The issue of food security has grabbed the headlines in the UK in the last 24 hours, with a flurry of announcements and stories that will provoke debate not just here but around the world.
Yesterday, two interviews in the UK papers underlined the widespread belief food prices are heading only in one direction – up.
Tesco chief executive Philip Clarke told The Observer he thought growing global demand meant food prices and the “proportion of income spent on food” would rise “over the long run” – a candid admission from a boss of a supermarket chain, when few are prepared to effectively publicly tell consumers the cost of their shopping will rise.
Over in The Daily Telegraph, Professor Tim Benton of the Global Food Security programme warned food prices could, in some cases, treble in the next 20 years as the world’s population soars.
To combat food inflation, make food more secure (and, let’s face it, better position their countries in the race to feed the growing global population) governments are looking at ways to increase the supply of food. There has, in recent weeks, been public statements from the UK government emphasising what some see as the benefits of GM.
Just this morning, the UK’s business and farming departments announced the detail of the Agricultural Technologies Strategy – drawn up with industry – “to deliver sustainable, healthy and affordable food for future generations”.
It would be overly cynical to dismiss the seriousness with which governments are taking the issue and the work they are doing to ensure the growing global population is fed – and fed sustainably. Investment in agricultural technology will not just look at increasing production but upping supply while using fewer resources.
However, while in today’s announcement, there was talk of the “global challenge” of feeding a growing population in an “affordable and sustainable” way, the UK government emphasised the economic benefits of the strategy, which will include GBP160m of public money.
“To get ahead in the global race, this strategy sets out how we can ensure that we turn our world-beating agricultural science and research into world-beating products and services,” UK universities and science minister David Willetts said.
However, Prof. Benton said governments needed to work more on demand – and specifically the problem of the food wasted in the West. “A lot of the discussion on food security in the UK has so far concentrated on the supply side, but as time goes on it becomes increasingly difficult to grow enough to meet demand,” he told the Telegraph.
As just-food’s contributing editor Ben Cooper argued recently, consumers waste food because it is cheap and we therefore place a relatively low value upon it. Therefore, in the long run, if Clarke’s and Prof. Benton’s predictions on prices are correct, consumers should waste less.
According to some in the industry, there have already been signs consumers are wasting less. Sainsbury’s CEO Justin King has repeatedly commented on more frugal consumption in the UK in response to the economic downturn, which, he says, has contributed to the downward pressure in UK grocery volumes.
Consumers are, of course, just one actor in the supply chain guilty of waste. The Institution of Mechnical Engineers has estimated up to 50% of all food produced is wasted via “poor practices” in harvesting, storage and transportation. Food waste is not just something for consumers to act upon but also government and industry.
There are those that vehemently argue the modern, global food distribution system is the root of the problem. That argument only goes so far and, to be fair to industry, it is working to reduce waste. In May, UK manufacturers and retailers signed the latest phase of The Courtauld Commitment, first launched in 2005 to, among other things, reduce waste. Last month, representatives across Europe’s supply chain announced an effort to tackle food waste, an initiative that we will analyse later this week. And of course companies are pressing on with their own efforts; last week, Carrefour signed up to a government-backed initiative in France on food waste.
Feeding the estimated 9bn people of 2050 is a huge challenge and tackling the problem is a complex issue that needs to involve consumers, industry, NGOs and government. However, just focusing on the supply side of the equation is folly. More needs to be done on demand, too.