How should we feed the world?
Dr Colin Sage
The food system represents one of the principal challenges for moving societies toward a more sustainable future. Accumulating scientific evidence is demonstrating that what we eat has a significant bearing on the global environment and upon human wellbeing. Intensive agriculture is responsible for the depletion of freshwater stocks as well as their contamination; it impacts upon biological diversity and vital ecological services; and emissions to air, particularly from ruminants, are a major contribution to climate change. Yet at the same time it is increasingly apparent that agriculture is becoming more vulnerable to processes of environmental change and resource depletion. Indeed, events over the past decade – marked by rising and volatile global food prices - have given cause to believe that production systems may be reaching resource limits and therefore in need of an urgent rethink. Moreover, there is growing concern that the food system is causing a marked deterioration in public health as measured by rising rates of overweight and obesity and an associated range of non-communicable diseases.
How we will feed the world in the decades ahead is becoming a highly contested arena of competing visions but one where sustainability is frequently cited in the discourses of opposing protagonists. On the one hand there remains a hugely powerful status quo that regards the current predicament of global malnourishment as vindication for the rejuvenation of an agri-industrial model labelled productivism. This paradigm extols the merits of next generation biotechnology and nanotechnology to deliver greater output (by between 70 to 100 percent) in order to feed a projected population of nine billion by 2050. While the emphasis remains on technological solutions and market-driven innovations, an associated development has been significant overseas financial investments in land acquisitions, a process that has become known as ‘land grabbing’.
A different vision for feeding the world places much greater emphasis on principles of precaution, resilience, social justice and not only on the human right to eat but also the right to produce food. It speaks to more than technical efficiencies and is implacably opposed to foreign appropriation of land. Perhaps the most comprehensive case for this change of direction was set out by the International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD, 2009) but others have pressed further to champion the cause of the global movement for food sovereignty and agroecology (De Schutter 2014). Critically, this approach has done much to move the debate beyond the question of producing more to raise questions about the nature of consumption practices worldwide.
The existing food system is marked by troubling headline features: almost one billion who are hungry, malnourished and food poor; almost two billion who are considered overweight or obese and displaying evidence of malconsumption; while an estimated 30 percent of all food is thrown away without ever reaching a human stomach. Alongside unsustainable production there is clearly unsustainable consumption. Linking these two inter-related challenges is central to how we will feed the world healthily, equitably, securely and sustainably.