Global Food Security programme Champion Tim Benton reviews the year and looks ahead to 2016.

Tim Benton

Food insecurity remained at the front of mind in 2015 for three reasons. 

Firstly, in Europe, we have had the refugee crisis and the horrific events in Paris in November. Part of the reason for the destabilisation of the Middle East was the interaction between food and climate. The 2007-10 Syrian drought undermined rural livelihoods and helped create disaffected urban populations and the 2010 East European heat wave drove up food prices and helped spark the Arab Spring. Food insecurity is more than people simply being hungry.

Copyright: Steve Levi on Flickr via CC 2.0

2015 saw progress in food security matters but much remains to be done. Copyright: Steve Levi on Flickr via CC 2.0.

Secondly, the launch of the UN Sustainable Development Goals in September provided an opportunity to reflect, and for the world to act, on the issues facing the global poor. The top level aims are:

  1. “to end poverty and hunger, in all their forms and dimensions, and to ensure that all human beings can fulfil their potential in dignity and equality and in a healthy environment
  2. to protect the planet from degradation, including through sustainable consumption and production, sustainably managing its natural resources and taking urgent action on climate change, so that it can support the needs of the present and future generations”

The first aim is about abolishing food insecurity, but the second aim is key because it highlights the need for sustainability in both production and consumption. Without tackling both production and supply we have little hope of reaching the ambitious emissions targets set at the
Conference of the Parties in Paris (COP21).

2015 for the GFS programme

The issue of climate change highlights an important thread of our own work in 2015 about the risks of changing patterns of extreme weather on the resilience of the food system.  

Fluctuating levels of production can be highly detrimental in the short term because a major food shock, created by bad weather across the globe for example, could drive up prices on a global level. 

Copyright: USDA on Flickr by C 2.0

Flooding can devastate agriculture, as these ruined field show after a US hurricane in 2011. Copyright: USDA on Flickr by CC 2.0

Such food price spikes can both be devastating for the poor (globally and locally) and destabilise fragile economies. It is therefore important to build resilience – perhaps more important than simply increasing production – in the global and local food systems (my blog post on the reports is here).

It was a therefore a highlight in 2015 for the programme to launch our major resilience programme. In addition, our work programme delivered in many dimensions, and you can read a blog post from Head of GFS, Riaz Bhunnoo, that neatly summarises progress made so far. 

Increasing food EXPOsure

The third major event last year, highlighting food security, was the
99th Universal Exposition in Milan.  This six-month global show (commonly called Milan Expo 2015) focused on food and food security (with the tagline ‘Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life!).

About 20 million people visited the Expo, but whilst this is itself an impressive number, the event was a hook on which to hang a range of meetings and events, and to catalyse discussions and policy thinking. 

Copyright: Stefania Buggè on Flickr by CC 2.0

Visitors and delegates explore themes of food security, stocks and volatility at Milan Expo 2015. Copyright: Stefania Buggè on Flickr by CC 2.0

I was part of the EU’s science steering committee for the Expo and we produced two major reports (now edited and published as one). The first illustrated the breadth of the challenges posed by the food system, and how research was needed on production, sustainability, developing healthier diets, managing waste, food safety, trade and equality. In particular, the report highlighted that a sustainable food system required action on the demand side of the equation as well as the production side.

The second report brought together some conclusions arising from the six months’ of discussions around the Expo theme. From these came four recommendations, presented at a meeting including many members of the Parliament, several Commissioners, and which was also addressed by Ban Ki Moon. These recommendations, which apply more widely than being just for the EU, I hope will spur more work from 2016:

  1. Foster more systems thinking. The food system is highly complex, and to find the leverage points where action will create positive change needs systemic approaches, rather than mono-disciplinary or sectoral ones. More interdisciplinary and cross-sectorial research and analysis is needed.
  2. Engage the public better so that they understand the challenges facing the food system to underpin change towards more sustainable healthy eating patterns.
  3. Foster a responsible innovation environment through a greater focus on trans-disciplinary research to drive social benefits
  4. Support the development of an International Panel on Food and Nutrition Security to provide the academic understanding of the issues for policy development

2016 and beyond

For me – and many others – it is increasingly clear that the important grand challenges of food and nutrition security, as well as water and energy security, can only be met if, as the SDGs’ aim says, we tackle sustainable consumption and production, sustainably managing (the world’s) natural resources and taking urgent action on climate change.

Copyright: Asian Development Bank on Flickr by CC 2.0

Eradicating hunger is a key challenge of the Sustainable Development Goals. Copyright: Asian Development Bank on Flickr by CC 2.0

The speed with the climate is changing, and the fact that about a third of humanity’s greenhouse gases are associated with producing food, means we need to think about changing our demand for energy-intensive food for the sake of the planet as well as for our health’s benefit.

How we change the food system for the better is the elephant in the room. Until we find a way, as a society, to value food, value our planet, and value ourselves better, business as usual will continue and the costs will grow. 

We can make the future better for us all, and each has a small role to play. As a New Year’s resolution in our food choices, “first, do no harm” – to ourselves, our planet and other people – is a good place to start.

Add your comment, and follow Tim on Twitter: @timgbenton.

About Tim Benton

Tim Benton is GFS Champion and an interdisciplinary researcher working on issues around agriculture-environment interactions. Formerly, he was Research Dean in the Faculty of Biological Sciences, University of Leeds, and Chair of the Africa College Partnership, an interdisciplinary virtual research institute concerned with sustainable agriculture in sub-Saharan Africa. He has worked on the links between farming and biodiversity (and ecosystem services) for many years.

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