The food system faces formidable challenges, generated by the need to provide for the nine billion plus people who are estimated to be on the planet by 2050. Circumstances of urgency and uncertainty have sparked academic and policy debates on how food systems can become more secure and sustainable.
The debate is polarised by a tension between two perspectives which view the food system conundrum differently. The dominant perspective focuses on increasing food supply and views the problem as one of ensuring efficient food production. The competing perspective focuses on changing food demand, proposing interventions that encourage less resource-intensive and healthier dietary patterns amongst consumers in high- and middle-income countries. The problem is considered a consumption issue.
The tension created between the two camps is inhibiting policy and academic research. Production and consumption are unquestionably linked in preventing further depletion of planetary resources in order to sustain life. A holistic approach – taking this into account – would advance thinking, unite intellectual resources and lead to a more coherent and comprehensive approach.
In HRH the Prince of Wales’ book, Harmony: A new way of looking at the world, HRH champions a holistic approach based on the principles of nature and the interconnection of all things. At this stage in the food system debate, it is frustrating that we are still asking the question, “can food and farming policy become more holistic?” – a question that should have found a solid answer some time ago.
Food supply: The production challenge
Global food policy has been dominated by a philosophy that food supply must be sustainably increased to feed the estimated population of nine billion by 2050, who are “likely to be wealthier” and “more urban”, putting “increasing demand on resources” already under pressure from environmental problems such as climate change. The concept of ‘sustainable intensification’, defined by the Royal Society as “[increasing] yields without adverse environmental impact”, is often used to describe the agricultural production systems that will be required to solve the production challenge.
Sustainable intensification (SI) was first coined in the context of African agriculture, with an emphasis on sustainable agricultural systems that must have no adverse ecological consequences and contribute to the delivery and maintenance of a range of public goods such as water. The concept was not concretely defined by a specific agricultural system and was instead left deliberately unconstrained to allow for a flexibility that would aid productive and inclusive policy-making. Some academic literature has argued that this malleability has allowed SI to be manipulated by large scale agribusiness, justifying commercial interests largely focused on increasing food quantities. Friends of the Earth (FoE) went one step further, suggesting that the concept is acting as a Trojan horse, pushing through a continuation of intensive farming under the smokescreen of sustainability.
The Royal Society’s definition of SI stressed that “no techniques or technologies should be left out”, which FoE claim allows for the continued domination of the fertiliser and pesticide industries that are integral to intensive farming regimes. Despite these criticisms, the UK Government have been an influential supporter of a version of SI based on production efficiency, with a focus on harnessing agricultural technology to deliver it.
The UK Agricultural Technologies Strategy was launched by the UK Government in 2013 to financially support the development of technologies such as precision agriculture, which is said to maximise production with less environmental impact, while at the same time allowing the farmer to gain more value from inputs such as seeds and fertilisers.
Tim Benton, Professor of Population Ecology at Leeds University and a global food security expert, speaking at the Farmers Weekly Arable Horizons lectures, introduced precision technology such as “an autonomous vehicle with an image recognition system which can spray individual plants rather than the whole field.” He believes precision agriculture has an invaluable role to play in efficient and less environmentally damaging food production.
But whatever your opinion on the role of agricultural technology in farming, should policy prioritise increasing food supply over encouraging changes to consumer demand? The immense food challenges faced should be tackled with a holistic approach, which innately acknowledges the equal importance that must be placed on changes to production and consumption. The reduction of the food system into competing components inhibits policy and academic research, when there is an urgent need to focus on rewiring food systems “for human health and biosphere stewardship”. This can be achieved with more holistic policy, that integrates – instead of polarising – the two ends of the food system.
Food demand: The consumption challenge
This competing narrative is focused on altering food demand, viewing the problem as a consumption issue. This perspective acknowledges that global populations are growing, but believes there is too much focus on ensuring adequate food supply, neglecting nutritional quality, and the issue of unequal food distribution between and within countries. It is thought by encouraging or enforcing wealthier consumers to moderate their resource intensive consumption patterns the balance can be addressed.
A key solution proposed to influence change is the sustainable diet which applies integrative policy principles connecting human and environmental health. Supporters suggest that a sustainable dietary model could be used to inform ‘soft’ policy interventions such as revised public nutrition advice or fiscal and regulatory measures such as taxes on certain foods.
However, due to its complexity and ambiguity the sustainable diet has no universal, specific policy definition – which is one factor explaining why it has not had a significant policy impact in countries such as the UK. It is also politically sensitive, challenged by cultural norms and economics, which can be used to justify governments pushing the issue aside, as in the UK where a sustainable diet project providing a ‘soft’ policy intervention of online integrated advice for consumers, was halted in 2012.
In addition, the sustainable diet concept is complex and ambiguous as there are a variety of perspectives on how to achieve the most positive synergies for human health and the environment. One viewpoint championed by the Foresight report on Food and Farming is the benefit of “moderate intake of animal products”, with particular reference to ruminant meat and dairy products. There has been a wealth of academic and media reports highlighting evidence of the high level of greenhouse gas emissions released in ruminant production and the risk of saturated fat content to health.
However, academics such as Dr. Tara Garnett of the Food Climate Research Network note that opinions stating environmental sustainability can only be achieved with reduced livestock have paid a lack of attention to the method of livestock production which effects the sustainability of the system. For example, as previously highlighted by SFT contributor Peter Mundy, nutritionally appropriate levels of pasture-fed livestock products were considered sustainable by researchers at the first International Conference on Steps to Sustainable Livestock.
This offers a notable example of how a ‘sustainable diet’ is marked by contradictory and controversial opinions. At the same time, it shows how food production and consumption are inextricably linked and should not be polarised in academic and policy debates if more holistic policy is to be achieved.
The Eat-Lancet Commission have recently launched a global project involving collaboration between 20 world-leading researchers in order to help provide a consensus on what might constitute a ‘sustainable diet’. The project, which focused on creating science-based targets connecting health and sustainability, will be published in the Lancet in Spring 2018. The Commission hopes these targets will inform and influence the agenda of policy-makers, businesses and civil society.
Can food and farming policy become more holistic?
A paper led by Dr. Roberta Sonnino at Cardiff University argues that food system challenges require “a more systemic research and policy agenda that goes beyond the conventional focus on individual components of the food system (i.e. supply and demand) to address more holistically the complex relationships between its different stages and actors.”
A systemic mode of thinking has been entering the policy rhetoric since debate was sparked following the 2007-2008 financial and food crises. The International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology (IAASTD) published Agriculture at a Crossroads in 2009. A key idea stressed in the report is a need for the integration of different perspectives in a way that recognises agriculture’s “inescapable connectedness” to other policy areas.
However, despite evidence-based reports, the need to increase production using a certain interpretation of SI, has dominated and polarised the policy agenda. This is perhaps due to the most powerful stakeholders – large-scale agribusiness – manipulating the issues for their own benefit, by using government lobbying and commissioning their own scientific research.
Pressure is mounting. Game changers such as the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Agreement are emerging. Short-term outlooks and silo thinking cannot persist. Major institutions such as the World Economic Forum (WEF) have responded with a 2017 report entitled “Shaping the future of global food systems: A scenarios analysis.
The WEF in collaboration with large food businesses including Cargill and Nestlé have developed a set of scenarios for what the world food system might look like in 2030. The report stressed that aspirations for world food systems must be “fundamentally interconnected”, and “driven by a holistic approach” to achieve “a systemic transformation.”
Additionally, agricultural production systems must focus on quality and not solely quantity, and with equal importance to production change, global consumer demand must become less resource-intense and healthier in high and middle income countries. “A whole government” approach is encouraged, which links together “food, agriculture and environmental policies.” A key aim of the WEF report is to “provoke and challenge leaders to think in new ways”. A world that is often preoccupied with economics is increasingly realising that the need for more harmonious food systems is not idealism, but, as HRH states in his book “a fundamental and economic priority”.
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