FEEDING THE World come 2050 is a tall order, but answers are in short supply. Footprint left a summit with more questions than answers.
Journalists are sometimes prone to exaggeration, but The Economist’s deputy editor, Emma Duncan, was not underplaying the situation when she opened this year’s Feeding the World conference by describing food security as “undoubtedly” one of the most important issues facing the planet. “This is a tall order,” said Sir Gordon Conway, a professor of international development at Imperial College London. “It’s an order of magnitude much greater than the original Green Revolution.”
The challenge is widely appreciated: by 2050 there will be upwards of 9 billion people, so how do we feed them all? One day, a few hundred attendees and a large, opulent hall were never going to provide all the answers, but I have to admit that I left frustrated and with more than a few questions. Here are some of the main ones.
Question one: Why was there little reference to food waste? Given that 1.2 to 2 billion tonnes of the food produced never gets to a human stomach, surely the topic merits a seat at such tables? In South-East Asian countries, for example, losses of rice can range from 37% to 80% of the entire production. It is well understood that in developing countries food wastage happens mainly at the producer end of the chain, with farmers struggling with inefficient harvesting, inadequate local transport and poor infrastructure.
These topics came up, but as challenges rather than the possibility of co-ordinated solutions. It was disappointing that the early markers laid down by Kanayo Nwanze, the president of the International Fund for Agricultural Development, were not picked up. “The world produces enough food, we all know that,” he said. “Twenty to 40% of all the food in Africa never gets to the table.”
Question two: Where were the farmers? There are 500m smallholders in the world, so they were never all going to come but, as The Ecologist has rightly noted since – where would they get the £695 fee anyway? It was fascinating to hear from the likes of Rose Adongo, a smallholder producing beef and honey in Uganda (see page 7), but it felt tokenistic, not least among the big-business figures who preceded and followed her. Question three: Are global corporations really “waking up” to the need for sustainable development, responsible land use and fair prices? This was how the conference was billed, and while the likes of Monsanto’s boss, Hugh Grant, offered some soundbites (right) during an onstage interview, questions were not opened up to the audience and he was ushered away whenever a journalist got within the 10-metre buffer zone set up by his entourage (perhaps an idea taken from the company’s crop trials). Nestlé’s head of agriculture, Hans Jöhr, was the exception to the rule (see page 9 of current issue of Footprint).
Question four: Where were the retailers? One of the themes that did coalesce during the day was the role of the private sector in providing food for the world. So why were there no retailers or caterers on the dozen or so panels?
And a final point. One comment that has stayed with me came from Jonathan Shrier, the acting special representative for global food security at the US State Department. Shrier said that food security had been at the top of the agenda in global gatherings for year after year and it needed to stay there. To what end, though? The possibility of regulation to balance a food system that has 1 billion people going to bed hungry every night and the same number obese was often, and quickly, swept under the table in discussions. Top of the agenda is good, but it doesn’t mean top of the priority list. One only has to look sideways at the issue of climate change to understand that.