of the US Department of Agriculture, said "vilifying" meat consumption was futile. "There is a historical correlation between meat consumption and income rises," he said.

That much is true but it only serves to underline the focus that needs to put on consumption when trying to address the issue of food security.

Sure, Chinese consumers cannot - and should not - be barred from eating meat but the link between growing consumption and there and demand for commodities like soya is clear.

How do we solve such issues? Intensify production more sustainably? Resort to biotech methods like GM? Both have their merits but both have their pitfalls - and, in the case of GM, there remains some vociferous opposition.

Should industry and government work harder at cutting down waste in the food chain - right the way down to what is in consumers' pantries? Initiatives like the WRAP scheme in the UK show progress is being made but it is a long haul - and one that in part relies on individual responsibility.

There are no easy answers. But what the Westminster Food & Nutrition Forum event underlined was that demand is central to the issue of food security from growing consumption (and signs of over-consumption) in emerging economies to our relationship with waste here in the West.

When looking at the issue of food security, industry and policymakers need to look consumption and demand, as well as trying to tackle the problem on the supply side.