Tim Benton on the challenges ahead and why he’s taken on the role.

Tim Benton

Meeting the growing demands for both food and sustainability is a huge interdisciplinary challenge; the answer will not be found in a single discipline. As an interdisciplinary problem, global food security solutions must combine agricultural science (including crop improvement), farming management, understanding trade-offs in land uses (between ecosystem services and agricultural production for example) and a wide range of social issues concerning behaviour, consumption, economics and global trade.

The Champion for the Global Food Security (GFS) programme therefore needs to be someone with a breadth of interest, and understanding, across a wide range of disciplines and able to forge partnerships between people with very different interests and viewpoints.

So why me?

Food security and me

My first, and principal, interest in this role arises because I consider the challenge of ensuring global food security perhaps the most important environmental, biological and societal issue the world has encountered. For many, the impact of anthropogenic climate change will be most noticeable through food and water impacts.

As a result of this realisation, much of my research concerns the relationship between farming and the natural environment and the way we can conserve ecosystem function whilst maintaining or increasing productivity. (See the foot of this post for some of my recent publications.)

Second, I feel I can see outside my own disciplinary perspective for this important interdisciplinary problem. I have taken on a number of strategic roles – I have been Research Dean, responsible for research strategy, and am a member of strategy boards for two UK Research Councils – and am comfortable with taking a broad overview of areas and help set the required direction to achieve goals.  

That food security is a problem that requires solutions from a number of fields, and not just the scientific, cannot be overstated. Hence, my third reason for taking on the role is because as I have developed my academic career, I have seen it increasingly essential to interact across many disciplines and also to engage with external partners and stakeholders.  I have considerable experience in stakeholder engagement. For example, in the last few months I have spoken at the European Parliament, the EU Environment Directorate General, from a panel event on farming and biodiversity in Brussels, to the European Crop Protection Association, to Oxfam in Leeds, and to a local secondary school – all concerning sustainable food security.  

My fourth reason for taking on the champion role is that I am an interdisciplinary researcher and research-leader.  For example, I have helped lead The Africa College Partnership, a 100-strong academic partnership based in Leeds, which spans nutrition, crop science, ecosystem services, climate change and social sciences with two major global agricultural organisations (the CGIAR institute partners IITA and ICIPE). 

It is important that GFS is firmly evidence-based in terms of setting the research agenda, or influencing strategy and policy. So, my fifth reason is that I am experienced at synthesising data and assessing science quality, as evidenced by my experience as a journal editor-in-chief, grant panel member, external examiner at undergraduate and postgraduate level, and long-term teacher of statistics and analysis. I therefore have the skill to assess the evidence base (and evidence gaps) in food security-related topics.

So, in conclusion to the “why me?” question, let me just say that I have always been committed to engagement with non-academic audiences and that even as a research leader in agriculture-environment interactions, I’m confident that I’m able to take a broad view, think strategically, and build lasting productive partnerships.

I will never be an expert in all the core disciplines that contribute to GFS, but my interests are very broad, and my willingness to learn is unbounded. The joy of being a ‘systems’ person is that the system of interest can always be expanded: my initial interest in ecology expanded to agri-environmental systems, then global land use patterns…  I bring a real enthusiasm for thinking about the whole, not just a small part.

Why global?

I am often asked “we’re OK in the UK, so why worry about global issues?”  The answer is that we depend on the rest of the world for much of our food, and that local choices have important implications elsewhere in the world.

Global food security necessarily involves consideration of global issues of supply and demand.  Many people interested, like me, in the natural world suggest that reducing the intensity of farming, even at the expense of yield, is the route to a sustainable farming future – because they believe that the shortfall in yield can always be made up through imports or changes in our consumption patterns. Reducing the production of food in Europe will almost certainly mean that production elsewhere needs to increase to supply our demands, leading to the potential of exporting environmental impacts. Furthermore, whilst increasing imports of food may be available at the present time, they may not always be as other countries’ production systems adapt to the challenge of increasing their own food supply. Therefore, choices made in the developed, global north clearly influence the global south, and we need to understand this linkage more in developing both national and EU approaches.

There is often a tension between farming and environmental sustainability, exemplified by the ‘intensive or sustainable’ viewpoints (or the “organic vs conventional” farming). My own view is that sustainable intensification is possible: i.e. maintaining or increasing production whilst increasing sustainability.  One route to removing the tension is with the concept of sustainable farming landscapes, instead of sustainable fields or farms. Some of my own work has shown that you potentially get more production and more ecosystem services out of a landscape with a mix of intensive farms and land managed for ecology, rather than from a landscape entirely managed extensively. I wrote a previous post for this website outlining my thoughts on this.

Finding ways to remove the ‘intensive or sustainable’ tension will help the debate, as well as moving policy and strategy forwards. We need agriculture to be both high yielding and sustainable; the good news is that routes to this destination do exist.

About Tim Benton

Tim Benton is Research Dean in the Faculty of Biological Sciences, University of Leeds, and is 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.

Selected Tim Benton publications

You may also be interested in: