Earth, Wind, Fire, and global agreements: How do global events change the nature of food security research?

Signpost in the mountain

At their inaugural meeting, the Global Food Security Science Advisory Group analysed recent events and identified a set of 10 priority research questions to address the food security challenge. Professor Tim Benton from the University of Leeds and chair of the advisory group, and the Global Food Security (GFS) programme’s Sian Williams explore the evolving research landscape.

Sian Williams
Sian Williams
Tim Benton
Tim Benton

The question of how to transform the food system to provide healthy diets for all, sustainably, is a complex one, for which there is no quick-fix.  This challenge is compounded by the fact that the food system is also highly dynamic and continually evolving under the influence of a large number of both local and global drivers.  This means that while we might make positive strides on one aspect, suddenly something game-changing can happen elsewhere, altering the nature of the challenge as a whole and therefore the way it must be approached.

For example, what does the Paris climate deal imply for how we address global nutrition? Will big data change global diets? And does political change in one country have knock-on effects for food markets on the other side of the world?

taly, Palermo, Vucciria, Piazza San Domenico fruit market
Food availability in any one place is not just affected by local factors, but by a huge array of systemic influences from across the globe. Christof Koepsel/DigitalVision/Thinkstock
For research, where there can be a long lead-time to deployment at scale, sometimes of decades, it is especially vital to update our view of where the research gaps are to avoid us working tirelessly to develop something which is no longer seen as vital.

The GFS Science Advisory Group

GFS aims to reflect this constantly changing research landscape in its activity. It recently appointed a Science Advisory Group (SAG) of prominent researchers with interests spanning the food system to provide expert advice and guidance at the forefront of the food security challenge.

At its inaugural meeting, the SAG was tasked with exploring the latest developments relevant to the food system – in research findings, policy, or in response to other changes in the world – before using this to draw out a list of ten priority research questions for food security that could be addressed through interdisciplinary research.

The GFS Science Advisory Group
The GFS SAG voting on the top priority research questions. GFS
The resulting 10 priority questions were chosen from an initial list of 41 questions, – showing the huge diversity in food system research. It spans topics from sustainable development pathways, adapting to climate change, and building resilience of the food system to shocks, to understanding food price drivers, food governance structures, and food environments. However, it is what these questions tell us about the significant change over the last few years in how we think about food challenges that is particularly interesting.  We pick out three areas where our views are changing rapidly.

Diets, not just food

In 2010, when GFS was first launched, the predominant issue was about providing more food for the world.  Now, less than a decade later, we are recognising that malnutrition in all its forms (from hunger, micronutrient deficiency and over consumption of calories) is acute, with under 50% of the world’s population currently being of a healthy weight (ref 1).  More than ever, we need to think about diets and their quality, not simply growing more calories.

A child eats lentils in a food distribution center in the Rwanda camp
Balanced and diverse diets are now a significant focus within food security. UNAMID on Flickr by CC 2.0
In part, this focus on diets rather than just food has been prompted by the introduction of the Sustainable Development Goals. This wide-ranging and holistic set of goals has challenged researchers to find resilient ways to supply diets that not only feed, but provide healthy diets, in a sustainable way.

Planning for the future

Increasingly, food security research is being framed not just by the problems we are facing now, but by challenges we may face in the future. For example, projecting forward current trends leads us to a future that is unsustainable for health and environment, with food alone likely to emit enough greenhouse gas to ensure we miss the targets in the Paris agreement. Ambitious global goals such as those set in Paris are increasingly posing important questions on our ability to transform systems now to avoid undesirable futures.

Flooded crop field
Futures with acute climate change are likely to experience a high degree of extreme weather, such as rainfall and flooding, having significant repercussions for food production. hipokrat/iStock/Thinkstock
However, we also know complex systems can behave in unpredictable ways, having scope to cross a threshold and topple over a tipping point into a completely new and unexpected system state, creating new challenges that we cannot fully appreciate.  New research is needed to consider these other plausible futures; will we have new dust bowls if soil health collapses? Or will the climate suddenly switch to a different state, and if so, how will it affect food systems?

Connected thinking – Linking production to consumption

More than anything else, the overarching theme across these priority questions is that of the need for systemic approaches to food and nutrition challenges. Research is needed that connects food production with processing and manufacturing, policy and retail, as well as consumers and their health and wellbeing; and of course, connect all with a healthy environment.

Cute toddler boy in supermarket choosing fresh organic carrots
Food security research should be systemic, connecting thinking all the way from production to consumption. SbytovaMN/iStock/Thinkstock
These questions were inspired by the growing recognition that the food system does not sit in a simple sectoral silo, nor an academic one. Healthy diets that are sustainably supplied will require changes in the diets themselves, as well as better management of land, water, and air.  At the same time, our food system is a major driver of unsustainable land and water use, a major contributor to climate change and at the core of ongoing global malnourishment.

Transforming the food system to deliver healthy diets in sustainable ways for everyone certainly requires urgent research and innovation. But as demonstrated in this priority questions exercise, this is not just in finding new technologies to underpin a transformed food system, but also the business, social and policy innovations that might bring it about.

Read the full report:


  1. Collaboration, N.R.F. (2016) Trends in adult body-mass index in 200 countries from 1975 to 2014: a pooled analysis of 1698 population-based measurement studies with 19· 2 million participants. The Lancet, 387, 1377-1396.

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