Representatives of industry, academia, NGOs and politics met in London last week to discuss the issue of food security and the challenges that lay ahead. Climate change, over-consumption and the use of technology in agriculture were just some of the topics discussed at the Westminster Food & Nutrition Forum. just-food brings a flavour of the event.

“The food system, as it currently operates, is failing a very large number of people. The current food system is eminently not sustainable. We’ve got an environmental problem. We’ve got a societal health problem. We’ve got an economic problem” – Dr John Ingram, ECI Food Systems Programme Leader, Environmental Change Institute, University of Oxford.

“Trade has a crucial role to play in ensuring food security. If we think that we can improve food security by retreating from markets and pursuing self-sufficiency objectives, that really is a delusion. On balance, trade helps get food from surplus to deficit regions. It can raise incomes of exporters. Self-sufficiency is a costly solution. On balance, trade has a stabilising role” – Jonathan Brooks, Senior Economist, OECD and Adjunct Professor of International Economics, Johns Hopkins University.

“I look forward to the day when we give up the idea that self-sufficiency is a solution” – Eugene Philhower, Agricultural Counselor, United States Department of Agriculture (USDA).

“There is a historical correlation between meat consumption and income rises. We can’t all be vegetarians. People will continue to consume meat. There are models of beef production that are sustainable. You can’t vilify meat consumption” – Philhower.

“Over 50% of Chinese adults are already pre-diabetic today. It’s a startling statistic. Another startling statistic is that 14% – that’s 200,000 children – in one Chinese city alone are clinically obese. These are extraordinary numbers” – Prof. Ingram.

“Continuing to have an increasing amount of meat available worldwide based on 8kg of cereal to 1kg of meat was unsustainable. We suggested we had to move to grass-fed livestock. The consequences of increasing the production of meat around the world was not something that was sustainable” – Jeremy Lefroy MP, Member of the UK House of Commons’ International Development Committee.

“The system is probably dysfunctional at this point but there are models – grass-fed, land-management of beef production – that was definitely better for the cattle and soil. It’s not going to change overnight. We’ve noticed the decline in meat consumption in industrialised countries; the expansion has been in China” – Philhower.

“Even for a degree or two of warming, we are looking at reductions in yield” – Professor Andy Challinor, Professor of Climate Impacts, University of Leeds.

“We expect more of this large, year-to-year variability in yield and we’ve seen those events recently. We’re in a different environment now. It’s much more common for us to have an event like the Australian wheat failure followed by a food price spike. We’ve got a trend and perhaps more important we’ve got this variability” – Prof. Challinor.

“There are some smallholders that could potentially be viable but there are others that no matter what, on their current land endowment, are never going to get over $1 a day. There is a need to focus on farm structures that are capable of generating a sust livelihood and building diversified economies that can draw people out” – Brooks.

“This is not just about GM but whatever you’re going to do in terms of dramatically improving the productivity and availability of crops out there, you are going to need some sort of new breeding technology of sorts” – Dr Julian Little, Chair, Agricultural Biotechnology Council.

“There’s a role for R&D in supporting adaptation. We need to be thinking longer term about what agriculture is going to look like, how we support agriculture into the transformations that may be necessary” – Prof. Challinor.

“I’m slightly alarmed in fact by some of what I’ve heard about the vulnerabilities of herbicide resist growing up. Still, even if biotechnology is part of the solution, there are clearly a lot of risks attached to that alongside the possible potential opportunity” – Martin Horwood MP, chair, All-Party Parliamentary Group for International Development and the Environment in the UK.

“In Europe, farmers would love to access some of these new technologies but they don’t have the political backing to do so” – Dr Little.

“The bigger issue that’s come out is that we think of this in the supply side, in the production side, whereas a lot of these issues are actually in the demand side. They are about our lifestyle, about global diet, about whether or not we want to get closer to the American model of over-consumption and whether a billion Chinese are about to follow us down that path” – Horwood