Food security and farming intensity

2016 | by Prof Tim Benton | Print Article

Sustainable Intensification of agricultural production, i.e. producing more from less, has been promoted as the way forward in meeting the challenges of global food security. This is relevant to the objectives of PROHEALTH, which focuses on sustainable control of production diseases in intensive pig and poultry production systems. Here Professor Tim Benton puts forward his views on how food production systems may look in the future. His suggestion is that Sustainable Intensification needs to be broadened by considering the production of higher quality, more sustainable, and even lower volumes of agricultural commodities. This is relevant to how pig and poultry production systems may look in the near future. Although some of his statements are more relevant to ruminant production systems, e.g. in relation to environmental impact, they provide some stimulating food for thought. (Prof Ilias Kyriazakis, Coordinator).

A guest contribution by Prof Tim Benton 

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Traditionally, food security – having an adequate diet for a healthy life at all times - has been seen as primarily a developing world issue. However, increasingly it is recognised that it is a global issue, for all societies. In many developed world countries, a significant number of people struggle to provide an adequate diet for their families, and poverty, obesity and the diseases that follow from that are closely associated. On a global basis, obesity has overtaken undernourishment as the driver of malnourishment.

In 2015, the Paris climate agreement signifies commitment to reducing greenhouse gas emissions to ensure warming is kept between 1.5 and 2 degrees. The biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, by service – what we use – is food and its production, currently around 30% of all emissions (and about the same as cars and air-transport and heating, cooling and washing machines). About half of this comes from livestock production on a global basis.

Demand for food is projected to increase as the world’s population grows and gets richer. But if demand grows as it has since the 1960s, and if yields continue to rise as they are currently doing, food will use up all the Paris carbon budget before 2050. At the same time, obesity will continue to rise, soils become degraded, food converted to landfill and biodiversity lost. None of these are desirable outcomes, and a Paris-non-compliant food system, by definition, is not sustainable.

At the moment, about a third of the world’s food is lost or wasted, a third of the world’s crops are used for livestock feed, and about a third of the world’s population is over-consuming by a margin of ~20% calories. Putting these “loss factors” together implies that only about 40% of the world’s production is used efficiently, to provide a sustaining diet. There is a lot of scope to think about developing a new food system that works for our planetary and public health, as well as the economics of farming.

What would a food system look like if it provided sustainable nutrition? Farmers would need to receive higher income per unit of output, to allow them to concentrate on sustainable production: higher quality, more sustainable, lower volumes. People, within the same budget could spend differently, buy less, buy better, waste less and be healthier. The Fabian Commission of 2015 on food poverty reported that artificially keeping food prices down so as not to disadvantage the current poor, amplified the unsustainability and thus impacts on future poor. They suggested the answer was to recognise the full costs of production in food prices and find other ways of supporting the poor (such as paying a living wage).

I am often told that sustainable production is “inefficient” because you get less output per unit of inputs. However, if, as the OECD recommends, you measure productivity as “total resource productivity” and cost in the subsidy from natural and so on, then efficient productivity becomes “sustainable productivity” and traditional total factor productivity is seen as inefficient and unsustainable. Profitability is a more powerful concept than productivity: producing better, selling less, but earning more. Intensifying knowledge inputs to grow sustainably not “growing more with less”. 

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