Person holding foodcropFeeding the growing human population is of course an absolute necessity. However an emphasis on food production at the lowest cost today means that, the global food system may be built on an unsustainable model i.e. one that depletes or degrades finite natural resources.

Resources underpinning food systems include land, soil, water, biodiversity (genetic resources), minerals and fossil fuels. At the November 2016 meeting of the Royal Society’s Global Environmental Research Committee (GERC) we considered natural resources in the context of the food system. By this, I mean the entire system, from the inputs required on the farm, to transport and packaging, through to final cooking and consumption at our dinner table.

A recent assessment of natural resources and food systems by the United Nation’s Environment Programme International Resource Panel[1] noted that food system activities have led to 33% of soils being degraded, 20% of aquifers overexploited, 60% of biodiversity loss and 90% of living marine resources being unsustainably exploited. Further, 80% of minerals mined for agriculture (for use predominantly as fertilizer), are lost on the ‘farm to fork’ journey and food systems overall account for 30% of all fossil fuel use and contribute about 25% of all greenhouse gas emissions. Sobering statistics.

Against this background we discussed what research is needed to improve sustainability and build a secure and resilient food system.  This was one of a rolling series of GERC meetings that aim to scan UK research capability across a range of global change issues. A full write up of this food systems meeting can be downloaded (PDF). A full write up of the previous meeting in this series (on the topic of climate) can also be downloaded (PDF).

So what are the implications of finite resources on our food system? Which resources are most immediately at risk? And how can future research address these challenges? These were some of the questions we aimed to address.

Food and non-renewable natural resources

Firstly, much of our ability to meet current demands for food relies upon the use of non-renewable resources to produce fertilisers. Fertilisers such as phosphorus and potassium require mining of rock phosphate and potash salts, while production of nitrogen fertilisers (through the Haber Bosch process) requires large amounts of energy, mainly from fossil fuels.

If soils become very badly degraded, they can also be considered a non-renewable resource. Soils can be lost due to erosion and also their quality lessened due to compaction from some modern management practices. The quality of soils is also affected by contamination and loss of organic matter. Research to sustain soil quality and quantity needs to combine biophysical scientific knowledge and agronomy (soil science), with social and political insight on issues such as land tenure and sustainable management incentives.

The UK has world leading innovation in mining and great research strengths in biology and agronomy. Therefore this certainly seems to be an area where UK science could make a significant contribution to reducing resource pressures that undermine food supply.

Renewable natural resources which are poorly managed

Secondly, GERC considered renewable natural resources which can be poorly managed. Fresh water is a good example. Water is vital renewable resource and it is becoming clear that climate change and human actions are altering precipitation patterns, intensifying floods and increasing drought risk in some regions. Further, population growth, agriculture, industrialization and urbanization are degrading both the quality and quantity of fresh water.

Further funding and research is required to improve the accuracy of regional climate predictions, along with hydrological modelling; this is again an area within the UK has world leading research strengths which it should capitalise upon. New monitoring systems can provide data that improve disaster warning and risk management, with huge benefits to both food and water security.

The committee also discussed biodiversity and genetic resources as a renewable natural resource, although recognising they can also be seen as non-renewable in the case of irreversible habitat loss or extinction. Terrestrial biodiversity underpins agriculture by providing a wide range of services, e.g. natural pest control and pollination and soil conditioning by earthworms and plant traits. Methods of measuring and quantifying these benefits are required to empower growers and land owners to make the best possible conservation decisions about their land. This requires the integration of ecology and biodiversity data at field scale with remote sensing products, to allow ecological survey techniques to be applied over a much larger geographical area. See Chapter 4 of the Royal Society’s 2015 Observing the Earth report for more on this.

Utilising poorly exploited natural resources

Finally GERC also discussed the potentially valuable natural resources that are currently underexploited. For example, new technology means it is increasingly possible to collect and curate terrestrial and marine genetic resources, shifting from physical stocks to a digital genetic library. Such methods could bring benefits in terms of broadening the genetic basis of food crops to improve resilience to climate change, countering the intense narrowing of genetic resources used in modern agriculture. Research now allows better use of genetic understanding to predict characteristics likely to lead to successful and resilient food crops.

There are also potential opportunities within the aquaculture industry. Fish farming is currently inherently unsustainable as it relies upon farmed fish being fed with protein that comes from capture fisheries i.e. fish protein to feed fish. However a key area of research is the development of alternative proteins, for example microalgae is currently a poorly exploited source of marine protein. Research is required to understand the capacity, environmental impacts and operational costs of better utilising alternative sources.

The meeting clearly recognised that many resources are being depleted that are either not renewable or are being depleted faster than they can renew. This already leads to difficulties in maintaining food supplies where they are needed, while also degrading economic and aesthetic assets. How can we reduce the dependence of  the global food system on unsustainable resources? Clearly new ideas are urgently needed to allow sufficient food to be produced today without jeopardising the resources needed to produce food tomorrow.

The UK has an excellent research strengths in biology, weather and climate modelling, hydrology, soil science and mining. By building on these strengths and working with practitioners from other disciplines, we are in a position to make a real contribution to food system sustainability and resultant wellbeing across the globe.

GERC’s next committee meeting will be on 31 May and the topic for discussion will be ‘biodiversity’. Keep your eye on the blog for a summary of the discussion..

[1] UNEP (2016) Food Systems and Natural Resources. A Report of the Working Group on Food Systems of the International Resource Panel. Westhoek, H, Ingram J., Van Berkum, S., Özay, L., and Hajer M.