A paper that details the scope of the food security challenge provides useful insights, says Janet Allen.

An interesting and potentially very useful contribution to the thinking and discussion around food security has appeared in the form of an open access paper The top 100 questions of importance to the future of global agriculture.

It is too easy to be sceptical and say what we need are 100 answers, but if you start with good questions you are more likely to generate good answers. The questions in this paper were produced by a wide consultation process involving 45 institutions and finally 55 authors based in 21 countries.

The paper, published in the International Journal of Agricultural Sustainability, seeks to stimulate dialogue and improve understanding between agricultural researchers and policy makers. The paper proposes the 100 most important questions that need addressing if global agriculture is to deliver nutritious, affordable food more sustainably for upwards of nine billion people by the middle of this century.

Beg the question

The paper raises many issues. Agriculture’s agenda has widened in a few decades from one of simply maximising productivity to one that is significantly more complex.  Indeed the scope of the paper is broader than simply agricultural production and covers topics ranging from natural resources and biodiversity to social questions, the economics of global food markets, and consumer choices.

In the twenty-first century, agriculture needs to optimize output in the face of varied and sometimes conflicting demands on the available land. On a local scale some people choose to eat organic food and want to conserve biodiversity; on a global scale rural livelihoods and traditional ways of life need to be respected. People around the world are becoming more concerned about environmental problems and social justice, more aware of food tariffs and trade imbalances. As our world has effectively shrunk its population has exploded and consumption even more so. That consumption includes energy, and, although estimates vary, agriculture and the food supply system are a major consumer of energy and emitter of greenhouse gases that cause climate change. Food is no longer just about eating.

Hence, the questions in the paper are set out in four major topics that embrace elements of the whole food production system: 1) natural resource inputs; 2) agronomic practice; 3) agricultural development; and 4) markets and consumption.

In the first section, natural resource inputs, questions range from the specific, such as ‘what would be the global cost of capping agricultural water withdrawals if environmental reserves were to be maintained?’ to the very practical in ‘how can salinization be prevented and remedied?’ to the implied warning: ‘what are the world’s mobilizable stocks and reserves of phosphate?’

The second section, agronomic practice, asks questions such as ‘what part can reclamation, restoration and rehabilitation of land play?’ and ‘what are the best integrated cropping and mixed system options?’ for a number of habitats, before pondering ‘how can increasing both crop and non-crop biodiversity help in pest and disease management?’

Agricultural development, the third section, brings in many of the wider issues ranging from the impact of agricultural subsidies to the best options for the sustainable intensification of agriculture, the demographics of farmers in 2050 and their status with the land (as well their landlords).

The final section, on markets and consumption, poses questions such as the efficiency and resilience of supply chains, food waste in developed countries, and the effects of consumer choice and the effectiveness of different types of learning programmes in promoting public health.

Answer the call

The 100 questions paper is one of the outputs of the UK government’s Global Food and Farming Futures project, which falls under its Foresight programme that aims to help the state think systematically about key issues 10-80 years into the future so that science and technology can be best employed within society.

The Global Food Security programme, the blog of which you are reading, aims to bring greater coherence to the wide range of research supported by the programme’s partners (the major UK public funders of food-related research). The questions posed in this paper will be invaluable in helping to inform the development of the programme and ensuring that future research is focused on topics than can really make a difference in meeting the challenges the world is facing.

I’m sure this paper will generate much discussion in many scientific and policy circles, as well as being of wide general interest. There is a comments field below, and we welcome constructive dialogue and debate with all interested parties.

About Professor Janet Allen

Professor Janet Allen is Director of Research at the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) since October 2008 and is Chair of the Programme Development Board for the Global Food Security programme.

Professor Allen trained initially in biochemistry and medicine. In addition to her highly successful career in senior appointments in medicine and academic research, she has held research directorships in the global pharmaceutical sector (with Parke Davis/Pfizer) and with an innovative biotech SME (Inpharmatica). She has also established a spin-out company (Ligand Xpress Ltd).

Professor Allen’s own research was primarily in cell and molecular biology. In 2000 she was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh and in 2002 was appointed Visiting Professor at the University of Glasgow and at Imperial College School of Medicine, London.

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