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Food forethought

7 January 2010
by Patrick Love

Is agriculture heading towards a perfect storm?

In 2008, people in Haiti were so hungry they were reduced to eating mud mixed with a little salt and margarine. A number of other countries saw riots sparked by a sudden hike in food prices, caused by a combination of factors.

Agricultural commodity prices have since fallen, but the benefits for many consumers have been wiped out by the recession, and today over a billion people in the world don’t have enough to eat.

We tend to think of food security as a problem for developing countries, and obviously the poor suffer most. However, some experts are worried that the world food system is heading into a perfect storm, as population grows by 50% from now to mid-century, agricultural land is lost to urbanisation, diets the world over shift towards the resource-intensive consumption typical of the West, and climate change throws a joker into the mix.

Many OECD governments are examining their long-term strategies for food and agriculture. The UK has just published Food to 2030, the government’s first food strategy since the post-war period.

The strategy is ambitious. Apart from seeking to produce more food in ways that protect and enhance the natural environment, it stresses the need to invest in the skills and knowledge needed to help the industry prosper. Farming as such is has only a small share in most OECD economies, but as the report points out, when you add food processing, the sector is worth over £80 billion to the UK economy and is the nation’s largest manufacturing sector.

Other goals include improved labelling so that consumers can make informed choices about what they buy and how it is produced; cutting food waste (see the post on “junked food” below); and using technologies that can create energy from the waste that can’t be avoided avoid.

The report is clear about the tensions and tradeoffs among a number of goals. For instance, increased fish consumption is one way to address low omega 3 levels in the typical UK diet, but UK aquaculture needs 10 kg of fish as feed for every kg it produces for the consumer.

The Insights series will be examining these questions in a new title on food and agriculture to be published later this year. We’ll keep you up to date with progress here on the blog, and would be happy to hear your views on feeding 9 billion people.

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