Sir John Beddington calls for sustainable food and farming

20 June 2012

Sir John Beddington FRS, the Government’s Chief Scientific Advisor, delivered a compelling lecture on ‘A Sustainable Future for Food and Farming’ to a packed house at SCI on 16 May 2012. The lecture was the latest in our popular Public Evening Lecture series.

Sir John summarised the lecture as follows: The global population is set to rise to 8bn by 20251, largely in Africa and Asia, and will increasingly be concentrated in urban centres. Growth in global prosperity means we will face increasing demand for resources, with potential for a ‘perfect storm’ of food, energy and water shortages.

Furthermore, climate change will exacerbate matters in unpredictable ways. These challenges become even more severe when viewed in the context of the existing inequalities in the developing world. Today, two billion people suffer hunger or malnutrition; 1.2 billion have insufficient water and 1.3 billion do not have access to electricity2. Projections suggest that by 2030, demand for food and energy will increase by 50% and for fresh water by 30%3.

The evolution of the food and agriculture sector is clearly critical in how we will feed the growing global population. As highlighted by the recent Foresight report: Future of Food and Farming4, challenges include: balancing future demand and supply, ensuring adequate stability in food prices, achieving; global access to food and ending hunger, managing the contribution of the food system to the mitigation of climate change and maintaining biodiversity and ecosystem services.

Agriculture itself is a major consumer of scarce commodities and a major contributor to climate and environmental pressures. Water is identified as the resource most under pressure. Globally, farming accounts for 70% of all fresh water abstracted from rivers, lakes and aquifers, compared with 20% for industry, and 10% for municipalities5. Agricultural production uses about 4% of global fossil-fuel energy of which about 50% is required for the synthesis of nitrogen fertiliser.

Beddington graphA pathway for food security
The Commission on Sustainable Agriculture and Climate Change6 that I chair identified a pathway to achieve food security sustainably in the context of climate change and depleting resources.

This will demand major interventions, at local to global scales, to transform current patterns of food production, distribution and consumption.

Globally, we need to navigate toward a 'safe operating space' that provides adequate food and nutrition for everyone without crossing critical environmental thresholds (see graph). This will require innovative technologies, institutions and policies, and will severely test our social, technological and agricultural ingenuity. We will need governance at multiple levels that accommodates participation, learning and which will be flexible in the face of change.

The growing population, the changing climate, our selection of food and energy sources, our need for safe secure water supplies, and the pace of technological development will yield a range of challenges to address and opportunities to exploit.

1 UN DESA – Population Division, 2011
Food and Agriculture Organisation 2010
3 Project Storm Paper
4 Future of Food and Farming
5 FAOSTAT (2008)
6 The Commission on Sustainable Agriculture and Climate Change

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