This week saw the publication of a major report from Foresight, the UK government think-tank, on the sustainability of global food production. Ben Cooper assesses what the new report contributes to the debate.

When is feeding the world ever out of the spotlight nowadays? The interlinked issues of food security and climate change are certainly among the most discussed and analysed of the modern age, rivalled only by the debates around energy, globalisation and terrorism.

The seemingly never-ending stream of reports on the issue – ISTAD, Food Matters, Reaping the Benefits to name but a few – bears witness to the gravity of the situation, and gives journalists and policymakers alike plenty to ponder. This week saw the publication of the latest significant contribution: The Future of Food and Farming: Challenges and choices for global sustainability, an extensive report from UK government think-tank Foresight.

The report is a weighty tome running to 176 pages with evidence and expertise from a wide range of disciplines across the natural and social sciences and reference to more than 100 peer-reviewed papers. According to the preface, around 400 experts and stakeholders from across the world have been involved in the work.

While it claims to “identify choices”, the report inevitably falls victim to being rather more of a ‘problem statement’ than an agenda for action. Nevertheless, in an effort to be true to its objective to help policymakers “think creatively and decisively” about solutions to the huge challenges of global food security, it outlines 12 priorities for action. 

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These priorities are to spread best practice; invest in new knowledge; make sustainable food production central in development; work on the assumption that there is little new land for agriculture; ensure long-term sustainability of fish stocks; promote sustainable intensification; include the environment in food system economics; reduce waste both in developed and developing countries; improve the evidence base upon which decisions are made and develop metrics to assess progress; anticipate major issues with water availability for food production; work to change consumption patterns; and empower citizens.

The report identifies five key challenges facing governments: balancing future demand and supply sustainably to ensure that food supplies are affordable; ensuring there is adequate stability in food supplies and protecting the most vulnerable from the volatility that does occur; achieving global access to food and ending hunger; managing the contribution of the food system to the mitigation of climate change; and maintaining biodiversity and ecosystem services while feeding the world.

To academics and those working closely in the sustainability field in governments, inter-government agencies and NGOs, there will perhaps be little that’s new here. But for those less directly involved, and particularly for policymakers and politicians outside the immediate food supply field but whose work increasingly touches on this area, the report may be of considerable use. Indeed, one of the report’s principal conclusions stresses “the critical importance of interconnected policy-making” and that “achieving much closer coordination with all of these wider areas is a major challenge for policymakers”.

The report is certainly broader ranging than some had envisaged it would be. The breadth of coverage speaks both to the involvement of so many stakeholders and the willingness of the authors to be as inclusive as possible in their research and as open-minded in such conclusions that have been made.

Taken as a whole, the report may appear to favour the technological fixes bound up in the idea of sustainable intensification. This can broadly be characterised as the pursuit of science-based, large-scale solutions to rising demand, the counter-argument to which is a philosophy that places agro ecology and the role of farmers – including small-scale farmers – at the centre of the quest for sustainability. 

For instance, it is generally supportive of the use of genetic science, an aspect seized upon in some media coverage and also central to the critique of organisations such as the Soil Association. But it does not neglect the role small-scale farming can play in addressing the challenges. Indeed, it states: “Smallholder farming has been long neglected. It is not a single solution, but an important component of both hunger and poverty reduction.” It also goes on to discuss the role the empowerment of women has to play in agricultural development.

Those campaigners and academics who remain sceptical of sustainable intensification are also likely to express most concern about the threat to biodiversity presented by some technological solutions. But the report acknowledges these qualms. “Until recently, policies in conservation and in food security were largely developed in isolation. However, increasingly and rightly, they are being pursued together, driven by a growing realisation of their interdependence.”

While the report may put technology at the centre of the discussion, the authors acknowledge the need for the problems of food security to be seen in the round, rather than simply as an issue of supply and demand which can be addressed by scientific progress and investment. 

“Hunger cannot be ended by agriculture alone,” it states. “Other policies and investments to increase food access, income, reduce differences in gender power and improve nutrition status are vital.” Here the importance of joined-up governmental thinking and the engagement of multiple policy areas in tackling the overall problem could not be clearer.

Another critical observation has been that there is more emphasis placed on production than consumption, which some might say further betrays the report’s fundamentally technocratic premise. But the report is far from silent on the role consumers can and will have to play, for example in the attention paid to the issue of waste. Changing consumption patterns and empowering citizens are two further consumer-focused priorities for action.

“The informed consumer can effect change in the food system by choosing to purchase items that promote sustainability, equitability or other desirable goals. Clear labelling and information is essential for this to happen. Governments are likely to need to consider the full range of options to change consumptions patterns including raising citizen awareness, approaches based on behavioural psychology, voluntary agreements with the private sector, and regulatory and fiscal measures. Building a societal consensus for action will be key to modifying demand.”

Consensus is indeed key and often far from easy to achieve. Consumer sentiment is not only relevant to how people change their consumption patterns. It will, as the report points out, “have a major influence on politicians and policymakers” which will in turn affect food security and the governance of the food system. Areas highlighted as likely to be influenced include issues of national interest, the acceptability of modern technology such as GM, nanotechnology, cloning and synthetic biology, the importance attached to organic, the value placed on animal welfare and biodiversity, and issues of equity and fair trade.

As we are already seeing, where those sensibilities conflict with proposed technological solutions citizen empowerment adds a further facet to what is already a highly complex debate.