Framing the big picture: going round in circles

GFS Champion Tim Benton explains how engaging with people has shifted his views.

Tim Benton

I am very privileged in the role of Global Food Security (GFS) Champion to meet many people and discuss the challenges raised by global demand for food outstripping supply. I have had such discussions with a large range of groups in different government departments: Health, Defra, DFID and the FCO in the UK as well as the Scottish and Welsh governments.

And I speak with a wide range of groups from industry – farmers, importers, manufacturers, retailers and insurance. I also mix with NGOs associated with conservation, land use, poverty, food, climate and farming, as well as with civil society via public lectures and discussion sessions.

Am I not bored with discussing the same old issues? No, quite the reverse.

Tim Benton talking about food securityRoobina Baloch/Syngenta
Spreading the word: Tim talks food security with many groups.

Each group allows me to see the ‘big picture’ in new ways, and adds more detail to the landscape. Every single discussion genuinely adds to my understanding of the complexity, constraints and scope for adaptation.

The big picture

The challenges posed by food security are immense. Growth in demand for food is currently outstripping the world’s ability to supply, which ultimately puts ever greater pressure on natural resources as the realities of demand often trump ‘sustainability’ issues. The world is also increasingly globalised, so demand pressures in one place can lead to impacts anywhere – creating all sorts of spatial disjunction in the supply-demand balance.

And this is all overshadowed by the looming spectre of climate change: with some projections suggesting that, without significant technological change, global supply may decrease rather than increase over the coming decades. Our thinking has recently been sensitised by the flooding in the UK and the enhanced recognition that, even within benign climates like the UK’s, sequences of extreme weather can have high impact.

From this framing five principle challenges emerge. There is the challenge of doing what we can to grow more food and exploiting the scope for increasing local production (by optimising gene x environment x management interactions).

The second challenge is to do this sustainably: to enable the land to provide, and continue providing, food as well as the host of other important services from flood protection to recreation, biodiversity to management and clean water.

The third challenge is to provide food in a way that is equitable. There are always asymmetries of power, but who gets to win and who doesn’t? How can we avoid the global and local poor always losing? How can we balance private gain (and its economic consequences for the nation state) versuses losses of public goods such as environmental quality?

Making food production and supply equal is a challenge.

The fourth challenge is to reduce waste (as I have written about here) and the utterly non-sensical way that we exploit natural resources to produce food and packaging simply to bury in landfill.

The final challenge is perhaps the biggest: to align the agendas of health, nutrition and food security, making wise choices for consumption and thus reducing pressure on natural resources. With diet-related non-communicable diseases becoming the global driver of ill-health and mortality, changing diets becomes a win-win for health and environment.

Expanding the frame

This articulation of the challenges is very much based on thinking about how the small pieces are combined into the big picture and taking a systems view of the ’whole‘. However, what is the whole depends on where you draw the boundaries.

As an ecologist by background, my early thinking was typically disciplinary: if agriculture was unsustainable let’s try and make it sustainable, even if that comes at the expense of food. Later, broadening horizons and learning from David Tilman’s work, I started taking demand growth as a ‘given’, a boundary condition, and this reframes the question: if production needs to double, how can we do it with the lowest environmental impact?

So when I was appointed to GFS, my framing around food security was ’sustainable intensification’: we need to grow a lot more and do it sustainably. But over the last couple of years, being exposed to the issues from all sides, home and abroad, production, trade, environment, consumption and waste, nutrition and health, my own world view has been broadened even more.

In a sense, I have now come full circle.

My personal view is that we’ll never grow our way into food security: the more food we produce, the more we’ll waste and over-consume, the more we’ll degrade the environment and issues of equity and access will remain. To solve these problems, we need to recognise local and planetary boundaries and grow food sustainably within them, and further recognise that they limit our ability to consume. We’d end up living healthier lives in a healthier environment and more equitably. In food policy expert Tim Lang’s words: “the rich have to consume less and differently in order for the poor to consume more and differently”.

We need to consume and waste less before we produce more.

The privilege of being allowed the scope to learn about the depth and breadth of the food system I replay in daily discourse. Not only do I live my own life differently – both on a personal level and the research questions I find interesting – I get to discuss the big picture challenges with different groups: almost everyone is worried in different ways about the future and almost everyone has suggestions and ideas.

Every discussion is fascinating in its own way – and I am repeatedly energised by them. I was recently sent this message from a government department: “the matters raised over coffee this morning were all those raised by your presentation and discussions last week. To me, that is quite a big achievement that it is topic of conversation even after the weekend. So, obviously, it has really stimulated some fresh thinking.”

Tara Garnett of the Food Climate Research Network has shown in an excellent recent paper that the way people frame questions directly influences the solutions sought. The more we develop systems understanding the better chance of finding the levers to bring about systems responses in the direction we want.

We are used to using systems approaches to answer questions; increasingly we need to use systems approaches to ask the right questions.

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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.

5 thoughts on “Framing the big picture: going round in circles

  1. A good blog, but hasn’t the time come to start looking at the solutions to hunger? Systems approaches are great for analysis but when we move to implementation, pragmatism is also important – beginning with what we know will work, even if it is only a partial solution. For hunger eradication, much of the focus must be on social protection, at least in the short term.

    But certainly assuring long-term global food security means changing bad food consumption habits, and creating conditions that lead people who make the “nutritional transition” as their incomes rise towards healthy, low footprint diets rather that towards the “western” ways of eating that do so much health and environmental damagae.

    Andrew MacMillan

  2. Thanks Anna and Andrew.

    To address your Q Andrew, I am not suggesting, in the slightest, we don’t address the issues of the 1 in 8 of the world’s population that are food insecure to the extent of hunger. However, we have to increasingly acknowledge both the hungry and that NCDs are affecting more people (and increasingly more) of the global population. The trend is that over-consumption is growing and NCDs are therefore increasing. Hopefully, the rich world will soon wake up and act to encourage wiser consumption patterns, and perhaps we should also hope that those undergoing the food transition go from too-little, to “just right” without going through the “too much and unhealthy” stage in between. A global aspiration to eat (and waste) like we typically do in the developed world in the long run is likely to be unattainable, especially if we want to maintain the world within environmental boundaries.

  3. Tim – great to see your emphasis on the way questions are framed, and enlightening to read about how your views on this have changed from the still sadly dominant and simplistic ‘how do we increase food production to feed the world?’. Many will hope your can influence other scientific advisors to the Government.
    Andrew – like Tim, I agree with you, and I also believe we can be optimistic that we can change consumption patterns away from the ‘Western’ model – we are seeing that start to happen in school meals in the UK, and in many other countries, including parts of the USA, many EU countries and for example, in China. See

  4. Thanks Peter. Your supportive comments much appreciated.

    I suspect part (much?) of the issue is that there are a lot of economic interests tied up in the way that our westernised food system works, and finding business models that work to evolve the system is the big challenge.

    However, I was coincidentally discussing this (over lunch!) today in Athens with a prominent nutritionist, and govt advisor, based in the US; and she was optimistic that people (i.e. the consumers of food, the customers of the products) are starting to change attitudes and green shoots are growing for this to lead the economic change towards better, more sustainably produced, food. “Buy less, buy better, waste less, spend the same”.

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