FROM SARAH  ‘SMEE’ MEE, POLICY ADVISER

In the realm of global food security, little is spared intense debate. However, few would disagree that the global food system as it stands is failing. At the stakeholder launch of the Government’s Foresight report on Global Food and Farming Futures on Tuesday, Chief Scientific Adviser Sir John Beddington FRS went one step further in saying, ‘I think it is failing humanity’.

The call to action is now familiar– in a world where one billion are already going hungry, changing demographics and consumption patterns are changing the demand for food and pressure on land use. Climate change, which will disproportionately affect the world’s poor, threatens to exacerbate existing stresses on food production systems. Even the relatively modest food price spikes of 2007 and 2008 pushed an additional 100 million people into hunger which is presumably why food prices will be given a high priority for the French presidency of the G20. The Royal Society’s People & the Planet study will be investigating these issues further.

As the environmental cost of using more land for agriculture is high, the Foresight report calls for a sustainable intensification of food production.  This echoes one of the key messages of Royal Society’s own Reaping the Benefits report, published in October 2009. Like the Royal Society report, the Foresight publication also calls for an increased emphasis on agroecological approaches, and a reinvigoration of ‘neglected’ sciences such as agronomy, soil science and entomology.

As the Foresight report highlights, the challenge of feeding the world is much broader than balancing gross supply and demand. For any benefits from science to be fully realised for the rural poor, equality of access to inputs and the effect of new technologies on power structures and governance need to be addressed. Whereas the majority of farmers in sub-Saharan Africa are women who are also responsible for household food security, inequalities in access to inputs tend to favour men. New technology needs to be guided by the needs of the hungry, and not just by markets.

Preparing for volatility in the global food system will inevitably be costly. The examples of food reserves and land acquisition demonstrate that mechanisms for levelling volatility are only as good as their governance frameworks. Caroline Spelman, secretary of state for environment, food and rural affairs, was at pains to point out that blanket self-sufficiency and trade restrictions are not the answer. So how can globalisation be made to work better for food security? Promoting liberalised international trade and removing protectionism in favour of better incentives for farmers may be important here, and it will be interesting to see how this plays into Common Agricultural Policy negotiations.

As Stephen O’Brien, parliamentary under secretary of state for international development, observed, one could be fazed by the complexity of the issues to be faced.  However, the mood at Tuesday’s launch was one of cautious optimism.  The challenges and actions needed have been well articulated, and now is the time to see whether international leaders can follow the rhetoric with action.

P.S.

In an often pessimistic debate, a book launched last week struck an optimistic tone. Francesco Migneco went along to the discussion. He writes:

Calestous Juma’s new book The New Harvest has a simple message – “Africa can feed itself in a generation”. This can happen provided that heads of states work together and the contribution of other sectors of the economy, beyond agriculture (for instance building roads), is properly recognised. The continent should leverage the scientific knowledge that is already available”. The book brings in a new dimension that challenges development as a transition from agriculture to services and emphasises the importance of regional integration as an “opportunity for African countries to specialise and trade among one another”.

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