Tough choices to be made to feed world, says expert

TOUGH choices will be needed in farming areas such as East Anglia in order to feed the world, a senior agricultural adviser told an East Anglian conference this week.

Arable areas will need to take a global view of their duties in helping to feed a burgeoning world population, said Professor Tim Benton, the UK’s champion for Global Food Security.

Prof Benton, who was invited by the East of England Co-operative Society to give a public lecture at the Curve auditorium in Norwich, outlined the vast scale of the challenge, with the global population expected to increase to nine billion by 2050, with no more land available for agriculture and the global demand for food expected to rise by 70% in the next 40 years.

Prof Benton said the difficulty of feeding these people sustainably was amplified by the impact of climate change threatening crop yields, regulatory pressures and increasing competition for land and water.

He said tough choices needed to be made in agricultural areas like East Anglia, where he argued that areas of intensively-farmed land could be managed alongside non-cropped plots to allow maximum food production while maintaining the environment for wildlife. But he said the admirable ideals of growing organic produce and sourcing food locally would only reduce yields from productive land, and “export” the ecological impact to poorer countries.


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Prof Benton said: “In so many dimensions, we are heading for a breakdown in global systems and the costs, particularly in the developing world, will be too much to bear. The idea of becoming self-sufficient as a local society is not a viable end-point.

“I would love to live in a pristine world where we had organic food and slow-grown animals who live a happy life. But we cannot have everything we want.”

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Prof Benton said while it is important to reduce food wastage, stop over-consumption and re-think our “risk-aversion” regarding pesticides and genetically-modified (GM) foods, the complete solution must include the “sustainable intensification” of farming.

“There is no more available land and we already use 70pc of the world’s water for agriculture,” said Prof Benton. “In so many dimensions, we are heading for a breakdown in global systems and the costs, particularly in the developing world, will be too much to bear.

“For most people, it is not a question of buying locally-sourced food, because most things that people eat are sourced globally, so the idea of becoming self-sufficient as a local society is not a viable end-point. We must recognise that we cannot have everything we want.

“The EU would love to increase organic agriculture because we all want to live in a nice environment.

“But we are not self-sufficient in Europe so if we increase organic production our yields will go down and we will need to import more food and we will be asking someone else to produce our food for us.

“That could be in sub-Saharan Africa where production is less regulated and comes at a cost to the environment. We would be exporting the environmental cost, and someone else pays it. Organic farming creates an unwanted effect that’s anti-sustainable because the cost will be paid somewhere else.”

Prof Benton said while it is important to reduce food wastage, stop over-consumption, farm more efficiently and re-think our “risk-aversion” regarding pesticides and genetically modified (GM) foods, the real solution of producing more from less land must mean the “sustainable intensification” of farming.

But he said we must not be over-swayed by local environmental concerns, when faced with the wider responsibility of feeding the world.

“To sustain food production in the long-term we need to be sustainable,” he said. “That doubles the challenge. It has been found that areas of intensive farming, plus a network of non-cropped land, can be better than extensive farming throughout

“If you farm one area hard and get your product out of that, you can be softer on another area and it can be better for the landscape overall. If you farm the arable land in Norfolk hard then maybe you can draw a boundary around Thetford Forest or the Broads. “

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