Call for new global food system

DECEMBER 28, 2008: A new approach is needed to build sustainable global food systems in the 21st century, says a leading expert.

Professor Tim Lang warns that the current system, designed in the 1940s, is showing "structural failures", such as "astronomic" environmentalcosts.

The new approach needs to address key fundamentals like biodiversity, energy, water and urbanisation, he added.

Professor Lang is a member of the UK government's newly formed Food Council.

"Essentially, what we are dealing with at the moment is a food system that was laid down in the 1940s," he told BBC News.

"It followed on from the dust bowl in the US, the collapse of food production in Europe and starvation in Asia.

"At the time, there was clear evidence showing that there was a mismatch between producers and the need of consumers."

Most Read

Professor Lang, from City University, London, added that duringthe post-war period, food scientists and policymakers also thoughtincreasing production would reduce the cost of food, while improvingpeople's diets and public health.

"But by the 1970s, evidence was beginning to emerge that the public health outcomes were not quite as expected," he explained.

"Secondly, there were a whole new set of problems associated with the environment."

Thirty years on and the world was now facing an even more complex situation, he added.

"The level of growth in food production per capita is droppingoff, even dropping, and we have got huge problems ahead with anexplosion in human population."

Fussy eaters

Professor Lang lists a series of "new fundamentals" which will shape future food production, including:

Oil and energy: "We have an entirely oil-based food economy,and yet oil is running out. The impact of that on agriculture is one ofthe drivers of the volatility in the world food commodity markets."Water scarcity: "One of the key things that I have beenpushing is to get the UK government to start auditing food by water,"Professor Lang said, adding that 50% of the UK's vegetables areimported, many from water-stressed nations.Biodiversity: "Biodiversity must not just be protected, itmust be replaced and enhanced; but that is going to require a verydifferent way growing food and using the land."Urbanisation: "Probably the most important thing within thesocial sphere. More people now live in towns than in the countryside.In which case, where do they get their food?"

Professor Lang said that in order to feed a projected nine billionpeople by 2050, policymakers and scientists face a fundamentalchallenge: how can food systems work with the planet and biodiversity,rather than raiding and pillaging it?

The UK's Environment Secretary, Hilary Benn, recently set up aCouncil of Food Policy Advisers in order to address the growing concernof food security and rising prices.

Mr Benn, speaking at the council's launch, warned: "Global food production will need to double just to meet demand.

"We have the knowledge and the technology to do this, as thingsstand, but the perfect storm of climate change, environmentaldegradation and water and oil scarcity, threatens our ability tosucceed."

Professor Lang, who is a member of the council, offered asuggestion: "We are going to have to get biodiversity into gardens andfields, and then eat it.

"We have to do this rather than saying that biodiversity is what is on the edge of the field or just outside my garden."

Professor Lang outlined the challenges facing the global foodsupply system: "The 21st Century is going to have to produce a new dietfor people, more sustainably, and in a way that feeds more people moreequitably using less land."