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I’m Prof Tim Benton, UK Global Food Security Champion, today is World Food Day so AMA about the future of food security

Oct 16th 2013 by Tim_Benton_GFS • 33 Questions • 1340 Points

Hi Reddit, I’m Tim Benton, the “Champion” for the UK’s Global Food Security programme (http://www.foodsecurity.ac.uk), and Professor of Population Ecology at Leeds University.

The world faces a potential crisis in food security. The challenge is to produce and supply enough safe and nutritious food in a sustainable way for a growing global population, which is projected to exceed 9Bn by 2050.

As GFS Champion I am a UK ambassador and spokesperson on food and food security, and co-ordinate work across this area between research councils and government departments.

I'll start answering at 15:00 BST.

AMA!

Proof: http://imgur.com/5xi7SL6

https://twitter.com/timgbenton/status/389698644833624065

*edit: Dear Everyone, what a great afternoon. Thanks for all the questions and sorry I didn't get to answer them all. Enjoy the rest of World Food Day and I hope, between us all, and our actions, we can move towards a more food secure and sustainable world. Thanks!

Q:

Thanks for doing this!

It seems like every time I hear about an environmental issue, it's presented as hopeless, and apocalyptic. Small-scale farming, arable land, the atmosphere, water, fisheries, mineral resources, antibiotics, biodiversity, fuel sources, climate change, polar bears, natural disasters... Every time I listen to someone talk about these things, it all just feels so bleak and inevitable, and I throw back another Big Mac and Coke, because what difference does any of it make if we're all doomed anyway.

I watched one of your lectures on youtube, and I recognize that you probably don't have a lot to be optimistic about in sustainable development, but I was wondering if you can give me something - anything, really - to hold on to as an indicator that some sort of improvement is possible, and maybe we're not past the point of no return.

A:

Hmmmm....

Lots of improvement is possible. We can grow more food in the developing world using current technologies if we improve infrastructure (e.g. reducing the cost of transporting fertiliser inland); we have much better plant varieties than we used to, and understand a lot more about sustainable soil management and what we need to do to preserve ecosystem services. In the developed world, we have an obesity epidemic, but we are seeing green shoots of changing dietary patterns - and the more we learn about how to undergo nutritional transformations healthily, the more we can transport the knowledge. We are seeing changes in business practice, where resilience and sustainability are moving from "nice to have" to core business...

There are a lot of positives happening. What we really need to do is find ways to encourage the green shoots to flourish... We need leadership and advocacy and understanding at all levels to make this work.

I wouldn't come to work if I didn't have hope...


Q:

Are you for or against genetically modified foods?

Also, is there any single food you think we should be producing substantially more of, or that we're under utilising?

Edit: one more.. If you found yourself in a situation where the supply had stopped to the supermarkets and they were empty, your own kitchen had dried up, and you had no seeds to grow your own, what food would you look for first?

A:

Re GM - I can see that finding ways to move genes around quickly (GM as currently defined and other genetic technologies, now and in future) can potentially play a role in food production, especially in the face of climate change. But, as with any new crop or variety, getting it right (reducing risk and public acceptability) are key. I don't think GM is a magic bullet tho - but whether it is 1% or 5% or 10% of the "answer" I dunno.

Lots of foods we could do with more of - e.g. millet, quinoa etc are nutritious foods but haven't had a wide audience. Lots of fruit and veg are rather under-used. Getting nutrition right requires something of a diversity...

Food in the event of food shortage... on my doorstep are more rabbits than are good for my garden...so if all else fails, meat will be on the menu ...


Q:

Can't eat just rabbits or you will die of malnutrition. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rabbit_starvation

A:

Indeed...and I like vegetarian food anyway... But caloric and nutrional security work on different timescales...


Q:

To elaborate on this, do you think developing countries want genetically modified foods? There are instances where the food is there, but people will not eat it because it is GM (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/africaandindianocean/zambia/1411713/Starving-Zambia-rejects-Americas-GM-maize.html). How are you addressing this issue?

A:

Some countries are - at a regulatory level - willing to accept GM, others not. 18 months or so ago, 20+ ministers of ag from Sub Saharan African countries wrote an open memorandum saying they wanted to explore GM because of its potential. Those of us who have visited the US will probably have eaten it, so I don't think any technology is intrinsically bad or unacceptable. To answer besticoulddo's comment about making proper food more affordable, moving genes around and making plants more resistant to drought/heat or... could make food available at a price lower than it would otherwise be.


Q:

This year fish have overtaken beef as a majority food source.

Obviously beef has a massive Methane and greenhouse effect on our planet, but our oceans are also very fragile.

My question is, is this a good or bad thing? or better yet, what is the lesser of two evils in its effects on long term food supply?

another question if you dont mind answering, Do you think insect farming will become inevitable in the western world in the future and that we should start to embrace it now, or is it possible we will never need it?

Thank you

A:

I try to avoid thinking of things as "good or bad things". On my old chemistry lab was a notice saying "there is no such thing as a dangerous substance, only dangerous ways of using substances". Eating red meat is nutritoinally good and preserves biodiversity in low-intensity farming systems; eating kgs of intensive beef each week is the opposite. So meat or fish is not an either or, good or bad, but pragmatically, managing our choices better so we are sustainable is the thing we need to do better. Easier said than done...


Q:

How much of our consumer cost of food is transportation?

A:

Currently, not as much as you'd think.

In carbon terms, a recent study by US academics showed that if an average US family eat white meat one day less each week, it would give the equivalent carbon saving of all the transport miles in the weekly food consumption. This implies to me that the transport economic cost is small.


Q:

Tell us about the five years after bees supposedly disappear?

A:

I hope the widespread concern for bees and other pollinators will translate into sensible strategies for management. But, if the bees ever really do disappear (and all the other pollinators like hoverflies, some butterflies and moths and...) then insect pollinated crops are in for a hard time. "Replacement" colonies of pollinators will be needed, or hand-pollination with paintbrushes... Or robot bees, perhaps as a technofix? But let's hope it never happens...


Q:

Hi Tim!

  1. Do you consider Soylent as a potential solution for the various issues regarding the healthy and well balanced diet?
  2. What options are left to feed the world population when the land erosion is making our food production less and less nutritous?

Thanks, and keep up the good work!

A:
  1. It is a potential part of the mix. I don't think there will ever be "a solution" but 1000s of steps in the right direction

  2. demand management...reducing the 40+ % we waste would be a big relief for pressure on land!


Q:

Hi Tim,

I work for an association of greenhouse growers. In our industry, I've seen annual production increases in the order of 10x or more for growers who have moved from field to greenhouse production. Do you see greenhouses as being a viable tool for maintaining food security?

A:

Yep, increasingly. I recently vistited Thanet Earth in the UK, a huge set of greenhouses. Highly controlled, efficient, with their own energy plants and good green credentials...and very high yielding. For some areas of the world, it makes a lot of sense to manage more horticulture under such controlled conditions... Tho, for some people they don't like the planning issues around farming under glass...


Q:

OK, I understand how meat is unsustainable and vegetarian diets would improve sustainable environmental practices, but how soon are you talking about this move toward people eating alternative protein sources like insects, In Vitro meat, etc.? Don't we assume that people will start eating things like soy before they start eating insects? And aren't we already eating artificially grown meat? I figure we are.

A:

If GM is widely perceived to be a difficult sell to the public, I am not sure how easy insects will be! Prawns, I know, are kinda marine insects (whilst recognising the difference between insects and crustacea at a taxonomic level). I suspect both in vitro meat and insects will have an uphill struggle.

I quite like Quorn, made from fungal protein, as a meat alternative, but many avid meat-eaters hate it. Ho hum...


Q:

Do you think it is possible to have food security while having such centralized food production methods? If not, what is the alternative?

A:

in theory, if the market worked well, centralised production methods would be fine. But the market clearly doesn't always work well. If you're rich and in a rich country it's OK. If there is no transport infrastructure, it is hopeless. Hence, perhaps the first thing really needed in the developing world for food security is transport infrastructure that will stimulate lower cost inputs and access to markets for outputs.


Q:

Ref your recent presentation to the Soil Association

http://www.soilassociation.org/LinkClick.aspx?fileticket=9rPQtFoky0I%3d&tabid=2063

do we now need to have a serious debate on land spare & share to prioritise the best way to produce food while saving biodiversity?

(a link to a good piece for readers on land sharing;sparing http://www.theguardian.com/environment/damian-carrington-blog/2011/sep/02/farming-biodiversity-conservation-nature-reserves)

A:

Hi Rob!

I think part of the "smart solution space" is to find ways to utilise our land to the best of its ability, whatever it is producing. So, some areas are suitable for high-output agriculture, other areas more suitable for producing other ecosystem services. The key is to find better ways of utilising each bit of land in the best way...and whilst science can help identify the optimal land use for different areas, given their context, we need the social sciences to help with finding ways to deliver them. Its no good land-sparing if the spared land is not governed properly...


Q:

Couldn't it also be argued that the problem isn't with the amount of agricultural space but rather distribution. If the UN is accurate and we waste a third of the world's food production [1], what do you think should be the focus of research: Production OR distribution, and why?

[1] - http://www.unep.org/wed/quickfacts/

EDIT: Wanted to see what might be said considering this and your answer to the question below about organic vs conventional farming. If we are wasting 1/3 of our food production, doesn't it seem likely that the 25% yield increases of conventional farming on average (corn at 33% but soy at only 4% [2]) are going to the waste, that we could, theoretically, feed the world with organic farming? What are the biggest obstacles to this that you see? Do you agree with the premise?

[2] - http://extension.agron.iastate.edu/organicag/researchreports/n-kleopold99.pdf

A:

Yep, I think so: if we demanded less, the world could be (approx) fed via an organic farming system. The challenge is weaning us away from our current dietary patterns to something sustainable and nutritious


Q:

Which problem slows your progress most; government greed or public stupidity?

A:

I'd like to rephrase to "government, greed or public lack of knowledge"...

Government tends to be most comfortable when it is pushing messages that have some degree of immediate and popular support - so long term and "difficult to deal with" issues tend to be, well, um, difficult to deal with.

Greed is pervasive if we consider that most of us choose to over consume at a rate that is 2-4x our "fair share" in terms of the global per capita access to resources from ecological foot print analysis. The mantra of eternal economic growth could perhaps also fit in to this heading - and chasing growth for ever, on a finite resource base, is for sure, in the long term an impediment to progress.

I don't think the public is stupid...more less aware of the consequences of decisions. We, as consumers, understand much more of the carbon footprint of electricity use than the carbon footprint of food. Many people say "if only I knew more, I'd make better choices...".


Q:

Do you know if any food crops are going to become "extinct" within our lifetime due to global warming? If so, can we prevent it from happening?

A:

Ooooh... I am sure food crops will become "locally extinct" (indeed this is already happening in some parts of the world) in that in some places what could be grown there is unlikely to be grown there as climate change happens ... The UK, for example, is winning lots of awards for its sparkling wine now out-performing champagne, because climatically the south of england is now more like Champagne of old...

There is quite a big effort to preserve agro-biodiversity (i.e. local land races of crop plants) in a big genetic store in Svalbard to ensure that extinctions don't happen. At least, then, we can always bring things back if the worst happened...


Q:

Do you think large scale organic farming is a feasible option in the near future?

A:

large scale organic farming is happening now. I recently visited a 5000ha organic farm in the UK.

On average, tho, organic yields are lower than intensively farmed ones. So increasing organic farming's area implies reducing total outputs. Fine if we reduce demand to accept the sustainability improvement...otherwise it is more problematic as it will tend (via the market) to lead to displaced intensification elsewhere


Q:

What exactly is food security?

A:

When everyone, at all times, has access to safe, sufficient, nutritious and affordable food.

The "at all times" implies future generations, which implies that the food is sustainably produced.


Q:

Do you think that wealthier countries in general have a responsibility to try to fix problems in developing countries? If so, to what extent? Where is the line of a problem being a global problem or a local problem?

This sounds kind of hostile and I really can't think of a better, more friendly way to word it. I don't mean to criticize and I think you're doing great work.

A:

I think we all live in the same world, and, in a real sense everyone's actions are interlinked. The tragedy of the commons can be writ large if everyone tries to out consume everyone else. Hence, ideologically, I do think if we affect the global south by our choices and actions, we do have a responsibility to help sort things out. In other words, whilst there are local problems that need fixing, often the fix has larger-scale consequences and we need to be aware of these and try and mitigate...


Q:

Do we have enough land to support the amount of food that needs to be produced to support the growing population with todays currents food waste rates? Would extending the BBD on food help?

A:

In short, I am somewhat skeptical. I think we are caught in what is technically called a Jevon's paradox: the more food we produce the more food we can waste so I don't think we can produce our way to food security (though of course production is a part).

Waste is clearly an issue - and with global waste at about 40% of production, anything we can do to reduce it will reduce overall pressure on the food system and help sustainability.

Best before dates are somewhat arbitrary. Use by dates are less so (based on microbiological safety considerations).


Q:

If the future leads to high fossil fuel prices (thinking about the Haber-Bosch process here, not just transport); which it very well may, combined with current population growth projections... How do you foresee tackling the problem of hunger? Undoubtedly if one or both of these variables escalates its going to make a difficult problem almost impossible and the data seems to be going in that direction.

A:

I like the notion of sustainable nutrition. If we ate less, ate healthily, and reduced waste we would be in a much better situation. A recent study by Pete Smith and colleagues showed that by changing diets we had up to 4x the scope for mitigating agricultural GHG emissions than if we put in "climate smart agriculture" in all the ways we can imagine. Thus, sustainable consumption is part of the solution. By reducing demand, we reduce the need to highly intensive systems, and we have more scope for using lower synthetic inputs. Making agriculture more "circular" (using manure effectively) is one potential option for the future, but at the moment, much livestock is separated from arable - so you have an excess of nutrient in one place and a deficit in another (largely closed by synthetic inputs)... so either mixing the farming systems up, or finding ways to remove and transport the nutrients is an area in need of innovation.


Q:

What about protecting honey bees?

A:

we need to do better - but not just honey bees, wild bees, small wasps that kill pests, weeds, flowers, birds, soil biodiversity etc etc...

But, as an approximation, if we banned all pesticides, global food production would go down 40%. Either we'd need 40% more ag land to compensate (cut down the remaining rainforests?) or eat less/starve more. No simple answer.


Q:

Do you see wars caused by food and water shortages as the Pentagon and others have predicted, or can we prevent people from going to those lengths through international means?

A:

As competition for natural capital intensifies as demand increases and the world changes, there is scope for increasing conflict over the resources. The US national intelligence committee report highlighted this in "Global Trends 2025" and there has been lots of discussion about the potential. I guess, it could also be civil conflict as well as international conflict. There is some evidence that the Arab Spring was sparked by local food price rises...


Q:

Is the 'Green Revolution' the answer to Africa and food security or should we be approaching the issue it through a different lens?

A:

The Green Revolution was wonderful at producing more food, but didn't prompt long-term sustainability of agriculture. We need to grow more food, on the same area of land (aka intensification) but do it sustainably. Hence, we need a "Twice green revolution" - more food, but greener production.


Q:

First, thanks for your time Mr. Benton, we appreciate you doing this.

Why do we continue to allow companies like Bayer and Monsanto to destroy our ecosystem, environment, and food supply?

Also is Fukushima going to destroy our worlds fish supply?

Is the South Dakota blizzard going to destroy our countries beef supply?

Are the jellyfish population bursts going to affect our food supply?

A:

Everyone makes choices in what we do, but we don't always appreciate the consequences. We want cheap food, cheap energy and economic growth and, as a result, we have climate change, unsustainable food production and nuclear plants sited in risky locations (not quite as simple as that, but parodying a bit). Ultimately, the power is ours, as citizens and consumers, to pay for more and better and change our behaviour. But so many of us see that as "turkeys voting for Xmas"


Q:

A friend of mine studies medieval famines and has convinced me that farm subsidies are the best way to encourage farmers to grow a variety of crops and continue to produce crops when free market conditions would unduly influence food supplies... do you agree with this? It seems to make sense that supply and demand might not work with food production.

A:

Not so sure about this... subsidies distort the market and could (and lots of examples of this in the modern era) have detrimental consequences. My pet hope is that as the climate changes, food supply chains (farmers, retailers) will recognise that resileince in the farm business can arise from diversifying produce (so if it is a bad year for one crop, they can hope for a better year for another). Equally, we could, as consumers, demand a better variety of locally grown produce...

But some how, we have to find ways of recognising we don't pay the true cost of food - and that's where the market breaks down - as we don't price in the environmental subsidy...


Q:

I'd like to know how you feel about mislabeled meats being sold around the world, and how you think we can put an end to it, and tell me what punishments you think should be enforced for those that mislabel or take part in the criminal mislabeling of meat.

Here is a particularly worrying one for me as a US Resident: http://www.techyville.com/2013/09/news/tests-confirmed-aldi-beef-contained-horse-meat/

30-100% Horse Meat in ALDI Food Products (I shop there, and I am 100% certain I ate those products during the time frame where this was going on.)

Given, the company at fault is French, but I'm positive you have the same trouble in the UK.

A:

As we live in a "stack em high, sell em cheap" food system, it tends to increase supply chain complexity as middle men vie to cut margins via sourcing in innovative ways. Thus, the potential for food fraud is much more possible... And fraud it is.

I do think, however, there is an interesting issue here about our gullibility in accepting. If you know about farming and the work and effort that goes into beef production, seeing beefburgers (or whatever) available at 10-12 pence should beg a question because at that price they are not going to be pure fillet mince. Thus, if we demand, as consumers, food that is really cheap it is unlikely to be high quality. Certainly, it shouldn't be fraudulent, but it is unlikely to be as high quality as we'd ideally want - so we need to examine labels better!


Q:

this is amazing! I am currently working with a group on food security in inner city Dallas. We're especially centered on the idea of food deserts. We're currently working on a project that would be a grassroots solution through education. Personally i find it to be a systemic issue that is economic. What is your opinion on food deserts and what do you see as their solution?

A:

Food deserts are very real. In the UK, we have a rising issue with food poverty - and the number of people having to access foodbanks this year is 3x that of last year. Really scary.

The solution (as with global hunger) has to be one about reducing inequality between people. But that is no more than a trite answer... I wish I knew... In my grandmother's day, there was a small store on every street and everyone bought bread daily via walking or biking. Concentration of retail in very larger, ever more distant, outlets is a problem for the old, infirm and poorest. I guess that's where "society" needs to step in to ensure a safety net...


Q:

Do you said that you didn't think we could produce our way out of food security problems. Do you think that distribution is the problem? If so how do you propose to deal with it without incentivizing development of new agricultural areas in currently conserved habitats (ie deforestation for farmland)?

A:

I think food security will not be solved by doubling food production (or tripling it or...). Food security requires distribution and access, storage, markets and a whole host of social issues. If there are no roads in your locality, accessing food in distant markets aint going to happen. So the future is about supply, distribution, waste and demand... Not just supply.

We don't need to convert more land to agric, instead, we need "simply" use the land we've already converted (and lost the ecology from) better. Smart land use is the key...


Q:

I recently learned of the benefits of having genetically diverse plants to combat future negative environments. (for example, in Peru, they grow multiple type of potatoes to deal with droughts, heavy rainfall, and disease.)

Are the world leader's in food security worried about the genetic uniformity across the major food crops? How are you and others looking to combat this?

A:

Personally, I am concerned (by background I am an evolutionary ecologist and recognise the importance of genetic diversity to adapting to a changing world).

There is considerable, and growing, recognition of the importance of this - and many people are collecting genetically biodiverse varieties from across species' ranges to ensure we maintain genetic variability in the face of future climatic changes


Q:

The UK estimated (in 2007) that the costs to British society associated with being overweight and obese were something in the range of £15Bn annually.

How much of the change you're advocating has to start with the developed world fixing itself?

A:

In my view: a lot. We need global leadership in this, otherwise the rest of the world will ignore us when we say "you do it, but we won't".


Q:

Today is my birthday, nice to know it's also food day! :D

A:

Happy Birthday!

Hope you can look ahead to a nice long and happy life - and make the choices in lifestyle that help convince others towards sustainability for the long term ;-)


Q:

Are we really going to run out of cocoa beans by 2020? I need to know this to make sure I can hoard as much chocolate as possible before then.

A:

I sincerely hope not... I'd barely be able to function.

Cocoa is interesting because it is quite geographically constrained and there is potential for disruption of supply chains from major production areas. Given that many people luuuuve chocolate, what will happen if demand far outstrips supply? Prices will rise. If we invest all our food money in chocolate that's noot sustainable nutrition!


Q:

Hello Professor. What is your evaluation of the claim that there is currently enough food produced to feed everyone on the planet? What long term implications does this statement overlook? Thank you.

A:

From a calorie perspective, its probably true; from a nutritional perspective I am much less sure. Having an excess of maize and wheat in the northern hemisphere doesn't help someone food insecure in central Africa. Distribution, access, power issues all matter.