Even in the UK, where we have shown little anxiety about our access to food supplies since the days of rationing in World War 2, food security is back on the agenda.

Climate change could, it seems, be the trigger that makes us overcome our squeamishness about genetically modified crops, according to debates in the popular press. The recent Royal Society report “Reaping the benefits: science and the sustainable intensification of global agriculture”, urges universities to work with funding bodies to reverse the decline in subjects relevant to the sustainable intensification of food crop production.

But is technology really going to provide everything that we need or are we simply hoping once again for a quick fix to an extremely complex problem?

Since the Neolithic, the development and increasing sophistication of farming has enabled human populations to grow, but not all developments along that long journey have been entirely positive.

An emphasis on improving and promoting mainstream grain crops at the expense of traditional diets has often had an adverse effect on nutrition in developing countries. Too often we have assumed that anything new must necessarily be better, and have done little to assess the trade-offs between traditional and modern food production systems and how these relate to “a good diet”.

Enough calories does not necessarily equal the right food. This is also true for many developed countries, where too many calories in the form of fat and sugar are consumed, particularly in the poorer sectors of society, posing a major threat to health. We may, in theory, have access to a wide variety of healthy foods, but economic and social factors may mean that we don’t necessarily make the wisest choices.

Even when enough food is produced, it does not always reach the people who need it. And as climate change exerts greater effects and social patterns shift in developing countries, further global demographic change and migration, both across national boundaries and from countryside to town, may put added pressure on food supply systems. We need to understand more about the likely effects of such changes, to look ahead and plan for future problems rather than for those of today.

Certainly, we certainly couldn’t feed our growing world population without the dramatic improvements seen in food production systems, but they have never provided all the answers. Throughout history we have seen poor people starve amid plenty and rich people buy their way out of famine.

While new developments will be necessary for improved food security, they will not be sufficient on their own. Issues of price, access, nutrition and distribution are also highly relevant. This calls for more research into the governance of international food production and distribution, as well as the global and sub-global networks that both promote and hinder a more equitable response to the food security challenge. We need to understand the human dimension as well as the technological. In order to achieve this we need interdisciplinary research that investigates all the facets of food security, not merely the technological.

About Professor Philip Lowe OBE AcSS

Philip Lowe is Director of the Rural Economy and Land Use (Relu) Programme of the UK Research Councils. 

He has been a leading figure in the development of interdisciplinary rural studies in the UK.  In 1992, he founded the Centre for Rural Economy at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, where he holds the Duke of Northumberland Chair of Rural Economy. 

He is the Scientific Chair of the European Society for Rural Sociology and a member of the Science Advisory Council of the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra). 

He has played an active role in rural policy development at the national and European levels and in the North of England.  For his contribution to the rural economy he was appointed OBE in 2003. 

Contact details:

Professor Philip Lowe OBE AcSS
Director, Relu
Centre for Rural Economy
School of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development
University of Newcastle
NEWCASTLE UPON TYNE
NE1 7RU

Tel: 0191 222 6887
Fax: 0191 222 5411
Email: philip.lowe@ncl.ac.uk

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