24 January 2011

The Foresight Report on Global Food and Farming Futures

Together with John Beddington (UK Government Chief Scientific Adviser), Charles Godfray, Jules Pretty, Camilla Toulmin, Sherman Robinson and James Muir I have just finished a couple of media briefings on the new Foresight Report on Global Food and Farming Futures. I was one of the contributing authors of the report, which drew on the work of over 400 researchers from around the world.

The report says that the current global food system is cracking under the strain of increased demand (due to growth in income and population) and the widespread use of farming methods that use natural resources faster than the resources can be regenerated. The flashes of volatility in food prices we saw in 2007-8 (and today) and the sensitivity of the numbers of hungry people to those historically quite modest price increases are consistent with a system under extreme stress. Future income growth and climate change will make business as usual forms of farming even more unsustainable. We need to find ways of producing more food in ways that reduce hunger today and in 25 and 50 years time. If we don't, food prices will rise (the only question is how fast), smallholder farmers will not be able to take advantage by increasing production in a profitable way, and the result will be more hunger and all the terrible things that go along with that. So, how can this triple goal of food production that is sustainable and equitable be achieved? The report highlights several strands of action.

1. Change the global food system: (a) as a response to uncertainty, diversify food production. Create breadbaskets in multiple sites, don't just rely on the usual food production breadbaskets. This is good for income generation from agriculture and creates the possibility of denser networks of trade, (b) make sure international trade is reliable and fair. This means rules-based trade, where the poorer countries are engaged in the setting of the rules. It also means investing in infrastructure, and information to allow trading to be efficient and transparent, (c) empower farmers, especially smallholders: blend their expertise with formal scientific expertise. Achieving the goal of sustainable food production that is hunger reducing is not easy. Different solutions will evolve in different contexts through different processes. Farmers are the local experts, they have to be involved in formal innovation processes, (d) empower consumers--consumer choices are affected by price, culture and taste, but as Fairtrade has shown, choices can be influenced by other factors, such as the resource footprint of a particular food. The report argues strongly for better and clearer consumer labels to guide choices about which foods are the most resource intensive to produce (and consume).

2. Refocus agricultural investments: (a) invest in crops that are important to poor farmers and poor consumers; invest in developing traits in crops that will make them more resilient to the stresses of climate change; and invest in traits that improve nutrition. (b) invest in infrastructure that promotes increases in smallholder agricultural productivity in ways that are sustainable, (c) invest in information systems that allow tradeoffs between intensification, sustainability and equity to be identified and avoided when possible, (d) on technology for farming, whether the farming is inorganic or organic, biotech or conventional, invest in the governance of the innovation, development and deployment process that determines who benefits, leaving individual countries and their citizens to decide what is an acceptable distribution and what is not.

3. Hold ourselves to account: hunger is easy to neglect. The hungry have little political power, and everyday hunger is not deemed media-worthy. There are few mechanisms available to hold our governments, businesses and civil society to account for being complacent about hunger. The report recommends (a) developing monthly hunger hotspot maps--providing the basis for action from civil society and governments, (b) developing commitment indices to assess the gap between rhetoric and reality on who is doing what to reduce hunger, (c) being more conscientious about assessing the impact of agricultural interventions and how impact is defined and (d) enabling a new generation of anti-hunger leaders to emerge. Ex-President Lula showed us how leadership can make a difference on hunger, but we can't sit around waiting for the next Lula, we have to systematically and deliberately create the environment that makes leaders more likely to emerge.

Much of the work in the report builds on the work of other such reports. So, what's new?

Some of the modeling is new in its ability to connect climate, agriculture and nutrition and develop new scenarios. There is a set of 40 success stories from Africa which reports on interventions that affect 10 million farmers on the continent and which offer potential for scaling. There is a deliberate attempt to recommend pragmatic ways of building in feedback loops into the system to make hunger harder to ignore in the future. There are countless examples of how to do all of this, intended to inspire rather than prescribe.

Finally, there is a realisation that we are at a unique moment in time. I know, all reports say this. But the unique moment comes from the realisation that post 2050, population will begin to decline. This means that the costs of getting decisions right now may make things better for a very long time. Conversely, the costs of getting things wrong are illustrated by the 2007-8 food price spike. During that spike, modest compared to the 1970s, the numbers of hungry people world wide grew by 100 million. Hunger numbers had taken about 20 years to fall that much pre-2007. A food price spike even half of that seen in the 1970s could wipe out 20 years of development progress. Truly a tightrope across the canyon from 2011 to 2050.

Tomorrow, President Obama will deliver his State of the Union speech to the US Congress. Exactly 70 years ago, President Roosevelt was giving his State of the Union, outlining the Four Freedoms, including the freedom from want, the precursor of freedom from hunger. That freedom --as elusive today as it was then--is under renewed threat. We all must rise to the challenge.

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