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Q&A: We need to produce ‘different food’, not more

Tim Benton discusses the shift from increasing food technologies to taking into account the needs of the planet and the impact on people’s health in food production.

The push for ever increasing agricultural yields has reached its limits and food production must take into account the needs of the planet and the impact on people’s health, according to Tim Benton, a leading food security scientist.
It comes as the UN’s 2017 State of Food Security and Nutrition reportdocuments a rise in the number of people suffering from hunger— from 777 million in 2015 to 815 in 2016 — signalling the reversal of a long-term declining trend.
The director-general of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), Jose Graziano da Silva, said last month at a meeting convened by The Chatham House in London that the ‘green revolution’ food model — a push for new technologies to increase agricultural production — has reached its limits because of huge environmental costs.

Now, he said, “nourishing people must go hand in hand with nursing the planet”.
Benton, a global agenda steward for the World Economic Forum, discussed this shift in an interview with SciDev.Net.

You have pointed to a consensus that the ‘green revolution’ model of agriculture [which has dominated for decades] is now changing. What exactly is the shift?

I think the immediate response to the 2007-8, [and] 2010-11 food price spikes was for governments around the world to say, we need to produce more, to hedge against the price spikes.

And in a sense that’s a continuation of the thinking from the post-World War II era.
The change that’s happened, with the SDGs and with the Paris climate Agreement, is a greater recognition that producing ever more food, ever more cheaply, is leading to ever-more waste, ever-more global ill-health, and ever-more environmental degradation and climate change.

And actually the solution is not to produce more, but to produce a different sort of food.

Technological solutions driven by business models often come with a range of unintended consequences that we might not want to embrace as a whole, even if they’re going to improve yields.

You said the SDGs and the Paris agreement drove that change. How?

The SDGs say, we have a collective set of global goals, all of which are equally important and all of which are global. And because almost every country of the world has signed up, you have this notion that if you drive the zero-hunger challenge too hard (SDG 2) then that will use more water, and perhaps pollute more water, so that will affect SDG 6 [to ensure access and sanitation for all].

So just by having a suite of SDGs that are collectively important, it effectively forces people, governments, institutions to think about the trade-offs between them.

And then the [influence of the] Paris climate Agreement is similar. Given that agriculture and food, between them account for about a third of greenhouse gases that humans produce, it implies that there is a significant need to change agriculture.

How has evidence contributed [to the shift]?

I think we have got much better over the last decade in terms of, a — understanding the relationship between agriculture, diet and greenhouse gas emissions, and [b] understanding the relationship between food and the externalised costs, so the environmental costs — soil degradation, air quality, water quality, biodiversity impacts, the healthcare costs associated with poor diets
And a greater recognition not just of the hunger challenge — the hidden hunger in the developing world — but the growth of malnutrition through over-consumption of calories that’s associated with poverty and not having access to enough nutrition.

So because we’ve become much better at being able to put all those bits of the jigsaw together … we’ve got the evidence to underpin the fact that the SDGs are interlinked .

When you focus on the global South, what do you see as the main challenges? These are trends on a global scale, but poor rural communities don’t necessarily participate in that production system in the same way. 

When we talk on a global basis, what that implicitly means is that those that have too much will eat less, to make the system more efficient. But that’s not about saying ‘people in poor parts of the world should be eating less’.

[In addition], a lot of the ills we’re talking about are predicated on this global food system based on commodity crops. Over the past 50 years, production has been pushed, encouraged, incentivised, in multiple ways to move from a diversity of crops to a small number of crops.

And as a [result], diets have become more based on that small range of crops. Those incentives can be very powerful.
So if you think of somewhere like Malawi, where they have switched from traditional crops to maize, partly to allow Malawi to couple better to the global market, then those incentives are very much trying to get the developing world to act like the developed world.

So how can we help the developing world go through that food transition to eat more, eat more different things and not just commodity crops — eat diets which are nutritionally based rather than just based on thinking about calories, and eat diets which are produced in a sustainable way so that they don’t create further problems through land degradation and water degradation?

What’s your view on the contribution of technology?

At the global level, every time that we have increased yields, we have disproportionately increased the amount of food that’s wasted. So that’s the first caveat — that we have to think about technologies across the food system, including helping people choose what makes a healthy diet, supply chain efficiencies, waste etc.
The other caveat about thinking too much about large-scale technologies is that to make those technologies profitable, they typically have to be deployed at scale.

Some imply that smallholders will convert to largeholders, because that’s what’s necessary for that system to be profitable. So there is a degree of cultural imperialism in that business model, which is not necessarily the same as finding a solution to how people eat healthily.
Having said all that, I am completely agnostic about technologies — because clearly there are challenges appearing much faster than we have traditional solutions for.

So there has to be some aspect of local adaptation of [the] farming system. It’s just that we have to go into these arguments with our eyes open: that technological solutions driven by business models often come with a range of unintended consequences that we might not want to embrace as a whole, even if they’re going to improve yields.

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