Richard Tiffin looks back on one food security meeting and ahead to another.

Richard Tiffin

It was great to be invited to join in a fascinating discussion on ‘Navigating the ‘Perfect Storm’: the international challenge of food, water and energy security’ at the Royal Geographical Society supported by WWF last Thursday, 9 February.

Much of the discussion centred on the prospects of progress at the UN’s Rio +20 Summit on sustainable development that will be held in this summer. 

Opinions ranged from the highly optimistic through to the severely pessimistic, but what struck me most was the difference that this reflected in people’s expectations of what could be achieved. Given the complexity of the issues, I think it is unreasonable to expect a binding legal agreement and even if such an agreement could be reached I doubt whether it can be enforced.   

The importance of Rio +20 is that it keeps the conversation around ensuring a sustainable healthy safe food supply for the world’s population right at the top of the agenda. It also sets high level aspirational targets which help to assure that our collective efforts act in concert to address this societal challenge. 

The results of this are plain to see in the recognition that food, energy and water scarcity come together to present us with some enormous challenges. The agricultural sciences, which have been neglected for several decades, are now a high priority.

Positivism vs pessimism

This is not to suggest that we adopt a “let’s not expect much and we won’t be disappointed” approach. Summits of this sort cost huge amounts and we have a right to expect a return. What we should expect, however, is that the targets and aspirations that are set at this meeting lead to more focused efforts at tackling our societal challenges. 

For this reason I was particularly troubled to hear the suggestion from one member of the audience that, as a UN conference, we could only expect a disjointed and possibly distorted outcome. In support of this remark the example of WHO dietary guidelines were highlighted, and in particular the inconsistency of recommending that we should all consume two portions of fish per week and ensuring that our marine fisheries are sustainable.

Dietary guidelines are a good thing; they save people’s lives, but they are an aspiration. They are also a population guideline and not an individual recommendation. Nobody expects every individual to adhere rigidly to them, but if we are able to move population consumption in the direction of the guidelines lives will be saved.

Armed with reasonable expectations, I am a Rio +20 optimist therefore. I expect us to renew our collective recognition that we face some significant resource challenges as a result of a growing population. I expect us to ensure that these challenges remain at the focus of our science agendas and I am also optimistic that with this renewal we will be able to produce enough food sustainably for 9 billion people in 2050.

I would also like to see us recognising that producing sufficient food is only part of the challenge.  Dietary quality and the delivery of food are worthy of greater attention. The 9 billion will be wealthier and more urbanised than present populations. As people become wealthier and more urbanised, diet-related chronic disease tends to increase and there is some danger that in our concern to produce enough we risk overlooking this time bomb.

About Richard Tiffin

Richard is Director of the Centre for Food Security at the University of Reading. The centre capitalises on Reading’s existing reputation in the agri-food sector by fostering internal and external collaborations to meet the multidisciplinary food security agenda.  He has also held posts at the Universities of Newcastle and Durham. He is trained as an applied econometrician and his current research is focused on diet and health policy. Recent work has examined the impacts of alternative food policies on land use in the UK and the impacts of a ‘fat tax’ on health in the UK; current research includes modelling the distributional impacts of a such tax.

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